Sunday, March 03, 2013

TV Tokenism

Just how much TV do you watch in a given week? No need to out yourselves here. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "After work and sleep, TV viewing is the most commonly reported activity in the U.S., taking up just over half of all leisure time." Does it affect how you see others? Most people would say that watching TV doesn't have a profound effect on themselves, though the very same people believe it has a great effect on others.

If you're like most Americans, you watch a lot of TV, and if you own a mobile phone, about half of you are using it while watching the "boob tube", sometimes texting and tweeting during commercials and content. Advertisers and researchers have coined the term, "Connected Viewers", as a more sophisticated term for these screen zombies.

And speaking of zombies, AMC's smash hit drama, The Walking Dead airs tonight. I thought of this show specifically because I saw this tweet from a fan:
Of course, if you haven't seen the show, a lot of this Twitter-speak may seem confusing. But I was struck by the final hashtag, "please develop Michonne's character". Played by Danai Gurira, who also is a film actor and a writer, she is one of the few African-American characters on the show since it began three years ago. But what's Kelly Choi complaining about? The Walking Dead has featured an African-American character since the very first season. Isn't that a mark of progress?

My guess is that characters like "Michonne" simply serve as "tokens": racial minority actors who are featured as 2-dimensional characters just so the show's creators (or perhaps the network) can claim they are being inclusive and "diverse". Consider the quote below and ask yourself if you think Gurira's characterization of the USA as "open" is actually true.

"I find it distressing that stories about African people who are in this country and people of African descent can sometimes be marginalized. It doesn't make any sense to me. I think we're in a place as a world, as a country, where we are open to a lot of other stories.... If the story's good, the themes are universal."

25 comments:

Matt Weiser said...

I disagree with Gurira. There definitely is a sense of tokenism in the American Media, especially in TV. For example, in the hit (and maybe not PC) show South Park, the creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone use this in their satire of what it means to be an American. The only African-American child in the series, one of two total African-Americans in the show (I think symbolic in it's own right) is actually named Token. As much as people love to hate on South Park as a show because of its inherent inappropriate themes and language, Parker and Stone do create a satire of the American identity that is most often harsh, but true. There can be very little arguing of that fact. Because of this, there is no doubt tokenism by producers and networks, those fictional little children in Colorado just highlight it even more. Hats of to Stone and Parker for recognizing it and bringing it to light for the American media-drunk public.

Maddie said...

I also agree that this "tokenism" is very present in American media. For example, Lena Dunham was heavily criticized because her HBO show "Girls" didn't have racial diversity in the main cast during the first season. Dunham defended herself, and said something along the lines of, "I didn't feel comfortable portraying an African-American in the main cast because I don''t feel it would be an accurate representation, because it's something I haven't experienced." However, in the first episode of Season 2, Donald Glover played Lena Dunham's black boyfriend. It seems that Dunham stuck this character in just to prove her critics wrong, as a racial "token."

Lily Schroeder said...

The media tries to please everyone in America. Specifically, TV shows attempt to target and relate to as many people as they can in order to have a high number of views. As always, more views equal more money, putting the media companies in a stable place both financially and in the ratings. I don’t believe America is truly “open” – yes we do have an African-American president and have made much progress – but, media-wise, it is all for the money. Pretty Little Liars, a popular teen-girl TV show, present two “tokens,” Maya and Nate. These are the only two African-American characters in the cast and both end up being killed off in the first three seasons. In fact, one of them kills the other!

Heidi Blumenthal said...

While I do believe TV producers as well as networks, and directors of movies purposely include African Americans in their cast to send the message that their show or movie is "diverse" and for all racial audiences, I also would like to take the other side and say that Blacks' status in television shows and motion pictures has increased to roles of higher regard and respect. An example contradicting the idea that African Americans serve as a "token" in the media, is in the television show 24, before the U.S. actually had a Black President, the show casted a Black man to be the President. I feel that a big and controversial casting of a Black man to play a President was no accident, it was done by a forward thinking producer. Additionally, there have been recent movies where the entire cast is African American. So in cases like this one can't say that a Black person is the "token" of the movie, instead they are the whole movie. While the idea of a racial "token" is intriguing to American audiences, I believe that we as Americans need to also realize that this game of placing Black characters in certain roles is not always to seem "diverse" instead it could be an attempt at inclusiveness and depending on the role, to raise the perception of Blacks in American society.

Zach Peltz said...
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Rachel Hoying said...

I believe that tokenism is very present in television today. Tokenism though, is not only present in fiction shows, but also reality shows. For example, in the show The Bachelor, only white leads have been cast. Each season they usually cast one or two minorities as contestants and they are usually sent home in the first week or two. Recently, the show was called out for the lack of minorities, and they were sued and brought to court for racial discrimination. After that event, many more minorities were cast the following season. I think this shows that many producers only cast minorities for the benefit of looking like they care about minorities, while in reality they think that developing white characters better resonates with viewers.

Lily Schroeder said...

Yes, there are shows in which African-Americans play larger roles in the workplace, but this too can be perceived as "tokenism." I believe casting African-Americans in these roles can create barriers between the boss and his/her colleagues. Meaning, their interactions are restricted to job-related situations. In fact, "over 70% of Blacks characters in the most highly rated TV shows have professional or management positions." This is where the "isolation" comes in between the characters’ relationships with each other because "92% of interactions with Whites are restricted to job-related tasks.”
http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/210758.html

Aj Watkins said...

The part of the post that intrigued me the most was Gurira's quote at the end. I think that she is clearly upset about how little a role blacks play in the media: "I find it distressing that...people of African descent can sometimes be marginalized." I think the word marginalized, on the surface, is indicative of African Americans being treated as insignificant. But I think the second, less apparent meaning, is that they are literally suppressed and killed in TV shows. As Zach and Lily both pointed out,in the rare instance that there is a black person playing a role, he or she is usually killed off. So marginalized in this context reveals physical killing.

Anna Rowe said...

Like the previous responders, I too believe that TV Tokenism is ever present in network television today. People have mentioned that they feel like shows are obligated to have minorities in roles in order to not be perceived as racially discriminatory. Despite the fact that I think it is right to cast minorities in these roles in order to better represent society as a whole, it seems like networks are setting themselves up for criticism no matter what they do.

The reason they can't win is because if they do cast minorities in certain roles, they are often attacked for "tokening" or stereotyping these actors. While some criticize networks for stereotyping, others criticize them for not being true to the ethnic background of the actor. Also, if they don't cast minorities in roles, they are thought to be equally biased in their prejudice. Therefore, its an on-going battle to strike the right balance.

In addition to analyzing the choices of networks, I think it is just as important to scrutinize society's individual prejudices and assumptions regarding race. Does society affect televisions casting choices or do the networks present a way they think society is supposed to perceive minorities?

tally ford said...

After reading this blog post, I did a little bit of thinking about how tv shows have changed throughout the years. Looking back to tv sitcoms like Friends, Seinfeld, and Full House, it is interesting to see how in every one of those shows, it is an all white cast. However, now that it is 2013 and the American society has undoubtedly "progressed", there are shows like Scrubs, New Girl, and The Walking Dead where the cast is much more diverse. But is it really better to have non-whites be seen as a tv "token"? An all white cast definitely discriminates against other races, but does having one character who is a different race really make it that much better? Has our American society really progressed from our discriminatory ways?

alex wolkoff said...

I think Tally makes a good point, is it better to have an all white cast or have an African-American character added, but playing merely as a token? At first I was leaning towards the side of an all white cast because having an African-American in a cast for the sake of playing a token seemed more of an insult than not having an African-American altogether. However, adding characters of different race, even if it means adding a character as a token, causes the cast to become more diversified. While tokenizing an African-America character is just plain wrong, it does lean towards creating a more racial tolerant show. For example, the show New Girl has five main characters, one of which being an African-American male. Throughout the first season, every character seemed to mature and develop, except for Winston, the African-American. As such, the show received some complaints about its racial inequality. For this reason, in season two Winston's character began to develop and play a larger role in the show.

If Winston had not been in the cast from the beginning the show would not have been able to develop the character of an African-American. While tokenizing, as I strongly believe is by no means considered alright, I do see it as a way in trying to create less discriminatory shows.

Jeremy Noskin said...

I believe that casting a character as a "token" is unethical. However, major networks only have one goal: MONEY. No matter how they present an event or show, as long as they make money, they are content. If getting viewers means a network has to cast one African-American to appeal to that demographic, they will do it. If African-American viewers decided to not watch shows with black "tokens", networks' ratings will plunge and they would be forced to cast more blacks because of unprofitability.

This idea goes hand and hand with the sociology idea of prevailing institutions. As long as these big companies or networks are successful, they have no motive to change their ways, even if they are perpetuating racial inequality. Over the course of the last decade, there has been progress for African-Americans in TV shows, but the progress is marginal. In order to have significant progress, television networks will either need to change their view on "tokenism" or they will have to lose viewership from the black demographic. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like either of these is eminent, so "tokenism" will continue.

AndrewG622 said...
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Andrew Gjertsen said...

I, for one, am a huge fan of The Walking Dead and noticed an incredible example of "Tokenism" within the show well before Michonne was originally introduced.

The "token" black character named T-Dog (Theodore Douglas) was with the group of survivors from the get-go. When a rebellious white character named Merle violently demanded control of the group, he was subsequently aprehended and handcuffed to a pipe on the rooftop of the building in which the group was staying in to avoid the walkers. He was placed under the watch of T-Dog. When walkers started invading the building, the group needed to flee, but with Merle still cuffed to the roof, T-Dog had to free him before the walkers got to them (as he had the key to Merle's handcuffs). With walkers at his heels and time running out to save Merle, T-Dog clumsily dropped the key down a rooftop vent. With walkers now about to kill T-Dog, he was forced to leave Merle and save himself.

After watching and discussing Spike Lee's Bamboozled, I instantly recalled this scene. The black character being clumsy and seemingly dooming the white character.

Although unfortunate, examples of racial "tokenism" like the one I just stated are prevalent in TV today. Like Jeremy said, this will continue as long as the network can please advertisers by reaching a certain demographic and achieving strong ratings, regardless of subliminal racist messages.

Colin M said...

I think that Gurira's characterization of the US as open is correct, but only at a quick glance. Undoubtedly African Americans receive more equal portrayals in the media than in the blatantly racist clips from Spike Lee's Bamboozled , but are still denied the same stardom afforded to white actors.

In response to Jeremy's comment, I think that no one will argue that tokenism is morally wrong, but I wonder if tokenism is a product to be expected from capitalism.

This made me think of Michael Jordan refusing to wear the American flag at the Olympics because it would cover up his Nike Swoosh. Mr. O'Connor even praised his action as possibly more American than wearing the flag - so why is not expected for networks to choose money over race if we praise Jordan for choosing money over country.

I don't in any way support tokenism, but from a money standpoint it seems to make sense.

To what extent is opposing tokenism the same as opposing capitalism?

Amanda S said...

I think that it is interesting that because tokenism is obvious and most everyone knows about it, it has become a "joke" in itself. In the film Not Just Another Teen Movie, a satire of cliche teen flicks,they even acknowledge tokenism. A character named Malik, the only black actor in the cast, says, "I am the token black guy. I'm just supposed to smile and stay out of the conversation and say things like: 'Damn,' 'Shit,' and 'That is whack.' " I remember laughing at this line when I first saw the movie because of the truth in it, but I didn't really see it as a problem until we started discussing racial portrayal of minorities in class. What does that say about American society that we're acknowledging tokenism (and even making light of it) yet we do nothing to prevent it?

Christine Ryan said...

While I agree that TV Tokenism appears often in TV today, not every African American character is given 2-d roles and written off the show after a few episodes. The comedy New Girl, on Fox, features four main characters, one of who of American American (named Winston). After considering his character critically, I realized Winston does exhibit some stereotypes. For example, he is a talented basketball player.

I remember one episode that directly addressed racial steroetypes. In the episode Schmidt, Winston's roommate, is concerned that Schmidt and the other roommates are not letting Winston express his "inner black self". Schmidt was genuinely trying to help Winston, but Winston did not take Schmidt's concern seriously because, as Winston pointed out, the color of his skin doesn't dictate his interests and personality.

I found it interesting that a tv show would bring up this issue, and I think shows progress when a tv show can point out and defy (some) racial stereotypes. While we still have a long way to go before we get to equality, I think we are moving in the right direction.

Sarah Henzlik said...

When I, like many Americans, watch TV, I like shows that are 'escapist' and allow me to escape the everyday world for an hour or so a week and travel to somewhere ideal or fantastic. Those are the shows that are most 'entertaining'. I never really thought about the ethnicities and races because I subconsciously accepted it as fact. Now, I think TV Tokenism is pretty prevalent on network television. I agree with Guerira's comment how African Americans are often given suupporting, 2D roles. However, I also agree with Tally's point about how if one, developed person of color isn't much better off than none. It is a start though.

One show I do not think follows this trend is the drama/comedy, House of Lies. The main actor is Don Cheadle, an African American male actor. He is always pictured on the show in a suit and tie (typically a 'white collar', noting the racially implicit dress code name)and has a position of power, the senior partner. I think this is a step in the right direction. I wonder if an African American actor is acceptable in a leading role because it has hints of comedy in it. Would the same be true if House of Lies were strictly a drama?

Clark Kipp said...

I agree with Zach how BET is starkly different from regular television and does not see the same respect as big budget networks who cast primarily white roles.

My opinion is that the existence of a network like BET is not progressive. If there is a network with primarily black cast members and shows targeted for a black audience, it will not expand the credibility of black actors in main roles. This is because the average white viewer would never think to go to BET to casually view.

I think if big budget networks can begin to integrate black characters in larger roles over time than this could change the average viewers opinion of a black lead character. I personally have no problem with African-Americans in larger roles, as Denzel Washington is one of my favorite actors. It is about changing the image of the black actor for America as a whole, and I am not sure a channel like BET will lead to a more understanding country.

Noah Quinn said...

While I agree with Clark that BET's viewership aim will not lead to a more understanding country, I would argue that it is not BET's goal to do so. While big budget networks such as ABC can attract a plethora of different types of people to watch their shows through program diversity, BET's angle is designed to cater solely to the African American community. That's why it's called "Black Entertainment Television".

The same way ESPN targets sports fans, with the overwhelming amount of their viewers being men. I don't think it's fair to say that they are inherently "less credible" because they aren't expanding their viewership. Tyler Perry, who is one of the poster faces of BET was named the highest paid man in entertainment by Forbes, earning $130 million between May 2010-2011. While I would guess most white people have never paid to go see one of Tyler Perry's 26 films as an actor, 35 as a producer, or 32 as a director, he is very successful within his circle of viewership.

Alexis B said...

I agree that TV Tokenism exists in many TV shows, but I do not think it is present in all television shows. Take for example, Breaking Bad. Gustavo Fring, the owner of the restaurant chain Los Pollos Hermanos and a drug kingpin, is a Black Hispanic man. I see that they have chosen a Black man to portray a drug dealer which could be seen as racism, but Gus is not a stereotypical gang member or a street dealer. He is a business man who befriends his enemies to fool the public eye, and does so very well. When I watched the show, I often found myself favoring Gus over Walter White, the main character (caucasian). As the show unfolds, you find out how he became who he is through episodes completely devoted to him. Part of the enjoyment of the show is guessing what he is going to do next, because he is unpredictable and clever. HIs actions propel the show along, and without him, it would be very boring. He is a very complex, well thought out character, not just a token for diversity.

Lily Stein said...

As we have been talking about tokenism a lot in class, I have started to notice it more in many of the TV shows that I watch, including Criminal Minds. Despite the fact that he has a leading role and plays an FBI special agent, Derek Morgan is definitely a model of tokenism. For one, he is the only African-American that plays a main character in the show. Morgan also is a very loyal sidekick and works very hard. I also noticed that while I have learned about his family and his past, I do not know as much about him as I do about most of the other characters. Lastly, I found it interesting that Morgan went to college on a football scholarship, grew up in a dangerous part of Chicago, and had a juvenile criminal record. These are all stereotypes that people associate with African-Americans, which highlights Derek Morgan as a token even further.

Zach Peltz said...
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Zach Peltz said...

In response to Alexis, although I agree Gus from Breaking Bad propels the show and storyline in different directions, I still think he is a form of TV tokenism. There are three reasons for this:
1) Gus is always the best dressed character on the show (always in a suit and tie whether at his fast food chain or meth lab).
2) Gus is the head of one of the largest meth distribution networks, and thus he possess a great amount of power.
3) As the audience, we rarely see Gus' home life besides a few "token scenes" in one episode.
Overall, Gus fits the criteria as the "authority minority" because he is powerful, successful, and seemingly one-sided.

Since our class discussions, it has become increasingly clear about the large extent of TV tokenism in many TV series. Today, I saw a Samsung ad that portrayed an African American man as a servant/butler to a white child. I wonder whether TV tokenism applies not just to TV series, but also to advertisements. I just blogged about this exact issue, and feel free to check out my post in the link below.

Kim Cole said...

What I find interesting about The Walking Dead franchise is that while the TV Show and comic series constantly supplies the audience with sidekicks or authority minorities. However, both main characters and black in the video game. I'm not sure why. Is it because the video game demographic less sensitive to other people's race?