Sunday, December 08, 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, the mid-season finale of AMC's smash hit drama, The Walking Dead aired last week, so I guess I now have time to write this post tonight :) I thought of this series specifically because I saw a particular tweet from a celebrity 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 prominent 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."

13 comments:

Josh Sussman said...

I agree that there does seem to be a common theme of African Americans being marginalized and being made into flat characters in many shows. One show that came to mind when I read Gurira's quote is "Hardcore Pawn": a "reality" show about a pawn shop in Detroit.

The reason I put "reality" in quotes is because I think many parts of the show are staged. After seeing the show a few times, I came to the conclusion that the main point of the show is to show some of the crazy customers and fights that go on between the store owners and customers. Most of the costumers who get into the fights also happen to African American. I do not think that is a coincidence that the producers of the show decided to almost exclusively show African Americans who act out and make a fool of themselves. I think some people still have the belief that black people are "dumb" like the people who argue and fight on Hardcore Pawn. Although it is clearly NOT the case that black people are dumber, shows like Hardcore Pawn are only reinforcing those false beliefs and putting blacks in a negative light.

griffinp said...

I agree with josh that many shows do reinforce those beliefs that african Americans are dumber and only include them for comical reasons.

The popular show South Park, which us usually a pretty clever show, actually has a black character names Token Black. He usually only has a couple lines an episode but I think the writers do this as a way of poking fun at how some tv shows include minorities only for the sake of having minorities on the show.

Carolyn D. said...

I agree with both Griffin and Josh that when an African-American is part of a TV show, they are usually a "token black" as Mr. Bolos noted. I think that this is a very true statement and I connected it with token blacks in other kinds of media as well. Earlier in the year we discussed advertisements for, I think it was, University of Wisconsin. They photoshopped a black person into the crowd to seem more diverse. I think this is interesting that producers, or magazine editors or whatever they may be, feel it necessary to use these token blacks. To me, it seems even worse using a token black as an awkward extra character then not using them at all. The attention that becomes drawn to the fact that the black person is just there to make the network seem diverse, seems to be worse then the attention of not having them there at all. I think that stations need to add more diversity into their shows not to just seem more diverse, but to model the real world. In reality the settings of these shows would have a more diverse crowd, so to seem more realistic and to model the actual world these shows need to include all races.

Isabel Frye said...

I agree with the african american being used as a "token" as well. Current TV shows frequently include a black token but they rarely are the main character. I could not name one show or movie where an african american is the main character. There are many more shows that use the black token as a sidekick. In the photo from the Wire that Mr Bolos and O'Connor showed in class today, the main character (white) is front and center with the others (mainly black) in the background. The photo reminded me of what you would see for a superhero with his sidekicks; especially by the way the others are posed.

In another show that I watched called "New Girl" one of the characters is an african american man. His character is not taken completely seriously. Almost all of the scenes that he is in is supposed to be funny and he usually is the center of this.
The black token in many shows doesn't seem to be natural, and like Carolyn said, they should try and model the real world.

Shannon said...

I definitely feel as though minorities are sometimes slapped on to a show and stuck in little developable personas. I also feel like female characters can get stuck in those roles as well

Luke I said...

Through Gurira's eyes, I would initially agree with her statement about the US being 'open'. In The Walking Dead, she plays a prominent role as not only a female but also a minority, not to mention that her popularity in the show is off the charts. But I think that she is merely looking at just her show alone- a small chunk of the entire network of AMC. Looking at AMC's website I found a list of all of there TV shows and was surprised to find just how 'white' they were. Titles such as Mad Men, Game of Arms, Breaking Bad, Small Town Security, and Comic Book Men, AMC's hit shows, either have an all-white cast or a couple minorities in small supporting roles. Even though Gurira plays a strong minority role, I think that she is still a 'token' used for the amazing lack of minorities in AMC's other shows.

Koshi M said...

I agree that many minority characters are used as "tokens" in TV shows but not necessarily in movies. I think there are many token characters in TV shows but not in movies because since mostly American people watch American TV shows, people creating the shows feel the requirement to put in "token" characters in the shows. On the other hand, Hollywood movies are world wide, so there is no need to put in token characters to make the movies look equally racial.

Madi M said...

I agree completely that minorities like black people are stuck into TV shows as "tokens" just to please the advertisers and the viewers simply to prove a point by saying hey, we're not racist!
One example of this is from a show I have recently been addicted to called 90210 where it features a pretty much all white neighborhood in Beverly Hills and it's basically a high school drama. However, like what we were talking about today supporting character being the "token" minority, there is a perfect example of this in the show. The brother of the main character Annie is a black man who has been adopted into an all white family. He plays the "perfect" token minority role by always reining in Annie when she has her problems. Annie may do some crazy or questionable things but he almost never goes off the deep end because the networks are afraid of portraying the black man as "bad" and being criticized.

Alex Wyse said...

While I agree with Gurira that it is extremely distressing that African Americans are often marginalized in television, I do not agree with her when she says that as a world and a country, we are “open to a lot of other stories”. It is not just blacks that are marginalized; it is also very rare to see an Asian person, or an Indian person… or anyone who is not white, for that matter, as a main character on a TV show. I think it is rare to find a TV show that has anyone other than a white male as the protagonist. It seems to me that our nation is really only comfortable and open to that one type of person being the center of the story.
Shannon touched on the idea that females also get stuck in the secondary roles, and I think this is very true. Rarely does a show have a woman as the main character. In addition, it is extremely rare to find a show that has a main character that is a homosexual. So although blacks are the most obvious group of people that do not get enough screen time, there are many other groups of people who are in the same boat, and there is really only one group of people that is given a satisfactory amount of screen time; white, heterosexual males.

Alex Wyse said...


Also, I think Koshi was getting at another interesting idea that this post actually made me think about too. Don’t get me wrong - I definitely still see the tokenism idea in movies, but I was wondering why this marginalizing does not occur as frequently in movies as in TV shows. A lot of times in movies the black actor/actress is actually a main character! While I can’t even think of a single black actor/actress who is the lead on a TV show, I can actually think of a number of them who frequently star in movies. A few that come to mind are Eddie Murphy, Don Cheadle, Queen Latifah, and Morgan Freeman. All of these people have played a main character multiple times throughout their careers, and I was wondering how they can play main characters in movies but not on TV shows…? What is so different about those two industries? They appeal to the same audience, right?

Isabelle D said...

I like where Alex and Koshi are going with the movie versus television industry discussion. I believe that the creators of TV shows must be more conscious of appealing to a larger audience because they need a group of dedicated viewers to continue to watch the show weekly. This leads to the creation of unimportant, inadequately developed token minority characters as discussed in earlier comments. Movies on the other hand, are seen in one part, not a series of episodes over a period of time; the viewer could have liked the movie or not, but they already paid to see it, so the producers are profiting regardless. The except to this may be multi part film, but these films are often based off of books, which provides the new movie an already existing fan base. I think that the TV creator's struggle to build an audience that is as large and dedicated as possible has pushed them to try to appeal to the masses, sometimes in ways, like the token minority figure, that have unforeseen repercussions.

Noah Low said...

I believe the idea of television tokenism is very prevalent in today's society. This, however, is not a completely new concept. Even in 1997, when the comedic show South Park was created, the creators inserted a black character and named him Token Black. South Park, for those who don't know, pokes fun at just about every race, religion, gender, lifestyle, and occupation that one can think of. I believe that by naming this character Token, they were not poking fun at the African-American race as much as the T.V and movie networks that so blatantly insert blacks into their works. Much of the seemingly stupid concepts brought up in the show are actually trying to elicit change in society: like they did with Token.

William E. said...

@Noah as soon as i heard of "TV Tokenism" i remembered South Park's character Token.

As much as South Park makes jokes and what not about many different issues, i think that they really tried to include this as a more critical analysis in there show, of mainstream television. South Park is typically known for jokes but has also brought up and addressed social/political issues (link below).

To add on to Noah's point, I think that this TV Tokenism isnt just a new thing at all and other television shows have been aware of this, just like South park pointed out. They are obviously making fun of shows on TV that just try to be diverse by adding a person from a minority group. This is pretty evident since they call they character "Token" just like we saw the show "30 Rock" call their character "Toofer", because he was both gay and African American.

This Tokenism really is a problem and i think that many shows from different networks are all aware of whats going on.

http://www.mcdaniel.edu/information/headlines/news-at-mcdaniel/archive/south-park-fosters-classroom-discussions-of-social-issues/