“Have you seen my white friends?” exclaims Winston in one of the final few episodes of New Girl‘s fourth season. Winston, like many other characters of colour, unfortunately suffers from a severe case of what I call “the Token POC curse.” It’s an epidemic. The Token Person of Colour is a trope that features widely on many TV shows and films. In casts that feature a majority of white characters, it becomes a game of Where’s Wally? trying to locate non-white actors. Sometimes you find them, in the dark peripheries, hiding down side streets, behind the fifth door you try, and sometimes, it’s a more infuriating game of Where’s Wally?, where they really are nowhere to be found.
It was while watching this episode of New Girl, and hearing Winston utter those words, that it occurred to me: “oh my god, I’m the Token POC in real life!” If my friend groups had their own hit TV shows on popular American networks, I would undoubtedly be the token person of colour every time. I would be the Indian girl (because let’s face it, even though I’m not Indian, TV and film fail to acknowledge that there is more to South Asia than India – unless of course, they need an Islamic villain) that pops up from time to time, maybe talks about her oppressive culture and strict parents, definitely talks about the woes of arranged marriages, maybe talks with a bit of an accent and wears Desi wedding attire to a house party (because you know, traditional clothing and all that). I would be the one that the producers point to so that they can claim diversity: “of course we are dedicated to diversifying our media! I mean, look at the brown girl at the very end, the short one there, hey presto DIVERSITY – don’t you dare question us, we are trying!”
I imagine producers of TV and Film standing around a bubbling cauldron, rooting through their ingredients, deciding it’s nice to add a person of colour or two. I mean, why not? It helps raise the appeal of the show to non-white audiences and viewers. It’s a literal token to hold up if criticism is directed at the show: “hey, look, here’s a brown person. We’re not lacking diversity!” It’s a way to make dodgy race jokes without facing backlash – after all, at least there’s a character of colour included! And if it’s a black character making a joke about black people, that’s even better, right? It allows producers and writers and directors to feel as if they’re being progressive and liberal by having these token characters, like it’s a step in the right direction, albeit the tiniest one. In reality, representation of people of colour in TV and film nowadays is rather pitiful.
Many popular TV shows and films include token characters of colour. These are characters on the sidelines, with little individual worth and even fewer lines. Their own stories are unimportant and they function in relation to their white counterparts, always at the sides of their stories. These are characters like Winston and Cece in New Girl, Diggle on Arrow, Nick Fury in The Avengers. There was Skills on One Tree Hill, a character who rarely spoke and barely had a life outside of his interactions with the white regular cast. There’s Bonnie on The Vampire Diaries, who despite being the lead’s best friend and a powerful witch, is relegated to the sidelines, her potential stamped on and her screen-time minimized. Bad writing and little regard for her as an individual has led to her being a cardboard cut-out character with little purpose. Even in my beloved series of Harry Potter, there is a handful of characters of colour, all of whom are side characters who rarely feature: from Dean Thomas and Kingsley Shacklebolt to Cho Chang and the Patel twins, who are nothing more than final, unwilling choices for Harry and Ron when it comes to the Yule Ball. When Eddie Redmayne was cast as Newt Scamander in the new Fantastic Beasts movies, many people sighed as it was once again a kick to diversity. Others claimed that it was not socio-historically accurate to have a non-white actor play Scamander, despite the movies being set in a world of magic, where unbelievable spells take form and magical animals roam, and despite historical evidence that due to imperialism, people of colour have lived and existed in Britain for a long time.
Often, characters of colours are not even given lines or development. Some TV shows and films can claim diversity by sprinkling in a few non-white extras that are shown briefly on screen in large group shots. This is particularly true for shows set in large metropolitan cities, which insist on using majority white casts. A few background people of colour are meant to help balance it. Extras of colour often feature in fantasy shows. In Game of Thrones, there are very few characters of colours and they speak even less. But people of colour have been used as backdrops for the stories of the white characters, most notably in the case of Daenerys Targaryen, who sets about freeing brown slaves (in another common trope of the White Saviour). People happily claim that having people of colour in historically-based fantasy shows is inaccurate and unrealistic. But flying dragons and magic and demons are all okay, of course.
Some characters of colour are nothing more than walking and talking stereotypes. They are flat and two-dimensional and fade into the background when complex and developed white characters take centre stage. Often the stereotypes they play upon can be demeaning and offensive and reduce these people of colour to unfunny jokes and little human value. In the summer blockbuster, Pitch Perfect 2, three characters of colour feature and these characters are stock depictions: the sassy Black lesbian, the Asian foreigner who acts weirdly and the Mexican, whose “jokes” are all about illegal immigration and deportation. Like Fat Amy, whose jokes revolve around her weight and are actually not funny at all, these characters stand out as people we are meant to be laughing at, not with. We are meant to laugh at the foreigner who makes mistakes while speaking English. Unlike the lead white characters, these women of colour are sidelined and reduced to two-dimensional stereotypes without complexity and nuance and serve as the basis of racist jokes that are overlooked because it’s seen as an attempt at diversity.
Characters of colours in TV and film often take the shape of villains and antagonists, who the audience isn’t meant to root for. They are drug dealers and terrorists and mean girls and unwelcome immigrants and troublemakers and supervillains. In shows like Homeland, the people of colour largely serve as dangerous foreigners and villains. There was Vanessa Abrams on Gossip Girl, who also barely featured and who the writers turned into a whiny woman, obsessed with tearing down the lives of the rich white elite. Despite her fresh appearance in season one which held lots of promise, the writers reduced her to a recurring villainous character who the characters and fans alike cared little for and wanted gone. In the Star Trek franchise, Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as the antagonist Khan Noonien Singh which caused controversy. People claimed whitewashing. But the original character himself is a racist caricature, a stock brown villain with a certain appearance and an even more ridiculous name; undoubtedly negative representation. Of course, Cumberbatch, with his popular appeal, managed to attract fans but his casting raised valid concerns. People of colour find themselves wondering whether they’d rather have negative representation (in the form of stereotypes and villainous characters) or no representation at all. Of course that’s a lose-lose situation.
Even with influential decisions being made and more actors of colour leading shows, there is still a strong imbalance when it comes to representation. In The Mindy Project, Mindy remains the only main character who isn’t white, despite the show being Mindy Kaling’s own creation. And in the case of Teen Wolf, Tyler Posey’s Scott McCall is the main character but the writing often overlooks his own storylines and development in order to feature other characters. For example, we know more about Stiles’ home life and his relationship to his father than we do about Scott and his relationship to his parents. Up until the introduction of Kira, Scott was the main person of colour in the cast. There is Deaton, the mysterious owner of the veterinary clinic who barely receives screen time. There was Boyd, who was killed off and used as a plot point to further the storylines of the white characters. There is Braeden, who, as of yet, has featured very little – though there have been strides in making her an individual character with her own worth, not just in her romantic relationship to Derek. Then there is Danny, who mysteriously disappeared off our screens, despite being popular among fans and an important character, in terms of representation for POC and LGBT youth. Of course, he was quickly replaced by Mason, who is black and gay, in the fourth season, as if minority characters are that easily interchangeable (while the show added a whole host of new white characters with varying backgrounds and storylines and character traits for the new season).
Representation is important and representation matters. Diversity in mainstream media matters. So why is it that there is a consistent lack of positive representation for people of colour, despite the demand and the rewards of diversifying media? Why are there so few characters of colour in TV and film? Why are they relegated to sidelines and stereotypes? What makes one person more valuable to give screentime to over another? Children of colour grow up not seeing anyone like them on TV, apart from tired stereotypes and characters who rarely feature. It’s damaging to self-esteem and development to see so little of yourself and to see negative and inadequate representation when you do. Many people often make the claim that having too many people of colour in TV shows and films is “forced diversity” and “unrealistic” but this could not be more wrong in a world that is becoming more and more globalised and one which is defined by travel and migration. It is actually unrealistic to have so few characters of colour in shows that are set in modern metropolitan cities and it is a huge disservice to people of colour around the globe to reduce characters of colour to two-dimensional stereotypes and villainous depictions. People want and enjoy diversity but this continues to be ignored by mainstream media who insist on making the wilful decision to have whiteness as the default. Content creators have to do better, and I believe they can. Diversity adds so much to screens, so many storylines and backgrounds and possibilities are presented. Audiences and viewers are happy to see complex and interesting representations of themselves that are creative and new. It’s time that token people of colour take centre stage in our own stories and are heard: there is more to us and we have more to say.
[Picture: Candice Patton has faced huge backlash from viewers and longtime comic book fans after being cast as Iris West in The Flash, a character who is white in the comics, but has become a breakout star in her new role. Below is an exchange of tweets between Patton and a fan which shows just how much diversity in media means to people, especially those that are very young. Let’s keep striving for diversity!]