Representing Diversity: Avoiding Tokenism
Submitted by Linda Howard Valentine on February 12, 2007 - 16:58
Tokenism is the practice of inclusivity through exclusivity. It is the half-hearted attempt at ethnic or gender diversity by adding in one character of the missing type (South Park riffs on this practice by outright naming one character -- the only black child -- Token).
What's wrong with tokenism is that it's not real inclusion. It charges one character with representing the entirety of their gender or race, usually by stereotyping them. And when you see it in action, it feels wrong to the eye and the brain. I don't think there's a single member of my generation who never wondered as a kid why Smurfette was the only female smurf. They later added Nanny and Sassette, so there was a girl smurf for each age group, but the message was nonetheless clear -- boys had jobs and personalities; girls weren't boys, and that was all that mattered about them.
When dealing with any visual medium, from television to posters to comics, true representation and inclusion means painting a whole tapestry of inhabitants in your world, and making it clear to the viewer visually. This doesn't necessarily mean you have to write main characters that you aren't comfortable writing, gender or race-wise. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't exist in your world.
You see, it's not just about the main characters. It's about the people you see in the background passing through or talking on their cell phone or operating a bus. It's the police officer walking the beat behind the characters, the crossing guard and the school kids on the corner. It's the band on the poster and the firefighters whizzing by on their truck.
Turning the character into a plot device rather than a person is another form of tokenism. If the only time you have a secondary character who isn't white or male is because the plot calls for it, it stands out. It also puts you in danger of the "Next, on a Very Special Episode" trap, where the plot is telegraphed from miles away and trite before it's was even written. The viewers spend more time predicting the plot than appreciating it, and usually walk away shaking their heads.
One of the most notable examples of good, albeit non-comic-oriented, inclusion was on the Degrassi television shows. One of the cast was a girl in a wheelchair who attended the school; in many episodes, she simply showed up in the background, passing through in the hallway with all the other kids. When she did have a larger role in an episode, it seemed natural, and it didn't cue the viewer into wondering how the plot would related to her handicap. That's visible inclusivity, done right.
Whether a comic needs to be inclusive depends on the type of comic and how insular the setting is.
- If you're writing Family Circus or Ziggy, the answer is no â€“ it's about one family unit, with generally no interaction with non-family members.
- If your characters are all completely non-human (Walt Kelly's Pogo, for instance), race is not generally an issue, although gender representation is still something to keep in mind.
- However, big coastal cities or fictionalized settings altogether usually are and should be richly diverse. Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan, Alan Moore's Top Ten and Kurt Busiek's Astro City are fantastic examples of this; in any city scene, you will find people of all races, genders, even species. The main characters in Transmetropolitan are by and large white; the cast in Top Ten spans a pretty big range of race, gender and species. But both feel very inclusive in the scope of the overall setting; all the little details add up to a rich mosaic.
Do you have to be inclusive? No; there are no political-correctness police that will arrest you for not doing so, and frankly, not every setting needs it. But a little bit of forethought can make a big difference into the depth and believability of the world you are creating.