Fake Inclusion and Tokenism in the Media Industry
© Illustration by Alicia Lupieri
Is the media industry really about inclusion or is it just a symbolic gesture?
Tokenism is a stale theme that has existed in the media industry for decades. Tokenism is defined as “the policy and practise of making a perfunctory gesture towards the inclusion of members of minority groups”. Despite research showing that representation of people of colour has improved over recent years, the media industry is continually criticised for tokenism due to the belief that many movies only tend to make a symbolic effort to be inclusive. Studies have shown growth of inclusion over recent years however this must continue to grow to ensure actual diversity.
Hollywood’s Lack of Representation
Hollywood as a whole lack’s diversity in movies. Looking back on movies from the early/mid 2000s and prior to this there is an obvious lack of diversity in casting. Even just by looking at IMDB’s ‘top rated movies of all times’, the first 20 all feature white (male) protagonists and as a general theme, is common for the top 100. Only since the recent surge of recognition to this lack of diversity has it begun to change and recent films such as ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, ‘Black Panther' and ‘Get Out’ have attained astronomical levels of success, proving the desire for greater racial representation within the media industry. The emergence of films with sounder representation has ignited discussion on Hollywood’s lack of diversity yet is still far from providing absolute representation for people of colour.
Forced and performative diversity within the media industry
Performative diversity has emerged as a sort of backlash from criticization of the lack of racial representation within the media and film industry. Ultimately, there is a belief that the media forces diversity from the reactionary right whilst white men remain as the default. Minority characters that are forced into storylines often characterise and dehumanise racial minorities and more times than not, there is some acknowledgement to their race paired with offensive stereotypes. Much of the problem with forced diversity is that its fundamentals lie in society’s stereotypes and racist perceptions of minority groups, and this get translated into cinema. Throughout the media industry there are associated traits and stigmas with minority groups. In action films, Asian characters are often associated with karate and martial arts (notable the white saviour concept prevails in these kind of movies) or in more light-hearted cinema/sitcoms, East Asian characters are incredibly smart with pushy parents and the desire to become a Doctor (such as Vince Masuka in Dexter). Black Women are often portrayed as loud and sassy with a pro-black activist stance and more times than not are the sidekick to the female protagonist. Take Ivy from Disney Channel show ‘Good Luck Charlie’ as well as Rocky in ‘Shake it Up’ who play the best friend character whilst conforming to racial stereotypes. Whilst as a concept this is highly problematic, it is notable that movies and TV impact the way in which we view society (a study released by the National Research Group on representation finding that 91% of Americans believing that the media has the power to influence society), yet this influence on children/teens who are the common demographic for these types of shows is harmful for societies understanding on race.
Tokenism tends to generalise minority characters as a whole and it is important to recognise the difference between tokenism and actual inclusion. People should be represented fairly and accurately without harmful stereotypes and the mere intention of increasing views. Shows and movies that are praised for actual inclusion include Superstore, Haiku, Sex Education, Glee and many others. Nonetheless, tokenism is still a highly problematic aspect of the media industry and needs to be recognised and changed.