Here’s something I’ve been ruminating on for a while, forcibly brought to the forefront of my mind given recent events, so apologies if it’s not terribly coherent.
A quick perusal of comments sections across the breadth of the internet throws up the ‘but do you want tokenism?’ defence. I mean, practically every comment section has its version of this question; well-meaning people asking – with baffled internet-expressions – if what we as POCs want is ‘tokenism’ in pop culture. I’ve seen it so often that I feel compelled to ask: why are the options ‘tokenism’ or total, yawning absence? Why do we have to be so ‘cake or death‘ about this?
There are addendums sometimes, add-ons like “I’m happy to see POC characters if the plot calls for it” or “why put in a black dude in the cast just because?” Understand what is being said there: the story that is universal is white. The default is always white. The POC character only makes it in there “when the role calls for it”. Let that sink in for a moment. Our presence in popular culture (and in non-stereotypical roles) must always be justified, but whiteness exists as the basic template. Our place at the table has to be earned. And ain’t that a kick in the teeth?
When show runners say they were hesitant to include POC POVs in their shows because they were worried about issues of authenticity, I nod and understand for about five seconds. Then I want to call up their offices to set up a meeting to discuss exactly what they imagine POC in the West (usually the city, town or village the writer is him/herself from) do so damn differently. Then I want to offer my services (for a substantial fee) to help them bridge the gap. We breathe air, drink water and fart noxious gases like other people. Our hopes and dreams are similar, and alongside the various hardships we may suffer because of the way we look or where we come from, we largely do the same things: and that includes all the frivolous things too. Things like eating cupcakes, wanting the chance to write a self-involved collection of essays, having sex with unsuitable boys and being monstrously self-obsessed. NOW, WHERE’S MY CHEQUE?
As an enthusiastic fan of popular culture – and a human being with the full complement of human desires, narcissism among them – I like to see myself in the surrounding culture. And as things stand, I simply do not. This state of affairs means I thrilled quietly when I saw Storm in the X-Men movies (even though she has a frankly insulting ‘African’ accent in the first one), and I squealed happily and called my sister (no, seriously) when I saw Nicole Behari in the trailer for Shame. It means I get excited when I hear that Shonda Rhimes used 67 percent female or minority directors in the making of her latest show Scandal.
I’m a big telly fan. It’s one of my favourite things in the world – I can quote most of Friends from memory, just give me the prompt – but I am not involved directly in making it. I don’t wish to downplay the importance and necessity of having a diverse writers’ room studio system. But it seems obvious to me, a naïve layman, that there are three steps to writing a good POC character: 1. Write a stonkingly good, well-rounded character. 2. Make the ‘effort’ to cast a POC. 3. That’s it! I’ve seen real life applications of this in The Good Wife, New Girl, Parenthood, and Community, among others. But, you know, my only telly experience comes from working briefly in Factual and Documentary, so maybe I’m wrong. If you’re reading this and do make entertainment telly, please correct me if I’ve somehow misunderstood the complexities.
But anyway, back to ‘tokenism’. It doesn’t have to be this way. Consider these words from Mindy Kaling back in September:
“When you are the only Indian-American female lead in a television show, you seem to be making sweeping statements about that person simply because you are that person and the only one, whereas, for instance, Steve Carell — he’s not making sweeping generalizations about white American men on his show because there’s so many different white American men on different shows. So I get worried by doing this character that people think that I’m saying that about all those people. And I just have the weight of that on my shoulders, which is something that I do envy other performers for not having.”
*waves church fan*