Does Tokenism Still Stalk Modern TV Shows?

Equality in America does not mean the country is perfect in all regards. Whether on TV or at movie theatres, race and inequality still tread the world in some ways. The Oscar fiasco of last year proved how Hollywood can’t seem to escape an apparent lack of representation of every race in a rather dated awards ceremony. Aside from the constant stereotypes and cultural ignorance of entertainment, there is one thing that is the feared boogeyman of many: tokenism.

Tokenism can be loosely defined as the practice of placing something (or someone) in a product in order to prevent racial criticism and make it look like people are being treated fairly. Does it still linger on with modern shows today? Armed with two answers to the question and lots of binging, let’s see how much tokenism still streams in the 21st century.

It May Have Gotten Better

In short, diversity is much more frequent on shows than it has been in decades. “Master of None”, “Ballers”, “Sense 8”, and “People of Earth” are just some of the current popular shows with showrunners that are not particularly the average white male. Character development seems to be the obvious reason for most shows to continue running episodically. So even when there appears to be a less diversified cast in a show like “Veep”, “Stranger Things”, “The Walking Dead”, or “Nashville”, the characters that fit the token description are hard to write-off if they stand out as their own character. Adaptations of novels or comics, for the most part, tend to avoid tokenism as well.

This especially applies to shows like “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, “Luke Cage”, and “Game of Thrones.” They exemplify understanding in their respective source materials while also ensuring that any changes to the story (including characters who switch races) do not change the character at all. If anything, Netflix, HBO, ABC, and TBS are only demonstrating how diversity makes for bigger audiences, and there is no sign of stopping it now.

However, Tokenism is Still a Problem

On the other hand, the change of television diversity is a slow process, and tokenism is still being used a lot to this day. Although there are a large number of shows that could fall under the definition of tokenism, many older shows with occurring seasons are the prime suspects. “Grey’s Anatomy”, for instance, is a mainstay hospital drama that has made several of its minority characters helming higher positions in the hospital. They may get a decent amount of screen-time throughout each season but are still surrounded by a cast of predominantly white actors.

FOX’s “Family Guy” also has some form of tokenism within its adult humor. Although long-time character Cleveland Brown served as the easy racism joke, his season return at a later point after “The Cleveland Show” cancellation has made him less important. In fact, the quality control of “Family Guy” has worsened, and the glaring lack of diversity from the cast became more apparent when they introduced a second recurring black character named Jerome. This was yet another attempt of refreshing the series, as well as demonstrating how tokenism has not completely left most of the mainstream TV landscape.

Looking at the statistics, about 80 percent of showrunners are still predominantly male and white. Most of these showrunners are also followed by a mostly similar cast, which means that the practice of tokenism can still be pretty obvious in a number of shows.

In a recent example, “Iron Fist”, an adapted Marvel Netflix show, faltered when the main cast consisted of four white people and one Asian woman. Although Jessica Yu Li Henwick performed well in the terribly rated season one, the idea of a martial arts series surrounded in cultural appropriation muck likely explained why producers wanted to include at least some Asian presence to avoid backlash.

One can argue that continually running procedural dramas have kept the tokenism trend strong. Like “Grey’s Anatomy”, shows such as “NCIS,” “Chicago Fire,” and “Chicago PD,” keep an all-white cast, but ensure one black cast member to throw the trail out. It may not take away from their performances or likability as a character of a show, but it can be quite pandering, especially when other shows have been doing the exact opposite.

Room for Improvements

There is more to go around as more shows push for more diverse casts, while also providing quality entertainment. Although mistakes and old practices will likely continue, tipping the scales to a common majority may bring equality to any show and for any viewer to enjoy.

About Jarek Martinez

Born in Chicago, Illinois, a journalism major with plenty of hope for his future and career. Reporting and photography are improving every day, but writing is the passion. The drive. Avid movie watcher and media guy. Also minoring in legal studies and applying for paralegal certification. A big dog person as well.

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