The Token Test: A Bechdel Test for Characters of Color in Fiction

So, there I was watching Zod and the caped Mr. Kent plow through 20-story buildings, when the camera halted for a minute and began following an extra at the scene of the destruction for a strangely extended period of time… and the extra was ethnically South Asian.

Finally, the camera breaks the shot and pulls back to reveal more extras, running for their lives, and lo!  many of them were people of color too!

That’s when it hit me, just how hard Man of Steel  was trying to make a more diverse Metropolis!  And between the more colorful crowds and the two major Black characters Perry White and General Swanwick, they did as good a job as one can probably do with one of the whitest superhero franchises out there.

Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) being all heroic.

And they took a shot at gender balance too… But even with a handful of seemingly non-stereotyped women characters, the movie doesn’t quite pass The Bechdel Test.

If you don’t already know it, The Bechdel Test came out of Alison Bechdel‘s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a 1985 strip called The Rule. Movies or stories that pass The Bechdel Test must meet all of these criteria:

(1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.

So for Man of Steel…  (1) More than two women? Faora, Lois, Mrs. Kent, and Lara Lor-Van, Superman’s mother – CHECK.

(2) Who talk to each other? CHECK

(3) About something other than a man?  Well… no.

Faora chokes out the Kent moms

In fact, the primary form of the inter-woman dialogue was fairly violent… and it wasn’t just about a man, but a super manSo, 2 out of 3. Nice try but no gender balance award.

Now what about the people of color depicted in the film? How can we tell how the film rates there?

Obviously, like The Bechdel Test, the biased treatment of characters of color in fiction is much more complex than a 3-step test can ever capture. But like, The Bechdel Test, a test — let’s call it The Token Test — could simplify and generalize some of the issues in POC treatment in fiction so that we can get the conversations started, talk about the issues more easily, and maybe force creators/publishers/studios to think about these things before putting their beloved brain-babies (or wallet-stuffers) out into the world.

Well, lets try one on for size…

A work of fiction that passes the test for biased treatment of characters of color in fiction will…

(1) have at least two characters of color,

The most obvious issue in the treatment of characters of color in fiction is that, well… there is no treatment.  Many shows/books/movies/video games simply don’t include diversity in the cast list, and those that do tend to be guilty of tokenism. One character of color, included for the sake of diversity.  I imagine this first rule will make most films and TV shows fail right away

who (2) aren’t somehow related or dating

Micky and Martha, Doctor Who’s token black companions navigate space, time, and tv seasons to find each other

TV shows and movies in particular thought they were wising up after they got called out for tokenism, and that’s when the couples and families started making an appearance. TWO characters of color!  But… of course, they were dating each other or the second characters was our token’s sibling or parent… Nothing wrong with POCs dating each other, but it’d be too easy if we let cheap ploys like that pass this test!

and (3) regularly speak more than a few lines

From the token Black woman who pops in for a quick “aw hell no!” to the token Latina who exists to occasionally suck her teeth and roll her eyes, we’re all familiar with the token who’s sole purpose is to be the resident POC with a line or two to legitimize their existence. Rule #3 will be the fail safe against having several tokens conveniently stationed in the background but for a few exhortations.

(4) about something that has nothing to do with race or racial stereotypes

And finally, some works of fiction can get past all of the previous steps, with a diverse cast of characters who aren’t related or dating and actually have a few lines and decent amount of screen time, but every single one of those lines will be laced with racial stereotypes or is only about race. The token Asian guy helps the main character with math homework and kung fu… The token latino is mowing lawns to pay for a house full of kids… The token Indian guy hacks your main character’s computer or yells something from a grocery store doorway… Rule #4 is there to stop that nonsensery.

According to this test Man of Steel  could pass with flying colors, depending on how one feels about the lines allotted to the POCs in the cast.

(1) At least two characters of color? General Swanwick and Perry White. CHECK

(2) who aren’t somehow related or dating? CHECK

(3) and regularly speak more than a few lines? Tough call. Perry White is an iconic character in the Superman universe and received a decent amount of screen time, slightly more than General Swanwick. Both characters certainly spoke more than the usual token, if you ask me so I’ll give it the nod, but it could certainly be debtated.

(4) about something that has nothing to do with race or racial stereotypes? CHECK

What do you think? Letting ’em off too easy?

Let’s see if the test works for works of fiction we know shouldn’t pass the test.

Some will be obvious, like The Avengers movie:

At least two characters of color? Noope.

FAILS.

Or Game of Thrones:

At least two characters of color? Yep. Currently, Grey Worm and Missandei, and I suppose the very rare appearance of Salladhor Saan. Oh right and the horde of brown slaves that the Khaleesi has freed who’ve only spoken the word “mother” in one of the most racially charged scenes of the series.

who aren’t somehow related or dating? Yep.

and regularly speak more than a few lines?  Nooope.  I mean, if the Unsullied are mostly POCs under those helmets, 99.9% of them literally never speak. And sorry, a thousand brown people chanting “mother” to their white savior doesn’t count.

FAILS.

Shows or movies with big casts might present a bit of a problem too, like  The Walking Dead which clearly has it’s issues (particularly surrounding T-Dog), and definitely wouldn’t have passed the test in Seasons 1 or 2, but in its current state, actually does manages to pass:

At least two characters of color? Yep. Currently, Michonne, Glenn, Tyrese and his daughter, and maybe Morgan will come back…

who aren’t somehow related or dating? Yep. So far (minus Tyrese and his daughter)!

and regularly speak more than a few lines? Yep. Given Glenn’s leading role, the promise of a more involved Tyrese, and ever since Michonne started talking, it qualifies. Pre-Michonne, T-Dog’s lack of dialogue (ahem, and character development) would’ve disqualified it.

about something that has nothing to do with race or racial stereotypes? Yeps. Mostly.

PASS (and crossing fingers they don’t muck it up next season, the comic sure pushed the line)

And what about Defiance? :

At least two characters of color? Yep. Rafe McCawley and fam and Tommy Lasalle

who aren’t somehow related or dating? Well Tommy isn’t related to the McCawleys, so… yea… just barely

and regularly speak more than a few lines?  Not really. The McCawleys namely Christie, Quentin, and Rafe have been getting a lot of screentime, but most of the speaking is coming from Rafe (Graham Greene). Tommy, however, is more or less a plot tool at this point. Hell, he doesn’t even make the fuller cast promotional posters.

So Nope. FAILS.

But don’t worry there are some geeky works of fiction that would pass the test!  Like, the new Mighty Avengers comic out in September! And possibly the forthcoming Sleepy Hollow TV show. And this season’s True Blood  actually passes the test:

At least two characters of color? Yep. Tara Thorton, Lafayette Reynolds, and Luna Garza played by Indian & Dutch American actress Janina Gavankar. Plus Jurnee Smollett-Bell joins the cast this season as a series regular Nicole

Who aren’t somehow related or datingYep. Tara and Lafayette are cousins, but Luna isn’t related or dating either of them. And here’s hoping Luna sticks around cause without her the show doesn’t pass this rule.

And regularly speak more than a few lines? Tara and Lafayette have been major show stealers since season 1, and Luna was a major character in seasons 4 and 5, though we’ll see for season 6.

About something other than race or racial stereotypes? Okay, so sometimes the “aw hell nahs!” from Tara and Lafayette are a bit too frequent, but they themselves are actually important to the plot and have their own storylines.

PASS!

Clearly, what I’ve come up with isn’t perfect, but, for a general test, it actually kinda works!

But I’m just getting the discussion started. What do you think? Too strict? Too easy? Rules you would add/change/get rid of?

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4 thoughts on “The Token Test: A Bechdel Test for Characters of Color in Fiction”

  1. I like the idea, I’ll have to keep this in mind when I’m writing . . .
    However, just as Alison Bechdel tried to call her test “The Rule”, and it was named after her for creating it. I think I don’t like the term “Token Test” so much as naming the test after you: “The Lorde Test” . . . it’ got a ring to it.

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