Tag Archives: token

50 Years After Color TV, TV Networks Finally Putting *Color* On TV

It used to be if you wanted to turn on the TV and actually see non-white characters, your options were telenovelas, BET, or whatever all-Black cast family show was the Black show of the decade.

Seriously. Half of the history of Black folk leading TV shows looks like a bunch of awkwardly missed high-fives, or like the passing of a fairly unheroic torch. It looks a lot like the #ThereCanOnlyBeOne Rule of Black men in The Walking Dead.

onlyone

Just as The Cosby Show dared to add a little more color to TV land in 1984, The Jeffersons called it quits a year later. #ThereCanOnlyBeOne Black family movin’ on up.

On the tail of The Cosby Show‘s wild success, comes Family Matters with the all-too-adorable Steve Urkel in 1989, 3 years later… Cosby who? #ThereCanOnlyBeOne quirky Black Guy with a funny voice.

Then, you get the “glory days” of the early 90’s…

Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and In Living Color bring us some funny, some color, and some dope soundtracks in 1990.

Then in 1992 & 1993 Martin and Living Single finally stop futsing around with that big, middle-class family shit, and dare to talk about Black people dating and *gasp* even having sex. Finally it looks like we’re gonna get some diversity of experience in these Black TV shows!

Next thing you know, 1994 brings us some young Black female perspective in Sister, Sister with Tia and Tamara Mowry giving little Mary Kate and Ashley a run for their money. And (it’s possible I’m the only one who actually watched it, but…) Moesha manages to bring Brandi to the small screen without execs screaming #ThereCanOnlyBeOne Black teen female show!.

But, of course, we speak too soon. The same year Sister, Sister launches, In Living Color goes dark.  Then, Fresh Prince bails on us in 1996. Martin a year later in 1997. Family Matters and Living Single in 1998. Finally Sister,Sister  bites the dust in 1999.

Lucky for us, The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show were kind enough to give us a handful of funny Black characters to last us until the new decade, when they took a dive to make room for The Parkers (1999) and Girlfriends (2000).  Since then, there have, of course, been others, and always a few attempts to branch out into other genres. This is clearly not an exhaustive list… but it’s pretty damn close!

I know, I know, that sounds like a lot, right? Like Black folk should be glad we had so much representation on TV. And a few years ago I’d have been the first one to reminisce on the old days of good (okay, maybe not The Parkers).  But then, what about all the other brown folk that make up this massive chunk o’ land?

All-AmericanGirlWell…Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, which focused on a Korean-American family, lasted one whole year from 1994-1995 and is pretty much the only show that had dared cast a majority case of Asian characters. Before that the presence of Asian-descent characters on the small screen was pretty much a toss-up between abysmal or painfully offensive. John Cho managed to snag a leading role in Flash Forward in 1996, but that was cancelled after a year too… There are, of course, a couple of odds and ends — a Glenn in Walking Dead here, a couple from Lost there.  But you get the trend…

While I wish I could bore you to tears with the history of the representation of every community of color in TV, I think we get the idea…

Just a year or two ago, the dearth of brown faces on TV was a regular one of those “too true, *sigh*” conversations I’d have with my friends every few weeks.

But then, a funny thing happened…

It was just me, a bottle of cheap chardonnay, and a TV remote on a blizzardy Friday night. Making my usual OnDemand rounds, I manage to spend 5+ hours (yep, and I wasn’t even done yet!) without watching a single show that did not feature a leading character of color.

And it was all over the map here. I got in my high drama with Cookie (Empire) and Olivia Pope (Scandal). I got my mystery-thriller on with Professor Annalise Keating (How To Get Away With Murder), my supernatural freaky with Angelica Celaya‘s Zed on Constantine, straight horror with American Horror Story, some superhero action with Cisco the West family in The Flash. Some hilarious family antics with Fresh Off The Boat and Modern Family. And, of course, got some nerdy historical fiction on with the Mills sisters and Irving in Sleepy Hollow.  If I was really desperate I could even have hunted down some Grey’s Anatomy for some medical drama.

This is the first time that TV hasn’t relegated characters of color either to the margins of an otherwise white cast, as “the brown friend,” but actually has characters of color leading prime time shows. And some are even heroes, villains, love interests… freaking complex, rounded, rich characters!

Seriously, *look* at the cast! Photo Credit: Kevin Parry for Paley Center for Media
Seriously, *look* at the cast! Photo Credit: Kevin Parry for Paley Center for Media

At this point, I’m dosed on half a bottle of wine and five hours of Mexican psychics, Black detectives, Cuban mechanical engineers, Creole superwitches, and Taiwanese Steakhouse owners. And as soon as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is back on, trust that I’ll be cheering every time Melinda May hands some supposed badass his… um… ass.

And the future is looking promising too!

Jill Marie Jones was just cast as the leading lady in the STARZ original series Ash vs. Evil Dead and the cast of the promising new NBC series Doubt is getting browner and browner with its casting of Laverne Cox (Orange Is The New Black), Dule Hill (Psych), and Kobi Libii. And on the geeky side of things (where I live), we’ve got Powers to look forward to with Susan Heyward as Deena Pilgrim.

heyward-pilgrim
via. comicsalliance

Now, despite wine-wasted me fist-pumping and “f*&k yeah!”-ing to my marathon of brown TV, a little sobriety reveals the facts. While we’re making some phenomenal strides, and young brown TV-addled kids everywhere are surely gaining a greater sense of self-worth and possibilities for their life narratives, we’ve got a ways to go.

Before Fresh Off the Boat,  ABC’s Selfie was pretty much the only sitcom with a leading Asian actor, and it still qualifies as the only one with that traditional romantic comedy love story we’ve all come to love. But before John Cho‘s character could get laid, ABC cancelled the show, which had garnered a strong cult following. Now Fresh Off The Boat is on it’s own in sitcom land, while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has got to hold it down on the action/superhero side with leading actresses Chloe Bennet & Ming Na Wen.

Selma still flopped at the box office, while Taken 3 (Taken number effing 3, people!) kicked the box office’s ass times $40 million…There’s something seriously wrong with that.

But let’s stick to television for now.  While we’ve got some seriously great shows led by folks of color. People of color are still majorly underrepresented, or worse misrepresented on many of the most popular TV shows, restricted to roles of the sexless side-kick, quick-to-quip Black friend, magical negro native, wise asian man, “thugs”, “homies”, criminals, or victims.

It’s time to color prime time with POC characters who can be goodhearted heroes finding their way, stressed out househusbands, know-it-all law students, hot dudes with daddy issues, nerdy girls with dynamic programming issues…

If we can’t even imagine people of color as diverse, complex, three-dimensional, real people in our stories, how the hell are the people who stay snug and terrified in their homogenous lala lands ever going to believe that Mexican women can be described with words other than “fiery,” or that some Black women aren’t actually just waiting for the chance to show-off their snap-eyeroll-suck teeth combo, or that the woman in the hijab is giddy planning her upcoming wedding not plotting the violent destruction of the U.S…. or that sixteen-year-old Black boys aren’t “demons” who deserve to be shot in the street…

We’re at least doing better in this small screen venue, but we need to do even better, ever better

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?