Tokenism for better or for worse

In the last week, Gilmore Girls had a little revival with a new four-episode series, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. It is supposed to show where all the main characters are now, several years after their lives left off in the original series, today in the modern world. An avid Gilmore Girls fan already, I was excited to see what they would do with this revival series.

They certainly made the modernity of the new series obvious. All the characters walk around with smartphones, and people in the diner ask for Wi-Fi passwords, and Uber is a well-known phenomenon. Beyond technological progress though, they seem to go for a socially progressive attitude as well. There is much more racial and gender diversity in just a couple episodes than seen in most of the entire original series.

In the original series, references to any kind of diversity are rare. After all, the show takes place over a generation ago and in settings like a small town in Connecticut, an upper class community in Hartford, and early on, a private prep school. The show was comprised almost entirely of white heterosexual characters. So when the revival series opens with Michel, a friend and employee of one of the lead characters, revealing himself to be openly gay and talking about his husband, the contrast between the series is stark. This continues with other characters of color and other queer characters. They all stood out as not fitting the hegemonic identities that used to make up the entire show.

Standing out like this was a good thing and a bad thing. It as good in the sense that a little diversity made for a refreshing change. One of the prevailing storylines from the original series follows the main character’s rejection of the luxurious, upper-class, and consequently white heterosexual-dominated world she grew up in. It was due time for that disdain to come with a rejection of the dominant whiteness that prevailed throughout the show.

But at the same time, this diversity was also just a lot of tokenism. The characters of non-hegemonic racial and sexual identities were presented with little originality; they lined right up to the stereotypes.

Reconsider Michel: he was always sensitive, high-maintenance, and having other traits that are typically attributed to norms of femininity. A viewer exposed to these norms and stereotypes, especially one who identifies as heterosexual, sees the reveal of Michel as gay, not as a surprise, but really just a confirmation of what was expected all along.

Or instead, consider a scene in which people are auditioning for a town musical production. An African-American man steps up, and upon being seen by Miss Patty and Babette—female characters notorious for their flirtatious personalities—is immediately sexualized. They jump to admire his handsomeness and his muscles. It is nothing short of the normative expectation that African-American characters are hypersexual, in comparison to the hegemonic white men.

So, how can we reconcile the negatives of the tokenism with the positives of the diversity? We can use David Eng’s theory of the invisibility of “whiteness”. He questions the general opinion that people of color and queer-identified people are the ones who lack visibility, compared to the hegemonically white and heterosexual. Eng’s belief is that whiteness is far more invisible. “Whiteness” has become a universal standard, from which any non-white race or any non-hetereosexual sexuality is a deviation, and yet, many people don’t even realize the standard is there.

Bringing the “invisibility of whiteness” back to the Gilmore Girls series’, I think tokenism may be serving a positive purpose. The token characters emphasize the contrast between the new series and the original series, in terms of racial and sexual diversity. So, they bring visibility to the whiteness of the original series. It was easy to miss how ubiquitously white and heterosexual the characters of Gilmore Girls, especially of you are not experienced in identifying something like that—Eng would say that this was whiteness hiding in its invisibility. Tokenism draws visibility to it. When we first see token characters of color, or token queer characters, we are surprised by their presence. This surprise allows us to realize the prevailing structure that made the token characters a surprise in the first place.

So, somewhat counterintuitively, tokenism can be beneficial to drawing attention of racial and sexual hegemony, when used in the media. But it comes with an imperative to realize that such tokenism is founded upon stereotypes and norms that are not in themselves fair or accurate in their representations of certain identities. There may be promise for mild tokenism in future television revival projects: token characters very effectively can call to attention the rampant lack of diversity in older media. But it isn’t a long-term solution, or even a solution that should be used repeatedly. Otherwise, the token characters just become a means of instilling more norms and expectations of what the diversity should be, reinforcing more hegemony within identities, and defeating the purpose of true diversity.







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