Content warning: Article contains discussion of depictions of racist violence.
Fandom, especially femslash fandom, is starting to confuse tokenism with representation.
Worse, they hold up examples of tokenizing writing as “good representation,” because they don’t understand how something that, on the surface, is exactly what they wanted (gays not dead) can partake of some of the same problems as the Bury Your Gays trope—and are unpleasantly surprised when a story is abruptly wrapped up in a sudden and deeply unsatisfying manner.
Don’t get me wrong; efforts at getting “good representation” are well-intentioned. Fandom tries to affirm good-faith efforts, even if they fall short; and they try to encourage creators in a positive direction by letting them know how important the representation they do get is.
However, these efforts oversimplify what representation is in an effort to make it intelligible to their intended audience (creators), or to find a definition that everyone can agree on—which is difficult to begin with. And ultimately, fandom misjudges the source of its dissatisfaction with the storylines they’re given, and thinks that the outcome (a breakup, a character dying or leaving a show) is the source of the problem, when it’s a lot closer to a symptom.
The unfortunate fact is that, quite often, there are signs well before a breaking point occurs. And fandom frequently misses, or even praises, those signs.
A fandom friend recently got into a discussion about Tragedy as a genre versus “Bury Your Gays.” Creators, especially in genres like tragedy, where death, misfortune, and tragic character flaws all feature heavily, have to wrestle with the question of “what does it mean to include these characters in a way that isn’t offensive or harmful?” And, unfortunately, while the discussion on representation can help you figure out what not to do, it only gets you so far in terms of telling you what you can do.
“For me, bury your gays is indicative of a much more pervasive issue which is essentially tokenism. Those guilty of bury your gays are in essence saying ‘this character isn’t important enough for me to be interested in finding out how their story turns out, so instead I will milk their existence for some cheap drama.’
“The people writing these storylines are often trying to be progressive by including the characters at all and feel strongly about how the character is Sympathetic, so killing them will be Moving and Effective. The truth is, they aren’t wrong. They just don’t understand that to the audience most greatly pissed off by this, these characters aren’t just sympathetic minor characters, they’re Main Characters, and killing them abruptly is not just insensitive, but violates narrative expectations, and, in fact, ruins the plot. It is like reading Harry Potter and getting to book 2 and at a key moment Harry is killed by the basilisk and then that annoying minor character you tried not to pay too much attention to must save the day.”
“… The real issue […] is that the queer characters are being sidelined. Being casually written out of a show when the writers couldn’t think of how to work this character into a plot is the same problem as the stray bullet, just less violent.”
As someone who writes, this definition was a lot more useful as a guideline than the Wikipedia definition, or a Google search. Keeping in mind that the presence of one or even several of these things doesn’t necessarily make a character or arc “tokenizing,” this says a couple of things about what tokenism is, and why it is not “good rep”:
Tokenism is not necessarily ill-intentioned or in bad faith
Like the quote above suggests, people who engage in tokenizing writing may well be trying to be progressive (or, at least, think they’re trying to be progressive). The problem is that some of them may overestimate just how progressive they’re being. They may not have gotten enough (or any) sensitivity readers on the material, for whatever reason. They may not have done their homework. They may not have thought they needed to.
Fundamentally, though, it comes down to viewing “representation” as separate from “storytelling.”
At best, this means that a character’s identity is poorly integrated with the rest of the character, either subsuming the character and their other roles in the story (often in a stereotypical fashion and making a spectacle of them for the edification of the straight audience), isolating them with storylines that are, in one way or another, about (what straight people think is important to know about) Being Gay. Or, it gets treated as an arc, and then summarily dropped.
At worst, it becomes very, very clear exactly who or what is considered the “real story”: The character whose story is shown, not just told, who evolves and changes over multiple arcs; whose arc, continuity, and pacing are consistent when others’ falter and disappear. The arcs that last, where other stories get dashed off and then forgotten about. And, above all, the characters and arcs that are explored fully, with range, and depth, and a level of complexity and nuance that issue-based “representation” only skims the surface of.
Essentially, they are the character/s and arcs that come alive.
Misunderstanding versus devaluation
This understanding of tokenism leaves room for a misunderstanding between the audience and the creators over just who the main character is. And, frustratingly, given the current state of fandom, particular segments of fandom can be rather tone-deaf when it comes to recognizing the intended role and importance of a character. And there’s a reason why certain characters are seized on: there’s a dearth of them, and we tend to hold on tightly to the ones that we get (when they have certain criteria). Because a character has a fandom, they should get more screentime, the thought process seems to go. We need representation; this should be our representation.
The problem is that that character may never have been intended to have that role in the first place, and frankly, trying to “lobby” to get that changed is a pretty iffy thing. Even if it works, there’s no guarantee you’ll like the results. Especially if that means they have to rearrange planned stories.
More than that: Saying that one single ship (and in femslash fandom, those ships are overwhelmingly white, normatively-gendered, and able-bodied) is the Most Important Thing A Show Could Ever Do is a disservice to just about every show you watch. There are so many potential characters and arcs out there. Demanding the exact arc that you want, with the exact flavor of gay you think you want, misses the point of “representation matters” entirely: A better reflection of these complex identities and a truer representation of the world around us.
Fandom’s perception of tokenism, or their perception of being slighted or ignored by a creator, is also not what I am discussing here. What I am discussing is the fact that, for many creators, representation is kind of a side quest, and even when queer characters are part of a show’s core cast, they tend to get pigeonholed in certain ways—or the opposite happens, and their queerness is treated as an arc in and of itself—and then dropped.
Usually, fandom gets up in arms when the arc gets dropped. But there’s usually signs before that happens; the fandom may just be bent on ignoring them.
Or, as I’m starting to think, they may just not recognize them when they see them.
There’s also this tendency in fandom to try to affirm “good faith” efforts, or efforts that seem to be in good faith. Keep in mind that PR is a thing, and what a showrunner or actor says at a PR event (like a con) is PR, not necessarily their own personal opinion. Nor does it guarantee that, even if they say the right things and make the right online gestures, you will get the outcome you believe is most desirable.
And, frankly, affirming token storylines as “great representation” does not get us closer to the representation we want. I don’t mean that they shouldn’t exist at all! Nor do I think that people shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy them. But acknowledging when those elements are there will go a long way towards clarifying what it is we even want past “Gays Not Dead” (and why we find some of these storylines so unsatisfying in spite of getting what we thought we wanted).
Tokenism is Performative
It is a recognition that happens quite frequently after the fact (not always a huge problem; after all, you have to recognize an issue exists before you can amend it) and tends to get dropped when a creator thinks they’ve “done enough” (a much larger problem). This leads to lazy storylines that may start strong, but dissolve and end up kind of… dribbling off.
Ironically, this moment is usually when you start to see an uptick in fandom wank. Usually, I think, because the people initially attracted by a storyline become dissatisfied, but they don’t necessarily know why, because their only (or main) frame of reference for bad representation is either “Bury Your Gays” or a breakup.
The issue is that tokenism is boring. Blank-slate, shallowly characterized characters are boring. Telling yourself the same story over and over again on the inside of your head? Is boring. You go to stories, on some level, because you want to see something that is, maybe not totally new, but something adjacent to this thing you’re familiar with, something that puts a new spin on it. Even if you want exactly the same thing every time, you are explicitly seeking this out in part because stories are collective and meant to be shared collectively. And when you share them, they change; this is an intrinsic part of the process.
The real problem is: At what point is “enough”? For many creators who haven’t done their homework, the bar is often far lower in their minds than it is in reality.
Performative acknowledgment also tends to stick to “safe issues,” well-trodden topics: With queer characters, things usually emphasized are coming out (especially with teens), dating and getting married (with an emphasis on some variation of “Love is love!”), and adopting or having kids.
The antidote to this one? Multiplicity of perspectives. In a single sentence. Multiplicity, and depth.
This is where performative, tokenistic “representation” fails; because “just-enough” representation will never be fully-fleshed or plentiful enough. *Good* representation ultimately means you have to have more than one character, and one couple. In fact, this means you need a lot of queer characters, period. On lots of shows, with lots of nuances of identity. If this makes you anxious because, well, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll get that from a lot of mainstream entities? That’s because it’s not very likely.
Mainstream mass media will ultimately fail us, in this respect, if for no other reason than this: Ultimately, if “representation” is just a side quest to pull in minority demographics, once you get above the one-to-two-queer threshold, there’s that sense of “infringing” on the space or predominance of the “real story.” Which, unfortunately, is still jealously guarded by institutions that do not believe in the value of queer stories the way they believe in others. And as long as queer stories are seen as separate from the “real” stories, all “representation” will in fact be tokenism in some fashion.
Tokenism attempts to make queer characters palatable for a straight audience
“Queer” is a very intentional choice here. One of the nuances not captured by current trends in language around orientation and identity is the fact that these identities are, on some level, all perceived as threatening, whether it’s by having too much sex, not enough sex, or the wrong kinds of sex, with partners of the wrong gender, or doing or being the wrong gender, because gender and sexuality and the roles around it are all bound up in each other. They are “strange,” and if the media in question is attempting to make them “relatable,” there’s usually going to be some kind of effort to bring these characters closer to the norm.
In many cases, this means doing away with other forms of difference that could complicate them, make them more “difficult” for an audience to take in. If they’re meant to be “relatable,” they’re often hyper-normal. This includes feminizing queer women and masculinizing men. (Think Alex Danvers’ Season 2 hair on Supergirl—it got progressively longer and more styled, and her makeup got heavier and more “feminine”—contrast with Season 1, and her current undercut.)
That’s if they want to make them feel like a “main character,” though. Alternately, they might keep them as distinctly “other” (Jack from Will & Grace). In that case, the character may well fall into caricature.
If there’s more than one character from a particular group, there’s often a comparison between the two, or pitting-against; a sense of “Good X” and “Bad X”—the “Good X” wants to be more like the dominant group, or aligns with their values, while the “Bad X” does not, and often seeks to impose their values and ways of doing things on everyone else, or simply has no regard for those things.
In the case of queer characters, this manifests as the “good gays” or “good wlw,” versus the “bad queers.” For instance, Livewire in Supergirl Season 1 is heavily queercoded, down to her pathological jealousy of Supergirl, her stark visual appearance and aesthetic, and casual misandry sealing her slip into “homicidal villain” when she accidentally kills a creepy pushy drunk guy and, apparently, finds the rush enjoyable.
Narratively speaking, “good gays” want the same things their straight counterparts want (relationship, marriage, children); they’re generally white and very gender-normative, and probably middle-to-upper-middle class, and definitely don’t participate in something “dirty” like the bar or party scene.
Maybe surprisingly to anyone educated on this primarily by Tumblr, this often involves the de-sexualization of queer women, especially butch women. Domesticity often goes hand-in-hand with this.
Now. Is domesticity a valid life choice or desire? Heck yes. But we’re talking about recurring patterns in how characters are portrayed, and how the people responsible for creating them write them in a way that makes these characters “less threatening,” consciously or not.
This is one instance where “Gay = good and pure femininity” is not always, in fact, a good thing; it’s an impossible standard to live up to, and it primes people both within the community and outside it to punish women who deviate from that “good and pure” femininity in any way.
The net effect is that it over-simplifies complex identities and puts the weight of representing an entire identity (that can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to a single person) on one character or ship. It flattens the character, because then suddenly they have to be All Gays to All People.
It also tends to erase the fact that gay culture exists, and it exists in a myriad of ways across the planet and across various historical periods. And yet, with some shows, it’s easy to walk away with the impression that there’s no such thing as gay culture or community, or how important that support is to have—just gay individuals, and gay couples.
Caveat: Not getting in-depth, or telling an isolated story, is probably fine if the gay character in question is a minor character. However. If they are a major character, this deserves some exploration, unless there’s a context-specific reason why there shouldn’t be (e.g., they’re on a ship in space and fairly isolated, etc.) Because gay people don’t just exist in isolation and stay away from each other—jokes about lesbians not being able to talk to each other aside.
And, of course, if the creators fundamentally don’t see their queer characters as “main characters,” or aren’t very interested in them outside of a very limited arc, it’s going to show. It’s going to show when a previously butchy woman suddenly presents in a much more feminine fashion and loses seemingly all interest in her professional life. It speaks volumes what queer characters are required to do (or not do) just to be able to exist on a TV screen alongside characters like Murphy from The 100, and any number of other men (I was going to say “and women,” but it’s largely men) who can seemingly get away with anything and still have creators who find them “fascinating” and “complex” and would rather write endless storylines for them.
What are the risks of affirming this kind of representation?
I’ve had people point out to me that, in the case of mass media, with its broad reach, even tokenistic stories can be important, and I think that is true. I also think it’s important to state again that what a person prefers to consume or interact with is not what’s up for critique here. At an individual level, people live at the intersection of many, many societal forces larger than themselves, and the stories they gravitate towards are part of an negotiation of those forces. It’s very problematic to reduce the psychology of a person’s like or dislike of a character or arc (much less a whole fandom’s) to a single reason.
You are still allowed to enjoy something that someone else has decided has “failed” a particular litmus test. You don’t need a reason, although it really helps if you can nail down why you like it, because sometimes having a perspective on why a human being would like a character or arc that you can’t stand helps you see it with fresh eyes and not vilify the entire fandom for that thing.
I’ve also tried to specifically contain my critique to tokenization as it relates to the treatment of queer characters, because “wlw fandom,” as far as I can tell, has made a habit of throwing other groups under the bus, even within their own community, in their haste to get the “representation” they claim to want.
I’ve been operating under the assumption of good faith on the part of creators so far, but I have a personal example of something that does not seem to have been in good faith at all. In the early stages of the migration to The 100, I was repeatedly encouraged to watch it for Lexa. So I started from the beginning.
And then I saw Wells’ storyline. And then the episode “Murphy’s Law,” where Murphy is shown urinating on one of the few Black characters on the show. Pretending this kind of thing doesn’t have a broader cultural context is, honestly, not something I can do.
I was wildly uncomfortable with this, and said as much. The response? “Yeah… It gets better, though, because lesbians.” So I shrugged off my discomfort and continued.
In retrospect, I think it’s safe to say that that should’ve been a sign of exactly what to expect. But I ignored it, because lesbians.
I’ll be blunt: Especially in light of the existence of figures like Milo Yiannopoulous, and the alt-right’s courting of white gays, white wlw cannot just cling to “but lesbians” and ignore how a piece of media treats other groups, if representation is something they claim to care about. Because whether you like it or not, in those cases, you are being tokenized. As a white queer, there is every chance that you will be seen as the “safe option,” and even in the instances that you do get your Supercorp, or your Clexa, your compliance after that point, your lack of action, all but guarantees that other lesbians will still struggle to find representation for their own complex identities.
This is how you get emotionally manipulated into fighting for something backwards: by being offered something that’s “just enough” for some of you—but not for all of you. As someone who may have other kinds of privilege, you need to be aware of this, and take a moment to consider how things that are meant to appeal to you might be short-changing other groups. This does not mean you can’t enjoy it. But if you’re going to talk about the political and social implications of representation, you can’t just drop it once you’ve gotten what you want.
Remember or learn the difference between representation and tokenism, because confusing the two will not only not get you want you really want (which is good representation, and frankly, good stories in general), it will also put you in a position where you are excusing harmful representation of other groups by trying to get what’s coziest for you.
And if absolutely nothing else, remember that if a creator is callous enough to use a strategy like that, they are certainly callous enough to discard you when they decide they’re ready to get back to their “real story.”
So, in light of the above, what is good representation?
Multiplicity of perspectives
Like I mentioned earlier, you can do a lot of the things that I mentioned if you have a real depth of representation. If you have a lot of queer characters, and it’s appropriate for the genre and the narrative? Even one of them dying doesn’t simply remove all of your representation from the screen. Further, it allows the characters to breathe and develop as characters, and not be saddled with the expectations of an entire group of fans.
Dialogue between these perspectives
In addition to simply being present, and explored, these characters also shouldn’t be isolated from each other. And when they do interact, it shouldn’t come off as being a battle over which ideology or approach to this identity is “better.” Conflict is good; discussion is good. But pitting two different characters from the same group against each other? Or writing it as a “Good X” vs. “Bad X” ideological conflict where the person who comes out on top is the “correct” ideology? Not so much.
Turning a conflict between two characters into a ideological dialogue is very easy to let slip into prescriptivism. Especially if one of those characters is being written off.
Even if you do take a character somewhere that could have problematic or tokenizing implications, there’s still a level of flexibility there based on having (a) a gamut of different characters, and (b) a clear, in-story reason for their actions—that isn’t suddenly introduced just to drive a particular plot point, and doesn’t just boil down to, “X character is an alien and doesn’t know any better.” We’re not talking about excusing terrible behavior, we’re talking about complicating the identities represented. Because, to return to some of the examples above, are there lesbians who fit into what some people consider “normative” definitions of femininity? Of course! Same goes for masculine gay men.
But that difference and conflict needs to be rooted in honest worldbuilding, and honest characterization. One character can’t stand in for an entire identity or ideology, and an ideology or character trait can’t be air-dropped into a character in order to make a particular plot point happen.
They can, however, navigate those identities and ideologies. But it’s one of those cases where the devil is absolutely in the details, and where having a fully-fleshed-out character is critical, otherwise you probably will slide into bland ideological statements like “Lesbians can be feminine! Look how feminine and traditional this lesbian is! She’s so intuitive and emotionally intelligent. Pay no attention to her STEM background—this is what’s really important.”
And even if that’s not the intent, it’s a very easy history to bring up.
They’re given more storylines than just things related to their sexual or gender identity
This is sticky, and depends on things like genre or the premise of the show. However, I think this is where the line sits in differentiating minor from major characters.
Minor characters? You can use as “issue” characters. They don’t have to grow beyond the thing you need them there for. Main characters, on the other hand, need depth.
So, a symptom of tokenism? Treating your main characters as minor ones in favor of characters from relatively privileged groups—there to “teach them a lesson,” or make them look progressive by showing how accepting or cool they are, or “educating” them—and then it ends there. If you’re going to have a coming-out arc? Have something else going on alongside that. Romance arc? Unless the show is something like Gossip Girl or Sex in the City (and even then), have something else going on that they need to make choices and move forward on.
This is complicated by the fact that people who are looking to dismiss queer characters will very often make noise about “suddenly everything is gay!” Further, there are some queer people for whom their identity is a huge part of their day-to-day life and conscious thought.
However, it’s possible to integrate that aspect of the character in a way that’s either inappropriate for the genre (doesn’t fit the character or storyworld, usually), or isolates them from the main plot.
Again: If they are a minor character? They’re there to serve their purpose in the story and move along. It becomes a problem when you have a main character suddenly being treated like a minor character and given a single dimension to work within.
Mass media creators are not the people who will give us the change we are looking for. They will adapt, eventually. But if we put all our faith in them, they will soak up our time and attention and money and continue doing the exact same things they always have.
The irony is that there are people who could change this. There are people who are aware of these issues, and who want to change the landscape of the media we have available to us. We have, right now, tools we can use to support them.
Those people are queer creators.
But in the mad scramble to get recognition from celebrities and mainstream creators that fandom has become, those people have been forgotten, or get dismissed by the community at large for minor things, sometimes with so much viciousness that queer creators have started to talk about how afraid they are of their own communities.
And that is not something that we can afford.