By Guest Contributor Tami Winfrey Harris, cross-posted from What Tami Said
I asked my blogging friends to weigh in on a question that is only a little facetious: In your consumption of media, which is better–to be triggered, to be a token or to be erased?
Let me explain.
During the hiatus of HBO’s True Blood, Renee, Paul and I have been exploring other representations of the urban fantasy genre–from book series to the teen angsty CW show Vampire Diaries. In doing so, we have confirmed what we already suspected: That is that the genre is notoriously bad at characterizations that are not of the white, straight, male variety. (Making it much like, y’know, every other genre.)
One sentiment that has come up again and again–mostly after suffering some appalling portrayal of people of color or the GLBT community in some book–is “Y’know, I’d rather [insert author’s name here] would just quit writing about [insert marginalized group here].”
For me, this frustration is usually borne of being othered and disrespected, when I simply aimed to be entertained by a trashy novel or TV show. I dipped into Charlaine Harris’ Aurora Teagarden series, hoping to enjoy the books as I enjoy the TV series based on Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series. Instead, I got a bunch of thinly-written, triggering stories where all women (but the protagonist) are routinely judged harshly and women like me (black women) are alternately sassy or angry or dead or running from the law, and blackness or Jewishness or gayness or any other “ness” that is not small-town and conservative and Southern and Anglo and Christian is to be frowned at or remarked upon or, best, hidden. And so, instead of enjoying a cozy mystery in my downtime, I wound up feeling uncomfortable and marginalized.
It is times like these when I find myself thinking that it would have been better if black women were absent from the narrative altogether. Sometimes there is comfort in erasure. I mean, even a blandly-drawn token black character, like Bonnie on Vampire Diaries, can be intrusive to my experience. Because I look at her presence in a show that genuflects to the antebellum South and plantation-owning families, while at the same time not mentioning the black community that must still exist in the town, and suspect she is a black-culture-free cypher added simply to be inclusive.
When I, a black woman, am consuming media created by mostly non-black writers, dealing with erasure is sometimes easier that dealing with how a book or film or TV show reflects the dominant culture’s biased views about me.
Media, at its best, is a powerful tool that can change the way groups are perceived by the masses. But media is too rarely at its best. So…
Are bad, biased or token portrayals better than no portrayal at all?
Renee (Womanist Musings): This is just such a difficult question for me to answer. On one hand, it is so necessary that marginalized bodies see themselves in the mainstream; however, when the representation is simply terrible, like every Tyler Perry movie outside of For Colored Girls, it is truly harmful and works to affirm specious tropes. The fact that a black person is more likely to portray a criminal or a victim that is used as evidence of wrong, rather than admitting a true wrong has been done (think the trial of Bigger Thomas in Native Son), stands as evidence that black bodies are still not valued. What bothers me is the fact that most people consume media without any critical thought.
When I think of shows like Two and a Half Men that have an all White cast, I am actually extremely thankful that there are no characters of colour. The problem with the show is that it creates misogynist White Masculinity as not only acceptable, but a desirable trait. I highly doubt that it could be improved by adding a marginalized body to the cast. And so in this show we have a case when erasure is definitely a good thing.
I think, in the end, for me it basically comes down to how bad the character or the plot is. If it plays upon every single mendacious stereotype associated with POC, I would much rather be erased. Blacks don’t need more reminders that Whiteness continues to see itself as superior. I suppose there are simply some lines that cannot be crossed in order to see a black face.
Paul (Spark in Darkness): In general I think I can tolerate a token (and of course it is only ever one token, because that’s all it takes for those tasty, tasty inclusive cookies) over complete erasure. I think it is better to have the best friend, the sidekick – a marginalised person whose entire existence and purpose is to serve and glorify the dominant protagonist – than nothing at all. It will make me grind my teeth, but so long as the token isn’t a collection of bad stereotypes, insulting tropes – AND especially if they don’t have to be rescued by the white straight mens all the damn time – then it’s better to have SOMETHING. BUUUUT I think we need to fiercely criticise tokens because writers/whatever think THIS IS ENOUGH. It’s really clear “Hey we have one token character, we have done our inclusivity checklist! Go us!” And that needs to stop, it really does. A token is less bad than erasure, but you don’t get praise for kicking the kitten rather than stomping on it. I wonder sometimes if we should just throw out tokens altogether – either erase or be inclusive, but stop claiming inclusivity cookies for this bullshit
For actually offensive tokens that are nothing more than an extra bundle of stereotypes and tired tropes or other outright triggering portrayals (Laurel K Hamilton, your fragile lickle gay victims or perverse, torturing gay villains need to go as of yesterday.) then they can get out. As you mentioned, Teagarden, but so many others write their tokens so offensively that I risk damaging my Kindle. I really would rather their casts completely erase than fill me with the blinding rage some of their portrayals manage. Their portrayals are actually damaging, triggering and just plain awful. And, worse, they’ll present these train wrecks as proof of inclusivity. And it can even become the standard other producers work towards – “Hey, I included an offensive stereotype! GO PROGRESSIVE ME!” and expect praise! And others follow in their footsteps. That needs slapping down hard.
What I do debate over is what I’d call a “triggering” portrayal that is actually well done. One of my eternal pleasures are cheesy crime programmes – but every last one of them has had a gay episode. Dalziel and; Pascoe, Silent Witness (Tom Ward is mine!), Waking the Dead, George Gently, Midsomer Murders, New Tricks. They’ve all got the deadly gay episode. And often they are well done and realistically portrayed (though often without any nod to the homophobia of the authorities). But they are realistic portrayals of an anti-gay hate crime, or a parent kicking out a gay child, or a religious authority pushing aversion therapy or, my personal favourite, brutal torture. And sometimes all of the above. And then you get an hour or so of gay pain, gay grief and gay death – often graphic and always nasty.
This happens in real life and it’s good that it’s portrayed and probably good that straight people can see the shit out there – but I cannot watch it. They are so horrendous to watch. I think the episodes literally need a health warning on them.
Jennifer (Mixed Race America): Tami, this is an interesting dilemma, and timely since I just taught a film called Slaying the Dragon in my class, which is about media representations (largely mis-representations) of Asian American women throughout the history of Hollywood. I’m so used to Asian Americans being absent from popular culture that erasure seems par for the course. And I suppose compared to what you describe above, I’ll take erasure or absenteeism or invisibility over tokenism or blatant stereotypes that trigger the desire of poking my eyes out or slamming my head into my television set because I can’t believe the awful stereotypes/representation of Asian people on TV. Although usually, in the case of Asian Americans, we don’t need to be represented, visually, in order to be maligned. Case in point: I’ve noticed that on sitcoms, especially, it’s enough to make a passing reference about Asians (especially Chinese–we really have a thing about the menace of China right now) without needing their bodies to be seen on-screen. In a recent episode of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, the chauvinist character, Barney, talks about how he had sex with a Chinese girl and then 2 hours later he felt like having sex again — apparently a reference to the idea that after you eat Chinese food you feel hungry again in 2 hours [Aside: As someone who is Chinese American, I've NEVER understood this joke/stereotype and have no idea what its origins are]. Anyway, it’s a throwaway line, and not even a very good joke, but here you have simultaneously an erasure (no Asian American female bodies are in sight when this joke is being made), tokenism (Barney’s mention of sleeping with a Chinese woman seems to be unusual–something to be noted as different from the usual white women he sleeps with), as well as triggering (Asian American female bodies rendered as the butt of a sexist and racist joke). All of which is to say, that at the end of the day it’d be nice if that joke wasn’t made at all–which means I guess I’d opt for total erasure, although I think what we’d all really like is to actually have some smart, well-rounded characters who are three-dimensional people of color in popular culture, rather than just the standard “token” best friend (and why IS it that there’s only ever ONE black/Asian/Latino friend in a group of white people???!!!!)
In your consumption of media, which is better–to be triggered, to be a token or to be erased?
Ugh, these are the choices? I would say none of the above, but I also read my way through most of the L.A. Banks stories just so I could see a multiracial team of demon hunters and vamp slayers. So, ideally, I would just keep finding gems like Octavia Butler’s Fledgling and build myself a little cocoon of POC focused fantasy worlds…but that still leaves aside the other major worlds I like to relax into. My three favorite urban fantasy writers are Marjorie M. Liu, Kelley Armstrong, and Kim Harrison – I have given up hope on decent characters of color. They always do something to mess it up, or the characters are so background, they almost escape notice. Same with my big fantasy world builders – it took Jacqueline Carey three novels to stop exoticing her token POCs, and I can’t really place any brown skinned George R.R. Martin characters, outside of Khal Drogo.
I can agree that it completely sucks to be tokenized. And to be hit with this ridiculous wall of stereotype every time a POC shows up on screen. However, I’m not willing to advocate for just not being there at all. I remember, as a teen, relating to a lot of the black depictions that were on the small screen. For example, I just rewatched the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers for the first time since I was about 9, and HOLY STEREOTYPES BATMAN! I know we crack that the Asian girl had to be the Yellow Ranger and the Black dude had to be the Black Ranger – but damn. It’s as if some studio head was like “Is that how black people act? No blacker! Make him hip-hop fight! Don’t forget sassy slang!” So it is cringeworthy now.
But then? Don’t get me started on how much I loved the Power Rangers and always felt like I could have joined the crew. After all, why wouldn’t I? There were girls, and black people, and nerds – I could have fit in just about anywhere. And while I am all about *quality* representation, I can’t forget all the times I was grateful for the solo negro in an otherwise all white crew, holding the door open for me to come play too. Jessie from the Babysitters Club. Lisa from Saved by the Bell. Jodie on Daria. Kendra from Buffy. Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats. For once, I’ll give it up for the tokens. What they do is remind people that we do exist. If not, people start rationalizing away our inclusion in representations of public life (vintage-style nostalgia anyone?). I think there are more than enough all white worlds already – losing the tokens just contributes to our overall erasure. Remember, out of sight, out of mind. And we all know how that goes down, season after season.
Andrea (Racialicious, AJ’s Headspace):
Tami: In your consumption of media, which is better–to be triggered, to be a token or to be erased?
Latoya: Ugh, these are the choices?
Fist pump, Latoya. Although I’m at a point in my life where I think the Perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the Good–which is why I tend to exit the room when some people go off about “proper representations” in The Media — these are Scylla-and-Charybdis choices.
The way I’ve worked it out so far is thinking in context: in some creative spots, I absolutely do not want to see a marginalized person in it because I know the portrayal will just piss me off. It would be all about the Inclusiveness Cookie. The other reason why I don’t want to see a marginalized person in the space is because I want to have a fly-on-the-wall perspective on what the non-marginalized folks are thinking and talking about. I’m not sure who said it, but there are a lot of truths in fiction. And I want to hear the behind-closed-doors processes–someone calls it “backstaging”–that the non-marginalized do before they interact with me. And if they want to publish and/or broadcast that for me to know, then I tip my hat to them for tipping their hand.
Then again, there are some places where having people of color simply makes sense. I tend to consume more non-fiction than fiction, so I’m all about essays, criticisms, and documentaries. And I notice that, in docs about an “universal issue,” people of color are indeed tokenized. A perfect example is watching three of my favorite docs, The Corporation, Fuel, and Food, Inc. The PoCs–from Carlton Brown, a commodities trader in The Corporation and the Gonzalez family in Food, Inc.–fill a particular role, namely being the “example” that proves the point being discussed by the white talking heads. At the same time, their presence also states that we PoCs have stakes and roles in the “universal issues,” too, be they for good and for ill, such as Van Jones–the only environmental-justice activist of color–in Fuel and the activists of color in The Corporation. All of them are positioned as equal talking heads, too, even if they are the only PoCs in a reel of whiteness, which also says that we have experts who can speak about the topic. Then, there are other docs that really need to have PoCs counter some of the trepidation around race and representations, such as the lack of talking-heads of color in the doc about the morality in video games, Moral Combat. (My exact thought, which I tweeted after I saw the film, “Where was Latoya Peterson?”)
So, really I don’t feel the need to see myself in the pop-culture picture all the time. I mean, really–I don’t need to see a PoC in The King’s Speech.
Mikhail (Psychology Today, Op Ed News): Ok, so I think I need to say that I’m white, straight guy who writes about racial issues. From that perspective (as a race scholar/activist), there is nothing worse than erasure because it doesn’t allow any kind of meaningful analysis or discussion beyond “Can you believe there were no people of color in the show/book/film?” Tokens aren’t much better. As a racial-justice activist, I believe that part of what we need to do as a society is have honest conversation about race and racism. Racial content that doesn’t play it safe (i.e., that triggers) provides the best grist for the mill. Give me something that provokes, irritates, or otherwise demands to be thought about and discussed over the trite and boring any time.
But I have another answer too, one that’s less intellectual and much more personal. See, I’m also Jewish, and an immigrant as well, and if I sink into one of those identities and consider the question, I go to a very different place. As part of a marginalized group, there is nothing worse than an uninformed, inadequate, or stereotypical portrayal of my group. When I see/read such a portrayal, I am emotionally pained. Sometimes I feel unable to continue watching/reading. Other times, I continue, but without the same pleasure. The “triggering” portrayal is a distraction. My mind wanders…I think of clever retorts…I fantasize about vengeful actions.
So…there it is: As a private citizen and fan of fictional stories in print and on screen, I much prefer erasure and tokens, as they allow me to enjoy the story and (temporarily) forget about my own marginalization. As an activist, I prefer the opposite — something that will allow me to think and to write and to mobilize public opinion.