Death of the Critic


Written by: Tom Blaich

As a follow-up to our discussion on the Noble Savage, I wanted to take the time to talk about the delicate issue of tokenism in contemporary media or literature. Put simply, Tokenism is the idea of diversity being included for show, of including minority characters in minor roles such that a single minority character has to represent the entirety of their group.

In less malicious contexts, this can take the shape of something that you might see on a brochure, a “multicultural” group of people that are diverse in appearance only. These characters are not allowed to express themselves in a way that would significantly differentiate them from the norm (read: white and straight). It is a way for studios to brag about embracing diversity without actually doing anything of substance.

In more malicious contexts, we can see these characters being set up like a straw person. If the only character of the group (whether that be black, gay, Muslim, trans, or anything else) acts in a certain way (violent, promiscuous, radical, deviant, etc.) then we are supposed to assume that all members of the group act this way. It plays to established stereotypes and reinforces them in a negative way. Whereas characters that are part of the norm (white, straight, male, Christian, etc.) are allowed to show character variety and minority characters are not, it allows negative stereotypes to be enforced.

As a sort of corollary to this, there is a sort of “perfect” token minority character that is used, which doesn’t seem like a problem at first, until you ask who gets to define what makes this character perfect. In this situation, the author shows us what they think a minority should act like: how they should dress, speak, lust, desire, and submit to the main character as if to say that they are all wrong and the only way for them to be “fixed” would be for them to act in this particular way.

\It is basically treating an entire group like they are children, needing to be told how to live their lives. “If they only knew what was good for them” is a sentiment that is entirely too popular in literature and film. It is why gay characters in films aren’t allowed to be sexual in the way that heterosexual characters are. “I don’t care what they do as long as I can’t see it”, meanwhile two heterosexual characters are having loud, sweaty sex all over the place.

Tokenism is not always malicious. Sometimes creators are genuinely trying to include minority characters but failing to flesh them out in the same way that they would for a white character or a straight character or a male character. And this speaks to a difference in how characters of different groups are fundamentally being viewed.

This difference, and the culture that it creates it is part of criticism. Whether it is born from maliciousness or simply from ignorance, picking out these characters and seeing how they are being used to either forward some sort of agenda, or point out the differences in ways that show how one group is supposedly to be inherently more than the other. Recognizing these power structures and learning how they affect their text can greatly advance the way that we criticize.


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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