The tragic and untimely passing of movie star Chadwick Boseman in August left fans crestfallen, creating a time of reflection and introspection. We remember his tremendous talent and accomplishments, specifically his portrayal as the titular character in Marvel’s Black Panther. The film was hugely successful and was regarded as “one of the best superhero movies of the century.”
Though other Marvel films received reviews of the same caliber, Black Panther is celebrated as an example of genuine representation and inclusion, and “its emphasis on Black imagination, creation, and liberation.”
The film features a nearly all Black cast and emphasizes strong female heroines and their leadership. Its success in genuine representation of color, culture, and gender proved masterful. It resulted in the empowerment of groups historically marginalized, stereotyped, demeaned, and even villainized through film and television.
While it’s important to praise the work well-done of genuine diversity in media, it is critically important to further understand the binaries of representation. This can be done by juxtaposing tokenism and diversity.
Merriam-Webster defines “diversity” as “the condition of having or being composed of different elements”. Diversity ranges from race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious and political beliefs, age, socio-economic class, and physical abilities. Some other well regarded examples of diverse representation in media include ‘Love, Simon’, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, and ‘Moana’. In terms of television and film the importance of diversity is not limited to those on the screen, but those behind the scenes as well. In addition to Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael B. Jordan, the movie showcased the work of both a Black director, Ryan Coogler, and a Black production team. Ruth E. Carter, the costume designer for the film, was distinguished for her work and ultimately received an Oscar, becoming the first Black woman to win that award. The authentic diversity was bolstered and strengthened by the combination of a Black cast and crew, and this ultimately translated to the enormous success of the movie.
While some may view the addition of a single actor of color, differing gender, or sexual orientation as true diversity, it is most commonly disingenuous. It is a prime example of tokenism and one of many results of the Eurocentric, male, and heteronormative mindset that dominate the media. According to Oxford Languages, tokenism is “the act of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups''. In terms of television and film, this includes the addition of a so-called “diverse character” who is mainly relegated to stereotypes. Examples of these personas include the “angry Black girl”, “smart Asian”, and “damsel in distress”. As a result, the “diversity” is performative, and the characters are rarely highlighted or supported. This “representation” creates a facade for viewers, in which they feel bound to one portrayal of their kin, and thus may quell their identity by reinforcing the narrow perceptions of underrepresented groups held by the overrepresented viewers.
One movie that is symptomatic of tokenism is ‘Charlie’s Angels’(2000). The film is inundated with bouts of cultural appropriation and stereotypes. Though the film features one woman of color as a lead, her character is problematic in that it features an offensive representation through the misuse of traditional wear in Chinese and Indian cultures. Albeit the movie features an Asian-American woman, she is portrayed in a distasteful manner. Additionally, the women feed into the ditz and absent-minded stereotype, discouraging the reality that women to be strong, intelligent, and independent.
It’s incredibly important that diverse bodies are exposed to true representation and inclusion, as it is crucial to the development of identity and viewers. The insertion of characters who undertake the role of negative images or stereotypes are overrepresented, thus leading to the internalization of such negative images, which can be damaging to overall self-esteem and ultimately one’s psyche.
Though films like ‘Black Panther’ provide a panoramic narrative of genuine diversity, it’s important to further dissect and analyze the instances of tokenism present in mainstream media to encourage positivity and true representation within marginalized groups.