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The Fine Line Between Representation and Tokenism in Film

Amy Saad

We hear the words ‘representation’ and ‘token’ getting thrown around all the time, and it seems that the grey area between inclusivity and tokenism in media has become murkier. Since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, a strong consciousness has arisen, fuelling the ‘Cancel Culture’ fire and heightening the need for more representation of minority groups. Equal representation of people is yet to happen in many places, particularly the film industry.

The first step in understanding the difference between representation and tokenism are the definitions.

Representation: “the action or fact of one person standing for another so as to have the rights and obligations of the person represented” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Tokenism: “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as to desegregate)” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Just from the definitions, it is outstandingly clear that representation encompasses the inclusion of people from minority groups in media in a positive and genuine way. Representation should not be a means for achieving more success. Tokenism is illusory and plants the facade that the organisation is inclusive and honours representation, when in reality it is a trick to make the public perceive the organisation as socially responsible.

The token ‘black best friend’ is the epitome of tokenism in film. It is a constant image seen where a black actor plays the supporting role to their white protagonist best friend. In contrast to their white friend, the black character usually does not have a storyline nor any kind of character development- a means of “ensuring nonwhite characters never really steal the spotlight for long.” (Eric Deggans, The Washington Post, 2011) Think of Dionne from ‘Clueless’, Chastity from ‘10 Things I Hate About You’, Chad and Taylor from ‘High School Musical’, Rhodes in ‘Iron Man’, and the list goes on. These stereotypically supportive black best friends are a tactic used to subliminally downgrade the black community, while filmmakers make “cultural capital” and are praised for their ‘inclusivity’.

However, it must still be considered that not all films that include a black friend are part of the black best friend trope, a black character who is displayed to be as relevant as their white counterparts and experience character development should not be listed as part of the trope. While there are many films that display tokenistic representations of minority groups, films and TV shows such as ‘The Black Panther’ and ‘Star Trek’ which are leading the way for positive representation of minority groups, equality and empowerment.


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