This Station Does Not Accept Tokens


Back in the day, diversity on television was mostly achieved (in the barest sense of the term) through tokenism. A black female judge here, a black female judge there… Hey, is that an Asian doctor? Although I recently complained that only Shonda Rhimes’s shows feature minority characters whose race is incidental to the story lines, the reality is that tokenism has in fact abated a bit throughout mainstream TV, though nowhere quite as thoroughly as in Rhimes’s shows (those have other problems, though, such as nearly every character becoming an alcoholic and those that stay sober having their babies stolen from them, and half the doctors from that one floor are now working on that other floor below so as not to see their exes but dangit if they don’t all keep meeting in the elevators).

Back in that same day, shows like Friends and Seinfeld came under fire for being pretty much exclusively about a bunch of white people. I was never bothered by Friends’ portrayal of six white friends living in the most artificial version of Manhattan ever depicted on screen. And I certainly wasn’t bothered by Seinfeld‘s portrayal of four white friends living in the most awesome version of Manhattan ever depicted on screen. Fact is, lots of white people have lots of white friends… not that there’s anything wrong with that. ’Course it’s a problem when all shows are like Friends (you’ll never get me to say a bad word about Seinfeld), which is where tokenism comes in as a shoddy way station on the way to something better.

Well, someone needs to tell Ryan Murphy, creator of everybody’s favorite new show, Glee, that the rest of us have left that shoddy way station behind and would very much like to get to the next station because some of us really need to pee. Up until last week, I’d ignored the regressive tokenism on Glee because every single character—black, white, gay, straight, paralyzed, and walking-enabled—on that show is a complete stereotype with no depth whatsoever. But this week, the tokenism could no longer be ignored. The show’s about a glee club composed of 12 members and the cast of characters is listed below in order of screen time from most to least (totally unscientific, just based on my impressions from having watched the show since it premiered, and I’ve left out the other leads—all of whom are white and accordingly get screen time in line with numbers 1 through 6 on this list—who play the teachers):

  1. White football stud
  2. White blonde cheerleader
  3. White Jewish neurotic unpopular girl who wears really short skirts
  4. White gay kid who wears corsets to school but didn’t know he was gay until a couple of episodes ago
  5. White Jewish football stud (I admit they threw a curveball with this one: first-ever televisual Jewish stud? Unless you count Paul Rudd…)
  6. White nerd boy with glasses who’s also paralyzed and in a wheelchair (glasses and a wheelchair? Could the fates be any crueler? asks Chandler Bing)
  7. Sassy overweight black girl who is constantly given lines such as “What this song needs is my chocolate thunder” and “My weave!”
  8. Punky Asian girl who stutters (except she doesn’t really, but no matter)
  9. White blonde cheerleader who’s dumb and not as pretty as the other white blonde cheerleader, which is why she doesn’t get as much screen time, but still gets more than…
  10. Asian guy
  11. Latina cheerleader
  12. I had to do a whole mess of googling to figure out who the 12th member of glee club was even though I’ve watched every episode. Guess what? He’s black! I guess he sits in the back?*

In last week’s episode of Glee, “Ballad,” the kids had to draw names from a hat to find out who they’d partner with to sing a ballad. Jewish football stud got sassy black girl. Paralyzed nerd got blonde cheerleader numero uno. Non-Jewish football stud got gay guy. Asian girl got… “other Asian.” Seriously, that’s what she said, with a grimace. Now I love edgy racial humor as much as the next gal (lie! I love it way more than the next gal, and way more than the next guy too), but when you as the writer/creator of a TV show are putting lines in your actors’ mouths that poke fun at just how much you as the writer/creator of a TV show have marginalized them… well, I’ve got a problem with that.

Glee, you’re on notice. But I’ll keep watching because I like it when people—especially white people—break into song.

Happy Thanksgiving and Eid Mubarak, y’all!

*I rewatched some of the episodes while writing this post and he and Asian Guy both do sit in the back. They also get to dance sometimes. I stand uncorrected.

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9 responses to “This Station Does Not Accept Tokens

  1. see, it’s not just the thoughtful observations and the overall fine writing of yours that i appreciate. it’s the exquisite attention to detail such as inserting a dotted yellow line on the cast photo to drive the point home that really kills me. that and the excessive use of parentheses which i always approve of and employ myself (sometimes even when no parens are needed).

  2. the dotted line was key. well played.
    i love the principal too, he’s always playing some pakistani dad or doctor.

  3. The sad thing is that that is the first Glee cast photo I found. I didn’t even have to search for one where the minorities were properly marginalized. Kind of like on this poster for Couples Retreat, where they made the black couple as teeny-tiny as they could, and then took them out entirely for the international market.

    And (where) would (I) be without (parens)?! I love ’em.

  4. Iqbal Theba! He and Sue are my favorites on the show.

  5. does this station take these kinds of tokens?

    also, gojira! your posting frenzy resulted in our gorgeous gift guide getting pushed down into oblivion! i blame you for my impending non-receipt of my wishlist items.

  6. No problem, lady. I’ll just bump the gift guide back to the top tomorrow. Ye shall have yer goodies, you greedy Scottish goose.

  7. the bump confused me. i thought you lost the tokens. but now i found it.

    the end.

  8. This post has been included in a linkspam at Access-fandom. Thank you!

  9. Thanks for the link, Sasha-feather!

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