How Tokenism Is Different From Real Diversity
Conversations over who should play a lead role in a potential third Sex and the City movie have landed quite poorly.
Talking on Andy Cohen’s Live show, Actor Cynthia Nixon said how amazing it would be to have a woman of colour play the character Samantha Jones.
But people were quick to point out that replacing a very white character with a person of colour was actually a form of tokenism, and that there’s a real difference between tokenism and championing diversity.
Nixon, who plays the character of Miranda Hobbes, made the comment when she was asked who a good replacement would be for Kim Cattrall’s character Samantha.
Why Are Statements Like These An Issue?
In their 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report, UCLA wrote that “the number of acting jobs for women and people of colour are finally getting closer to being proportionate to the US population overall“.
But the conversations around Samantha’s potential replacement have reignited discussions around actors of colour being thrown into the mix as a form of tokenism more than anything else.
Zoya Patel: “To try and make one of the existing characters black is – to me – tokenism 101 … because it’s an example of the show trying to retrospectively enhance [their] diversity … Instead of, kind of trying to meaningfully address that, by perhaps creating a character in the reboot that is black or Asian and creating a whole storyline around that.”
That’s Zoya Patel, an author who writes about race, feminism and religion.
Zoya told me that the only diversity she saw on screen growing up was token diversity – like the classic trope of the ‘ethnic friend’ in movies and TV shows – and ultimately, she’s worried that an actor of colour being cast as Samantha would just be more of the same thing.
ZP: “They were characters that were there to literally and figuratively add colour to the screen, and they kind of imbued a sense of diversity without the writers and directors having to like, actually engage with the reality of a diverse character.”
Actor America Ferrera broke down the difference between tokenism and true diversity, when she wrote that “tokenism is about inserting diverse characters because you feel you have to”.
So, Where Does Sex and the City Fall On That Line?
Sex and the City is a famously feminist but very white-washed franchise. One that Vice journalist Sara David said, “has enough handsome bachelors to guarantee a lay every other night, and very few people of colour”.
And while it isn’t the only show from the 90s either apologising, or trying to re-address a lack of diversity, Zoya argues that we should really be focusing on the new shows that actually are creating space for complex and diverse characters.
An example she gave of this, is Netflix’s Never Have I Ever. It’s a coming-of-age story following the life of an Indian American highschooler.
ZP: “Instead of making her diversity the only thing about her – you know, centering the plot only around her difference – it’s actually about creating an interesting and engaging plotline where the character happens to be culturally diverse, and that’s part of the story but it’s not everything.”
Zoya believes that to overcome racial tokenism, people need to get better at calling out actors, directors or writers, who might be promoting diversity merely for cultural capital – and that we need more people of colour working behind the scenes and making the big decisions.
For a show like Sex and the City, retrofitting an actor of colour to a white role feels like tick-box tokenism.
Zoya believes real diversity comes when writers focus on what makes diverse audiences feel seen. And that a more meaningful way to champion multiculturalism on our screens, is to create characters where their diversity is one part of their identity, not its entirety.