Pretty, Fizzy Paradise

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Disjointed thoughts on Tokenism

I was reading David Brothers's awesome post on dismissing minority characters as "editorial fiat" or "token" and well, I pretty much wanted to post how much I agree with it.

I've blogged my own thoughts about tokenism before.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize the practice of token characters. I've blogged before about how I hate the "And then there's the girl" phenomenon where there's that one female character amidst the crowd of male characters that essentially is supposed to embody everything that is woman. I'd imagine that the frustration is similar for black readers, gay readers, and so on.

There's a flipside, however. As annoying as I may find Cheetara as a character (to use one of my own examples), if she's taken out...well then, there would be NO adult women on the original Thundercats team.

That's not a solution.

I get rather uncomfortable when I read people dismiss a particular character as being "token" because I think it oversimplifies the issue. (I am being a bit of a hypocrite here, because I know I've done that too, but it's my blog and thus my prerogative.) A lot of really good characters came about as a "token" effort to include a bit of diversity.

Like Supergirl for example. Supergirl is the poster child of a token created character. While I have no way of truly knowing what the creative process was behind Supergirl, I bet you ten-to-one that the creators started with this line on paper: "A girl version of Superman."

Of course "girl-Superman" isn't all that Supergirl is as a character and doesn't encompass all of Kara Zor-El's particular ins and outs (regardless of which version you look at). But that's probably how it started.

And that's not a bad thing. What's bad is when creators take the token concept and just stop.

The thing is, that's pretty curable. A walking stereotype can be developed fairly easily with an interested creator behind him or her. Take for example, Snapper Carr. I know not everyone who visits this blog is a fan of course. But I quite like him. In his first appearances in the JLA though, I'd say he fits a token "young slang-using audience stand-in" type role. He's pretty fucking annoying at that. But the thing is, ultimately, over the course of years and even decades, a couple of writers decided to try new things with the character. Some of it was stupid, sure, but some of it was good, and by the time I read Hourman, I ended up finding him one of my favorite characters.

That's the nice thing about comics. It's really easy to add depth and layers long after the character is originally introduced. They never have to be static.

And in general, I think the results are pretty good. John Stewart is awesome. He is always awesome. And I challenge anyone who doesn't think he's awesome to read Mosaic. And heck, you don't see Hal, Guy or Kyle being offered membership into the Alpha Lanterns, do ya? (If you do, don't spoil me, I'm behind in my comics again. :-))

Firestorm? Jason's fantastic. My favorite parts of the comic were when he was teamed with Ronnie inside his head because we really got to see the contrast between the characters and I really liked the rapport, but I pretty much enjoyed every inch of his run.

Michael Holt is brilliant, awesome and easily handles both Checkmate and JSA with aplomb. And for all that "Black Lightning" is not the most original codename, I think they've managed to do a lot with Jefferson Pierce over the years to give him a very interesting perspective and a weight of experience that a lot of the other heroes lack.

It is kind of amusing how they keep dragging out previously-unheard-of offspring for him, but I'm the sort that loves to giggle at the Summers family tree. I really enjoy family dynamics and generational herodom. So I'm looking forward to seeing the new guy.

I won't argue that all of these characters probably did originate as editorial fiat or an attempt to shove a "token" black person on the team. But honestly, with results like these, does it matter? Besides, is it really that different from making the upteenth new young white straight male hero and shoving HIM on the team? If you're gonna make a new character anyway, why not occasionally change the pattern up a little?

Personally, I think what matters is results. We should have more diversity in our heroes, not less. If a writer decides he or she wants more women, racial minorites, gay characters, and decides to throw a few more out there, that's great! If the editors decide the teams are a little too lily white and want to try something new, I think that's a good thing. Even if they fuck it up, and I'm SURE they're going to fuck it up occasionally, they've still added something to the giant shared sandbox that is the DCU (or Marvel U, for that matter) that someone else can pick up and spin to gold.

I think it's worth the try.


  • At February 15, 2008 10:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    What's this Snapper Carr/Hourman thing you're talking about, I'm intrigued...

    One thing I wish they'd do more with John is bring up his Marine background- they did in the last GL, I think that's an important part of his character that gets neglected. I think if you want to make characters non-token, it helps to bring up the non-token things in the background. That's hard to do in a team-up book when many of these chars get limited time and attention.

    Finally, Alpha Lanterns are scary- I hope the story pays out in the end.

  • At February 15, 2008 11:28 AM, Blogger SallyP said…

    Gah! Not Snapper Carr!

    You know that I agree with you, but you just HAD to bring up Snapper Carr!

    I rather like the fact that apparently Jefferson Pierce is off making babies. Makes him a little different from most of the other characters.

    John Stewart of course proves that once again, he's the SMART one, by looking at the Guardian's offer with a very skeptical eye. They certainly weren't too happy about that!

  • At February 15, 2008 9:06 PM, Blogger Jamaal said…

    I'd be interested to hear about this Snapper Carr thing too. I liked Giffen's portrayal of him in the Four Horsemen mini, but other than that, I always thought he was comic relief.

  • At February 15, 2008 10:20 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Okay, essentially Snapper Carr is a primary character in the Hourman series from the early 2000s. (Starring the android Hourman) Snapper is the sidekick/mentor figure to the main character and is surprisingly effective in the role.

    Here is an example of Snapper being awesome.

    This has a bit of me babbling about why I like Snapper's character growth.

    He also gets to be a mentor figure in Young Justice, where he gets to be fairly cool, but Hourman's really where he comes into his own.

    Ragnell and SallyP both hate him, but I have a soft spot in my tiny black metal heart for the little dork.

  • At February 16, 2008 4:28 AM, Blogger Ami Angelwings said…

    I agree!

    It's important to have lots of diversity b/c if you only have 1 character of minority status they get seen as the "token" even if it's not fair, b/c with no other comparison ppl will make assumptions that that character must embody the opinions of the creator (or the company) towards that minority group. :\ The "token" charge will vanish if there are more and more minority characters that are fully realized. :) Besides, minorities shouldn't just be used as flavouring, and shouldn't be seen as such either :D

  • At February 21, 2008 9:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Sorry, but I gotta pick at a nit here:

    "Like Supergirl for example. Supergirl is the poster child of a token created character. While I have no way of truly knowing what the creative process was behind Supergirl, I bet you ten-to-one that the creators started with this line on paper: "A girl version of Superman.""

    That seems doubtful. As Supergirl was originally created to be "a Mary Marvel for Superman", and even had Mary/Marvel Family scribe Otto Binder write Silver Age Kara's debut story. There has been enough written in comics magazines about SG's creation to know that this was the intended conception for the character. Especially since by the late 50s, DC/National had managed to help drive rival Fawcett out of the comics business.

  • At February 21, 2008 10:49 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Even if she was planned as an equivalent to Mary Marvel, that doesn't change the fact that she, like Mary herself, is designed as a female version of a male character.

    Which means basically they went "Okay, if this girl Captain Marvel did well, then we should make a girl Superman." Ultimately the end result is the same.


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