Every show has one… the token minority character. Tokenism, as we’re all aware, is wildly problematic. For example, the “token” character is often underdeveloped in order to avoid critique for being stereotypical (or racist, sexist, etc), while at the time is a tool used in television to be able to make jokes and have it “be ok” because the particular minority is the one who made the joke. The logic goes something like, if the gay character makes a homophobic joke, it’s not homophobic because the gay character said it. When the minority is demanded to be a stereotype of the group(s) they represent, it is because the script isn’t written for them, they’ve been written into the script.
Certain television shows are driven by their tokenism. Take Glee for example. I am both thoroughly entertained by the show and cringe about 20 times an episode. Still, as problematic as the conversation may be, there is a conversation about (dis)ability and ableism. Community, too, is driven by the tokenistic traits of their characters (Abed still represents the “being a minority” given that he is both Palestinian and reportedly has Asperger’s syndrom). Or take 30 Rock‘s Toofer, who received his name given that he is a “two-fer” token minority, being both “black” and “from Harvard.” The wittier shows love to comment on their own tokenism. They know it’s demanded of them, and that it ought to be done. Some seem to know that it ought to be done better…
I suppose what I mean is, I think that, even in stereotype, minorities ought be represented. Please note that this is a broad sweeping claim and I’m trying to highlight that tokenism is wildly problematic. What I mean is that I don’t expect society to be at its best within pop culture and, though I do not think that “any press is good press” really applies here, its ring of truth is that the value of being able to see different races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, and cultures represented on TV is an invaluable step to building an aware and caring society that values more than tolerance.
So the question begins to feel very catch-twenty-two-y: we want the underrepresented to be represented, but we want it done in a way that doesn’t feed into the notion of the token minority.
Folks, I give you How I Met Your Mother.
It took me seasons to really appreciate HIMYM‘s value. [In fact, it took me mistaking a HIMYM joke as a Scrubs joke. And you know I love me some Scrubs.] The show is based around five (all white) friends living in Manhattan. It appears to be quite forward in its character “types,” but there’s a lot of twisting and perversion of expectations. Each character has plenty, actually, but I’m going to focus on two characters, Robin and Barney, and specifically how they represent a performative commentary on token minorities and contradict expectations, respectively, in television.
But, first, I want to note that I appreciate the way that the writers didn’t force a minority character into this group while still having visible minority characters. That is, I think it’s clear that they want to reject tokenism in their characters. In all of their characters. And differently in different characters. For example, both Robin and Lily play on the expectations of “woman” (both woman in society and what we expect to see from a woman character on TV), and they do so in very different ways.
As another example, Robin has a long term relationship with Kevin, who actually begins as her psychiatrist. He’s played by Kal Penn, who was the co-star of Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, one of the most infamous token movies of the last ten years (alongside Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay), but I digress”¦
My point being, the show incorporates minority characters essentially any time a character is intended to, uhm, stick around in the story line for awhile, therefore allowing the show not to be about their incorporation as a minority, but still maintains a conversation about being the ‘outsider’ in the form of dating one of the core group members, like in the case of Kevin.
As you see in the picture to the right, Robin’s minority is “woman.” Otherwise, she’s white, tall, skinny (all things that fall into pop culture and society’s idea of conventionally attractive). She has made it clear that she’s not interested in having kids and that her career as a journalist and anchorwoman comes far before any relationship. She certainly doesn’t strike you as a particular minority. But alas! This is the brilliance of it. She’s Canadian. She’s an immigrant (she receives dual-citizenship eventually) who constantly struggles with her identity and non-identification with being a New Yorker, being Canadian, not feeling Canadian/losing her roots, etc…
I think the writers intentionally chose a “white, woman, Canadian” as their “token minority.” Their move represents going a step further than creating the character “Toofer.” They’re calling us out on our own expectations of what sorts of minorities “count” as minorities: visible minorities. Instead of participating in the game of ‘how to write in a minority to appease the broadcasting company, et all,’ they realized that, when it comes to tokenism, any representation is a misrepresentation, so let’s play a joke on this whole issue of representation. They realized that tokenism is really about the visibility.
But they don’t reject the visibility either, but, instead, they’ve written in a performance of the visibility. They make Canadian visible in Robin’s likes and dislikes, accents, sensibilities, habits, etc.
And no character on television is better at this sort of performative contradiction than Barney Stinson, played by the infinitely talented Neil Patrick Harris.
Barney’s character is, well, he’s the worst. He’s one of the biggest womanizer ever to be portrayed on television, and is done so unabashedly. Sleeping with women is a game, a game that inherently entails lying, cheating, sneaking out, and whatever the hell else he has to do to motorboat that fine lady at the bar…. He’s the creator of the Bro Code, which involves lovely “codes to live by” involving friend zones, chick flicks (always a NO!), moms and step-moms… He created the hot/crazy graph, which as I’m sure you can imagine is totally horrible.
But something happens to Barney when you know more about the actor Neil Patrick Harris. He went from Doogie Houser to being outed by Perez Hilton. He hosts award shows and stars in Broadway plays. He plays the biggest womanizer on television and walks the red carpet with his partner David Burtka (who plays a small role in HIMYM, btw). NPH and his partner adopted twins and plan on getting married (YAY NY!!!), and at the same time NPH plays a straight dad in a movie.
I mean this to say two things. First, that NPH is a goddamn chameleon and has defied being type casted after being forcedly outed by PH. Second, that it’s precisely because of his personal life that makes Barney Stinson tolerable and, hell, one of my favorite characters on television. Having Barney be played by “The Gayest Man in Hollywood” provides depth to the character himself. It makes the character a mockery of the character himself, which adds to the layers in which this is already down within the show.
In the same way, Robin’s character is a mockery of the television industry’s demands for tokenism (compare with Big Bang Theory).
Barney and Robin’s characters directly defy the presuppositions made of what ought be expected of them. And this is what the whole show is about. Its about performing contradictionsand providing commentary on the assumptions placed onto a particular show or character by the industry, society, and, hell, myself as Viewer of All Things Legen – wait for it – dary.