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Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Truth about Female Tokenism

FEMINISM - Imagine a TV show or cartoon. It doesn't have to be a new one, an older cartoon or TV show will work. Is it balanced in terms of male and female roles?

Lets take Star Trek, The Original Series as an example. How many women are part of the main cast? Two if you count Nurse Chapel (who later leaves but continues doing the voice for the computer) and Lieutenant Commander Uhura (played by actor Nichelle Nichols).

Now its important not to understress the role Nichelle Nichols played at the time (1966-1969). She was one of the first African-American women in a major TV role and also shares the first interracial kiss on television with William Shatner.

Nichols had originally planned to leave Star Trek in 1967 after its first season, but a conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr. persuaded her to stay, stating that she was a role model for the black community.

But what about the female community? We can only assume she played a role for women too... although we must remember Uhura's role was largely that of a secretary.

Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to become an astronaut and actor Whoopi Goldberg (who later played Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation) both pay tribute to Uhura the character. Because Star Trek is such a widespread cultural phenomenon Uhura's token role was actually a major role and a huge positive influence.

Now lets talk about the negative influence of tokenism.

And for this example I am going to use He-Man... or more specifically the only female heroine in the cartoon, Teela. The thing about Teela however is that while she is warrior in the show, she is often depicted as a damsel in distress so He-Man can rescue her (which happens a bit too often). He-Man ran from 1983-1985 and was later relaunched in 2002-2004 for two seasons.

For the purposes of discussion below we will be speaking about the original 1983-85 series.

The storyline also includes the Sorceress (who is essentially a guide / damsel-in-distress) and a twin sister "Evil-Lyn". The duality of Teela and Evil-Lyn cannot be ignored. The two characters are identical with the exception of clothing and personality... the message however is obvious: Teela is good and Evil-Lyn is evil, and their actions are likewise good/evil. Its very black and white and leaves no room for grey. Evil-Lyn isn't just "bad", she can't help being evil. Even if she tried to do a good deed her evilness would cause her to pervert it into something evil... or at least that is what the show suggests.

As token characters Teela and Evil-lyn thus form a metaphor/message for all women. Some women are goodie two shoes and other women are just plain evil. Its a 50/50 split. It also says several other things:

#1. Female warriors are good, female magic-users are evil.
#2. There are very few females in the roles of heroines or villainesses.
#3. Females are weak, easily captured and need to be rescued by He-Man.

This isn't exactly inspiring young women to enter male-dominated careers. What its saying instead is that women are a rarity in such roles and are essentially a liability.

And its the same for many other TV shows, especially cartoons with a token female character. In the case of He-Man the show was reasonably popular with young girls and ended up with the spin-off series She-Ra... which was essentially a whole world populated by amazon women warriors (both good and evil). Oh and the character "Bow" is basically a male version of Teela, a token male amongst amazons. She-Ra basically uses the same formula as He-Man, but in reverse.

The trick about She-Ra however is that her story starts her off as an evil character with a spell on her and was raised as a baby by the villain Hordak. She-Ra only becomes good after He-Man breaks the spell on her / convinces her that her "father" is evil.

You can watch the whole thing here: He-Man & She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword

She-Ra also has quite a few female villains like the aptly named Shadow Weaver (whom you never see her face) and also Scorpia, Catra, Octavia, Entrapta, etc... its battle royale of the evil amazons vs the good amazons.

And then there's the metaphor... She-Ra is a leader of the Rebellion, which fights against the mostly-male Horde which dominates her world. Its a crude metaphor for patriarchy vs feminism and I am not so sure it works so well.

The whole She-Ra world (Etheria) is basically an overcompensation to botching the He-Man world (Eternia) and an attempt to appease a mostly female audience with parents who are worried about what their kids are watching... hence why feminism is portrayed as a metaphor and the Rebellion are essentially freedom fighters. (FEMINIST = FREEDOM FIGHTER, I really like that definition.) If they had been overly blatant about the metaphor the more conservative parents might have become upset.

Remember the Hercules: Legendary Journeys TV series starring Kevin Sorbo? It lasted 111 episodes and spawned an even bigger spinoff... Xena: Warrior Princess, starring Lucy Lawless with 134 episodes.

Not surprisingly Xena has some remarkable similarities to She-Ra. She starts off as evil and then Hercules manages to convince her to become good. Sounds familiar right?

However the similarities soon disappear as Xena is obviously a post-feminist with a healthy sexual libido. The show is just as much for men as it is for women, although the plot does become rather complex in later episodes and the show becomes a bit soap-opera-ish... Xena also has a somewhat ambiguous sexuality, judging from one scene where she kisses her sidekick Gabrielle leading to a whole argument that Xena is bisexual or lesbian... Does it really matter? It struck a blow for lesbians/bisexuals, just be happy about it.

Conclusions

Female tokenism in television is essentially a bad idea. While some good can come from tokenism, its far better to have roughly a 50/50 split. Star Trek: The Next Generation is a good example of this, as the first season starts off with Tasha Yar, Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher... three characters with specific roles as warrior, romantic-love-interest/shrink and doctor. The success of Star Trek: TNG shows a balance between male and female roles is not a detriment.

Furthermore when tokenism becomes too overt, especially in a popular show, you can expect a backlash or female-dominated spinoff show as a result. Smart writers would be wiser to create a balanced show from the beginning and save themselves the trouble of having to create a spinoff show later on.

1 comment:

  1. An even better example might be the rebbooted Galactica, a roughly 50:50 split in genders, with no perceptible bias towards mumsy roles for women.

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