It’s nearly inarguable that the state of movies, shows and other creative content is more diverse and representative of the American public than ever before. Little girls and black children are seeing themselves as superheroes in movies. Teens questioning their sexuality can see their own plight on TV.
The steppingstone to this veritable golden age for representation in media is marked by a transitional period of tokenism that is more and more evidently becoming an unacceptable form of representation as allyship takes the driver’s seat in content creating.
Women and nonwhite people have almost always had a presence in media, but it’s rife with racism and sexism. From the innumerable instances of blackface in early cinema or the ways that women were controlled by men on and off screen, the demography of media has slowly changed for the better.
Speaking more recently, nonwhite and LGBTQ characters have been sidekicks to leads. The “Gay Best Friend” is a well-known trope, and for a long time was the only basis for LGBTQ representation. Just as familiar is the thought of a sassy black girl or hot-tempered Latina accompanying the leading lady through her school’s hallowed halls. Take as more proof, the Asian friend who gets all A’s and probably has trouble with the ladies.
Too often the movies and shows of the past — think ‘90s or 2000s — have mistaken cliché ridden tokenism for actual representation, but shoe-horning in a gay friend or a black friend didn’t negate that the stories being told were white and straight.
But white, straight stories are what sell tickets, though, aren’t they? This myth is being proven wrong again and again. Today is a time when consumers are increasingly putting their money where their mouths are, and that means that they’re watching what and who they want to see, resulting in box office successes for movies made by, for and about women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.
Director Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” is a great example of the success of allyship and true representation in content creating, and specifically of the shift from tokenism to representation. The creator of Wonder Woman, William Marston, created the character around 1941 as a kind of feminist icon, modeled to resemble Rosie the Riveter, with the goal of empowering women who worked on the war effort while men were away fighting.
Despite Marston’s efforts at what this article would call allyship, Wonder Woman was unfortunately subjected to 75 years of iterations of her character that lacked that feminist shine when looked at too closely. Marston himself often portrayed her bound and submissive, and her character was reduced to secretary of the Justice League at one point in her still ongoing stint as a beloved comic book superheroine.
While Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” is not a flawless undertaking of feminist movie production, it does what Diana’s own maker could not and gave her autonomy.
In a similar fashion but in a different genre, Princess Jasmine is given new agency in Disney’s “Aladdin” live-action remake. While the new “Aladdin” is not perfect and renews a lot of the cultural blunders from the original, a real plus in the live-action version is seeing Jasmine with a goal.
She’s no longer asking for the bare minimum by wanting to be viewed as an individual and given freedom, but she wants to become sultan herself, and her frustration at being shot down is explored in her new solo song, “Speechless.”
Representation for the LGBTQ community has also been making moves toward mainstream representation. Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” for example, a movie about a young, gay, black man, dramatically won the Oscar for Best Picture over “La La Land” in a highly publicized mix-up at the 2017 Oscar Awards.
“La La Land” was a movie about another straight, white couple pursuing artistic dreams in Los Angeles while also evoking white saviorism as Ryan Gosling’s character felt a righteous need to revive jazz, a music genre created by black people; “Moonlight’s” monumental win was a step in the right direction for both the black and LGBTQ+ communities.
In the past when fewer women and minorities held positions of power in the production of movies, especially those that centered around them, not only was true, deep representation given up in favor for tokenism or “face-value” representation, but creators seemed to not be able to strike the right balance in their characters, resulting in shaky two-dimensional characters whose characterization relied on stereotypes.
Think of any “strong female character” created in the ‘90s. No question that the character is likely emotionally stunted, has few female friends, is some kind of trained fighter, had several older brothers or any combination of those and more. Traditionally “strong female characters” are almost always misunderstood and misrepresented as a fighting vixen assassin with the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old boy, if she even shows an inclination toward emotion.
The creation of such shoddy characters is the main reason why the cardinal rule of allyship is to use positions of power to raise up and advocate for those who can’t for themselves, or even to give them said power. Who knows what “Wonder Woman” would have looked like if a woman were not directing? What would “Black Panther” have been if Ryan Coogler, a black man, had been overlooked in favor of a white director?
What’s more, “Wonder Woman,” “Black Panther,” “Captain Marvel” and the new “Aladdin” as well as other movies like “Girls Trip,” “Love, Simon,” “Moonlight” and “Crazy Rich Asians” were all successes at either the box office or various award shows. Consumers are proving movie moguls wrong and paying to see what they want, and what they want to see is themselves.
What gives the movement toward allyship and representation over tokenism real momentum is the unifying of marginalized communities. More and more, minorities in one group advocate seeing movies made about a different minority group in theaters and are effectively sending the message that the time for passive tokenism is over, and it seems the message is being received.