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Token Appreciation

Philip Burrowes

When Doris “Dorie” Miller served on the U.S.S. West Virginia, he -- like so many other African-Americans -- did so in the position of Mess Attendant, Third Class. Nevertheless, during the Japanese military’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, his attending to wounded shipmates and subsequent manning of of an anti-aircraft machine gun earned him the Navy Cross. He eventually won several other medals and died while serving as Ship’s Cook, Third Class on the U.S.S. Liscome Bay in 1943. It is a fascinating story that exemplifies the racial situation of this nation’s military and has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of the already-blockbuster “epic” Pearl Harbor.

Oh, it manages to find its way in, but it is wholly superfluous to the unfortunately auxiliary love story and vestigial bombing of Tokyo. So why, exactly, does Academy Award-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. have a part in the “historical” picture? His character is one in a long line of token characters which have appeared in the entertainment media.

A token character is one who possesses characteristics distinct from the rest of a cast for the express purpose of having distinct characteristics. Gooding’s character is probably there for the economic reason of drawing more blacks to the theater. Other characters have existed merely to quiet the consciences of their creators, as Stan Lee has said of black superheroes like Black Panther and Luke Cage. Still others exist for the destructive purpose of denigrating (so to speak) the Other, such as Eric Berger (Eric Axen), the Annoying White Friend in American Desi.

Yet the greatest threat any token character represents is not the possibility of mocking another race. Those are instead among the more memorable tokens, such as Chad, the bourgeoisified Asian in Budweiser’s “What Are You Doing?” ads. No, the problem is that a token character doesn’t need to have any redeeming characteristics aside from his token-ness. This produces horribly bland figures. Some of that can be attributed to the generally low quality of any product which resorts to tokens, such as the infamous “The All-New Super Friends Hour/Challenge of the Super Friends” series (which perhaps featured more tokens than any other work). Even brilliant creators, however, may have lackluster results when using tokens. Charles Schulz’s strip Peanuts, however rife with one-dimensional characters, occasionally featured the comparatively zero-dimensional token black in Franklin.

Such situations make tokens all the more frustrating; how could good entertainers take part in them? Aside from Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey on Saturday Night Live and In Living Color, for example, sketch comedy shows have never produced genuinely funny moments involving tokens. That’s true even though SNL alone has been home at one point or another to legions of talented tokens: Garret Morris, Damon Wayans, Chris Rock, and, debatedly, Tim Meadows. FOX’s SNL clone Mad TV has fared no better with Aries Spears or Orlando Jones, with the former turning in some decent performances elsewhere and the latter having left altogether for “stardom.”

Jones is currently playing the token black in the action-comedy Evolution, following the fine tradition of Jim Brown and Ernie Hudson. That film features Julianne Moore as the token woman, a group which is not to be forgotten in the midst of its racial counterparts. Female tokens often appear in genres skewed towards males, where women might otherwise be relegated to romantic interests. Sci-fi’s Star Trek (the original series), the action-adventure Knight Rider, and the James Bond series each featured only one woman that did not end up with the male lead in the end. Paradoxically, Nyota Uhura, Bonnie Barstow, and Miss Moneypenny were all sexual beings because they were not subject to the wiles of male protagonists, but at least they weren’t discarded after each episode.

Tokens only attain worth once they are given some attributes beyond their tokenism. Robet Guillaume’s spirited characterization of Benson, the token black butler in Soap, earned him his own spin-off, yet Rosco Lee Browne’s service as his replacement, Saunders, was forgettable. Inspector Gadget had a very PC but popular token child in Penny, while Hanna-Barbera cartoons were saddled with cookie-cutter teen sidekicks (Jan and Jace = Zan and Jayna). The Jeffersons were far better counterparts to the Bunkers in All in the Family than the Willises would ever be on The Jeffersons. In each case, cherished characters transcend the specific stereotypes of those they represent. Benson was anything but a Stepin Fetchit, Penny was smart despite being a blond female, and the Jeffersons were affluent yet not assimilated.

Nonetheless, each was also limited by his or her token status. However brilliantly written or portrayed, tokens inherently do a disservice to those they target. That problem lies not with actors and artists, but with the audience. So long as we accept someone as a token, we strip him of the impetus to develop otherwise. If seeing certain groups depicted within the media is so important to us, it should be important that they are depicted honestly, in all meanings of the word.