Definition of the Trope: The Token is the one that is found on the ship or group of heroes – made to meet quota by simply showing up and looking somewhat cute. However, she will not have much of a part to play in the show at any point, because the writers and producers responsible are too busy trying to curry favor with the audience by playing up the Caucasian woman who stars on the show – and can’t seem to find a way to write women of color other than putting them in the background. The role that they will play on the show will be limited, their agency will also be very limited in scope.
Why the Trope Fails: Much like some shows past and present will write in a female character in a nearly all-male show to avoid “The National Organization for Women” from breathing down their necks, so too would shows introduce a Black Female character to blunt “The NAACP” from sending a big protest group to their door. Unlike the other versions to follow, the Token is a blatant [Not Really Even] “Affirmative Action” hire and sticking the person in the show’s equivalent of a company’s Human Resources department. This character is trotted out when the showrunners are looking for Diversity Cookies or attempting to avoid a broadsides attack upon their race and/or gender privileges. In the end, they fail the character; the story they were looking to tell; and the story that could have been told if they were not so busy playing these kinds of games.
Additional Trope Notes: Version 1 Trope members will often cohabitate the other Tropes. The idea is that the character was created, most likely, for the purpose of looking like a forward-thinking show. Unfortunately, the character is simply window dressing at best – or the planting of false hopes that this character, like the others, will be given a shot at being in the forefront to do something worthwhile within the show.
How to Avoid Falling for the Trope: Instead of looking to place a Woman of Color into your cast simply because one is needed to fill some missing diversity demographic, create a fully fleshed out character, allowing her to demonstrate self-determination and the ability to perform the job well – and cast that role to a Woman of Color. As I state in the reasons for the Token Trope being a story failure, if you spend your time creating a character for the sake of a diversity token, you end up wasting everyone’s time, most of all your own.
Example of the Trope: Commander Uhura from the Star Trek Movie series. Starting from The Motion Picture, Commander Uhura is given very little do in the film (actually, anyone not named Kirk, McCoy, or Decker gets shafted. Incidentally, this movie should be renamed Mr. Spock Transforms Into Super Mary Sue.) When Spock deduces that the communications equipment needed to be modified to have their message received by the aliens, Uhura – the person responsible for operation and maintenance of the Communications Equipment – is thrown by the wayside for the entirety of the sequence.
Part 2, when V’ger transmits the signal to Earth, it is Spock who once again who analyzes the communications signal. Uhura is simply left in the background, left to do nothing except report that V’Ger has cut off the signal when it decides to throw a fit when it does not get the information it wants.
Next, we step to The Wrath of Khan, Uhura is shunted to the side before, during, and after the Reliant’s attack on the Enterprise by Khan. Nearly all of her lines are based on her opening and closing hailing frequencies. And with the ship under attack – and the crew, aside from the Main Cast being nothing but trainees, Uhura is never shown doing much of anything to assist in the repairs or lending her greater experience to do much at all.
We’re not done. It gets worse in The Search for Spock. When the crew decides to retrieve Spock’s body from the Genesis planet, everyone boards the Enterprise to get him back. Everyone that is, except Commander Uhura. Of course, this forces the bridge crew to do some odd changes. Sulu remains at the helm – but Scotty is the new navigator…and Chekov is the new Science AND Communications officer. For a full 40 minutes plus, we see nothing of Uhura after the boys beam aboard the Enterprise. After looking at the movie several different times, there is still no plausible movie reason why Commander Uhura is left behind.
The character of Lt. Uhura in Star Trek (The Original Series) was unheard in the 1960s. A Black Woman, portrayed as a military officer aboard a space ship in the Future…and not portraying the traditional Hollywood stereotypes assigned to Black Women in Cinema? Unfortunately, because Black Women have been so vilified, so horribly treated in Hollywood, that simply the presence of a Black Woman as a mere Token character not portraying negative Hollywood Stereotypes of Black Women was considered a huge victory. This speaks volumes, not only about the impact of such a character, but of Hollywood and American Society in general. Nichelle Nichols brought a dignity to Lt. Uhura, and inspired many a generation of African-American women to become something more (Whoopi Goldberg, who would star in Star Trek: The Next Generation as Guinan; and Dr. Mae Jamison, former NASA Astronaut; both credit Nichelle as Uhura for their inspiration).
Having said all of this, Lt. Uhura was not allowed to join many landing parties or perform other duties than, sadly, as not much more than a glorified interstellar telephone operator. Any opportunity for Lt. Uhura to be a fully realized character, along with any chance to save the day, would be relegated to the non-canonical novel releases, as well as the Animated Series (in particular, “The Lorelei Signal”).
So, as much as I would love to make Lt. Uhura the exception in any discussion of WoC Token-izing, not to do so would ultimately be doing the concept of Uhura’s character a tremendous disservice; Uhura’s presence in televised Science Fiction was groundbreaking, but not to point out the shortcomings would mean that Uhura, having been relegated to a pretty background, would be acceptable as a character model when it is not.
[Additional Note: I am not going to take on Zoe Saldana’s version of Lt. Uhura until I have had a chance to actually view the J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek. I have a passing interest in seeing what 40 years does to the sensibility of a character. But given Hollywood’s treatment of Women of Color in general, I do not hold out much hope.]
Example of the Trope: Lieutenant Ilia of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. She comes aboard the ship as the ship’s new navigator (as Chekov has been promoted and has taken over Security and Tactical). She doesn’t do much as navigator – and many of her early “work” lines were cut in the Director’s version. The backstory she is given is that she is Commander Decker’s ex-girlfriend from years ago. Now that they have been reunited, they find that there are still some sparks between them. Of course, this gets vaporized when she gets digitized by V’Ger. She comes back – as “Ilia Probe,” a know-little automaton with super-strength and a soft spot for Commander Decker, whom she never refers to her ex-boyfriend as a “Unit” like she does the others. When Decker enters the final codes for V’ger to complete its programming, Ilia Probe “joins” with Decker.
Example of the Trope: Nya, the Mongol Princess from Stargate SG-1 episode “Emancipation”. Keep in mind that the episode in question was supposed to be about her, but the writers wanted to make a more “Action Feminist” version of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode “Code of Honor,” (which is held up by the legions of Star Trek fans as The Worst Star Trek Episode ever made.) so the decision was made to have Samantha Carter, the blond girl of the show, to be the “fighting woman” of the episode, because that was supposed to be ‘the empowering moment that makes us cheer.’
This episode is also a prime example of completely disempowering the native Women of Color on this planet. Specifically, the fetish-ized Mongol/Asian Women of the captured “Harem.” None of them are allowed any kind of agency whatsoever. They save Sam Carter the humiliation of being tortured. Even the rival Mongol Prince Abu, who loves the crown princess of the “enemy” tribe, is not allowed any agency in this episode.
Example of the Trope: Freya from Aeon Flux: The Movie. She was the assistant of Trevor Goodchild, who is known as the Chairman (and the “Antagonist” until it was revealed that it was his brother that was the real enemy). She would be left in charge of the lab while he and Aeon would go off somewhere else. She shows up later in the film…dead.
Example of the Trope: Dualla from Battlestar Galactica: Reimagined. When you look at the way this show unfolded in the first season, anyone who wasn’t Caucasian wasn’t given a moment of “Cool.” This was the case for Sharon Valerii (Boomer), whom got casted as a different Trope. Duella, on the other, was used to fill another quota, and then was given tragic moment after sad & angsty moment. For the moment, it seems, Duella doesn’t inhabit the other Tropes, so she starts here at the Version 1 Trope. She is supposed to be background fodder, especially compared to Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck character – and to a smaller extent, Mary McConnell’s Laura Roslin.