A young Black woman sits on a couch with a book in her lap, watching a TV

Diversity in Children’s TV for Better Children’s Mental Health

I have a vivid memory of being in kindergarten and being called Dora, the name of the titular character from the children’s show Dora the Explorer. I was a chubby Mexican child, and those comparisons increased when I cut my hair to shoulder length, which only made me look even more like her. I couldn’t tell whether those comparisons were intentionally malicious, but I was constantly frustrated by them and I didn’t have the language to articulate why.

Diversity in children’s TV, specifically cartoons, has a checkered history. The popularity of minstrel shows overlapped with the development of early animation. Before the rise of animation, minstrel shows established character archetypes that would have been familiar to viewers; early animated shorts used those same tropes in their stories as well.[1] In fact, early shorts were imitations of minstrel shows. For example, in the 1933 short ”Mickey’s Mellerdrammer,” Mickey Mouse and friends perform a minstrel rendition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The comedy centered on the different ways the cast puts on blackface to do the play. Nicholas Sammond has argued that early American cartoon figures like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny weren’t just mimicking minstrels, but were minstrels themselves. He writes that many of the character designs were derived from minstrel costumes, such as Mickey’s white gloves. Similarly, the common design of black-bodied characters with big white eyes and exaggerated lips reflects minstrelsy.

Many attempts have been made to rectify this sordid past. One method has been the corporate apology for previous errors. Warner Brothers Studios has acknowledged and apologized for the imagery in modern-day redistributions of older shorts. For example, on the DVD releases of older Looney Tunes shorts, there is a message recognizing the prejudices depicted in the cartoons and how it was wrong then and now. While it is commendable that Warner Brothers has apologized, it is not enough. Apologies with no identifiable plans for how they will fix their mistakes will be seen as performative at best and a sweep under the rug at worst. They need to rectify and make amends to the audience they have hurt by including more representation of marginalized communities, including Black and Brown, transgender, and queer characters.

Mickey Mouse poster
The Meller Drammer poster in Mickey’s Movie Barn. (Loren Javier/Flickr)

However, the need to have more representation and to discuss difficult issues in children’s television clashes with the parents who want to be in charge of what children should watch. Many parents want to be in control of what their children watch and their outrage even extends to when shows attempt to add diversity. For example, in May 2019, Arthur, a PBS production, released an episode in which Mr. Ratburn married another man. Due to the its content, Alabama Public Television (APT) refused to air the episode. Mike McKenzie, director of programming at APT, said that airing the episode would have taken away parents’ ability to decide what is appropriate for their children. According to McKenzie, they could not have known about the content of the episode prior to it airing, so it would be “a violation of trust to broadcast the episode.” But censoring content that parents disagree with dampens their child’s ability to empathize with people who may not look like them. It also prevents children from underrepresented communities from seeing themselves on screen, which can harm their mental health. The mental health of children should take priority over the parents’ outrage.

APT’s stance mirrors a common parental fear: having TV take over the parental role of introducing tough topics to children. Proponents believe such TV takes away the parents’ agency and that children aren’t ready to handle such topics, but that’s not the case. By ages 3 to 6, children can recognize physical differences between peers, such as skin tone, even though they may not have the vocabulary to identify specific labels. During this stage, children also become self-aware and can acknowledge their physical characteristics and make connections. Upon repeated exposure to certain portrayals, children will recognize ethnic-racial identities, including their own. The most crucial part about this stage is that children can feel and associate positive or negative feelings toward these characteristics. Children are social and emotional sponges. One study found that white children were twice as likely to stereotype Black children as unintelligent or prone to violence.[2]

For marginalized communities, the effects of being presented constantly with discrimination can be detrimental to children’s mental health. Studies have shown that Black children who were exposed to stereotypical representations of themselves had lower self-esteem, and associated negative emotions with themselves and their ethnic-racial identity.[3] In 127 studies on the effects of discrimination on a child, 76% found a correlation between increased exposure to stereotypical images and lower mental health. Yet, when children are exposed to media that is inclusive to their culture, there is a positive association as they build pride and affirmation in the child.[4] Children’s creativity and problem-solving skills increase when they’re placed in groups of varying ethnic, racial, and immigration statuses. The effects of poor or missing positive representation can have drastic negative effects on a child’s mental health; however, diverse exposure can build empathy, pride, and self-confidence.

Though it has been nearly a century since “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer,” we still do not have much positive representation in children’s television. In 2019, the Center for Scholar and Storytellers published a report analyzing the content of US and Canadian children’s TV. They examined nearly 500 programs and 2,000 main characters on popular channels including Cartoon Network, Disney, and Nickelodeon. Specifically, in the United States, 65% of main characters were white. Only 38% were female and only 1% were explicitly shown to have a physical disability, even though 20% of the US population at the time lived with a disability of some kind.

As this study suggests, there’s a clear gap between the life that the media shows to children and real life. While parents have a right to be concerned about what their kids are watching, children also deserve to have media that reflects what the world is like. They deserve to see themselves in positions of heroism and positivity. Black children deserve to see themselves beyond racial stereotypes; gay children deserve to see characters who experience love the same way they do; and disabled children deserve to be seen. Even though content directed towards children has shifted from television to online streaming services, there needs to be a bigger push towards more inclusive and thoughtful programming.

When I was younger, I didn’t have the language to describe why being compared to Dora frustrated me so much. Now I can: my classmates always made the tired joke that she was stupid because she could never find the item she asks the audience to look for and because she spoke so slowly. I had internalized that: if she was stupid and they compared me to her, then I was stupid too. As I grew older, I would latch onto every ambiguously brown character who even remotely had a similar skin tone as I did to separate myself from her. I want to get into the TV/Film animation workplace, and a dream of mine is to create a show that has the positive representation that I never had the chance to grow up with. I want to tell the stories that I needed to see. I understand that I have a responsibility as an artist to be mindful of the effects my art can have on other people, and I can simply hope that I’m able to wield that power responsibly.

Notes

    1. Nicholas Sammond, Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation (Duke University Press, 2016), 3.
    2. David R. Williams, “Stress and the Mental Health of Populations of Color: Advancing Our Understanding of Race-Related Stressors.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 59, no. 4, 2018: 466–85 https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146518814251. 
    3. Riva Tukachinsky, Dana Mastro, and Moran Yarchi, “The Effect of Prime Time Television Ethnic/Racial Stereotypes on Latino and Black Americans: A Longitudinal National Level Study.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 61, no. 3, (2017): 538–56. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2017.1344669. 
    4. Helen Adam, Caroline Barratt-Pugh, and Yvonne Haig “‘Portray Cultures Other than Ours’: How Children’s Literature Is Being Used to Support the Diversity Goals of the Australian Early Years Learning Framework.” Australian Educational Researcher 46 (2019): 549–63. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13384-019-00302-w.

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