Does Kids' TV Reflect Society?
(2021 • 11 • 03)
Children pick up a lot from the TV they watch - it teaches them about the world beyond their immediate surroundings. But exactly how representative of that world is the television children watch?
For the first 18-or-so years of our lives (give or take), many of us live in a bit of a bubble. We know the people on our street, the other children at our school or nursery, and we might visit family further afield. However, chances are, the society we grow up in isn’t a perfect representation of the world - or even country - as a whole.
For this reason, the way different people, cultures, and ways of life are represented in media is an important way of teaching children about the world. It exposes them to other ways of thinking and living, and provides them with an understanding and appreciation of lives that differ from their own. Without this representation - or if the representations are based on stereotypes - those children may grow into adults who struggle to understand or communicate effectively with certain groups. Or, especially in cases of disabilities or gender and sexual identities, they may even grow up knowing that they are different from their family and friends, but struggling to understand how or why.
Founded in 2004, the Geena Davies Institute on Gender in Media works with the entertainment industry to create gender-balanced, inclusive media for families. Last year, they published a study that looked at the top shows for children produced in the US, and assessed their representations of gender, race, LGBTQ+ identity, disability, age and body size. Let’s take a look at the results!
Representations of gender in children's TV are a mixed bag. On a positive note, female characters’ screen time and speaking time were at an all time high, at 58.7% and 58.8% of total time respectively.
Unfortunately, however, only 45% of children’s TV episodes feature a female lead, which is in fact a decrease from 52% in 2018. On top of this, female characters were found to be three times more likely to be shown in revealing clothes or partially nude, and four times more likely to be sexualised, while male characters were more than twice as likely to be depicted as working in STEM. On the flip side, male characters were slightly more likely to be depicted as violent, and twice as likely to engage in criminal activity.
Less than two thirds of episodes were able to pass the Bechdel test.
So, while impressive progress has been made in screen time for female characters, gender stereotypes are still being heavily enforced in children’s media.
In the US, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) constitute a little under 40% of the population. Here in the UK, BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity) people make up around 14% of the total population, although this rises to 40% in London.
The study found that 31.9% of leads in American children’s television were BIPOC. While this isn’t yet representative of the wider population, it did show a striking improvement on the 26.1% of the previous year.
Additionally, while people of colour were 2.3% more likely to be depicted as violent, they were also 3.7% more likely to be shown as leaders. This suggests that, while stereotyping and inequality do certainly still exist for minority ethnicities in children’s television, these disparities have been improving!
This was, sadly, one of the categories that fared the worst: less than 1% of characters in children’s TV shows identified as LGBTQ+, and the few that did were more likely to be verbally objectified.
While we do not have population estimates for every group included in the LGBTQ+ umbrella (including trans people), in the UK, those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual make up 2.7 of people aged over 16, and an estimated 4.2% of 16 to 24 year olds.
So, representations of the LGBTQ+ community are severely lacking in media - not just for young people, but in TV for all ages: another study by the Geena Davies Institute found that none of the top US TV shows for any age featured a lead character who identified as LGBTQ+.
In the UK, 8% of children and 19% of working age adults are disabled. However, only 0.8% of all characters in the top children’s TV shows were depicted as having a cognitive, communication or physical disability. Of these, over 7% were shown as actively trying to ‘overcome’ their disability, reinforcing the ideas that able-bodied people are ‘superior’, and that living a ‘normal’ life as a disabled person is a matter of choice, rather than a result of institutional and structural barriers.
On top of this, disabled characters were less likely to be depicted as smart, attractive, having a job or being involved in a romantic relationship. Thus, not only are disabled characters thoroughly underrepresented, but they are subject to hurtful stereotypes as well.
Larger Body Types
In the shows surveyed, characters with larger body types only made up 5.9% of leading characters and 11.3% of all characters.
What does this mean for parents?
While some improvements have been made over recent years in the depiction of BIPOC and female characters, there are still large sections of society that are heavily underrepresented and over-stereotyped in children’s media.
Given the prevalence of television in modern society, it can feel nigh on impossible to ensure your little one is only having positive learning experiences while consuming visual media. There are however, a few things you can do:
- Try to seek out media containing positive representations
This doesn’t always have to be TV, either. Films about other cultures, books with LGBTQ+ characters or feminist retellings of fairy tails will all contribute to your child’s education.
- Watch together
Try to remain aware of everything your little one is watching regularly, and keep an eye out for damaging stereotypes.
- Discuss what they see
If your little one does watch anything where negative stereotypes are present, talk to them about it. You can discuss why they are wrong, and what a better version of that character might look like. You can also teach them to look out for stereotypes in adverts!
If you want to share your recommendations for TV and other media for children, or if you have any questions, drop us a message via our Instagram… and keep an eye out this week for our newsletter, where we’ll be sharing some of our favourite children’s books featuring underrepresented characters!
Content Creator at MEplace