Representation in children’s media and why it matters

Show writers are starting to put in more effort to give minorities a bigger spotlight by having characters of color be in the main role with films such as Raya and the last dragon and Moana and have began making the effort to portray different cultures in a more accurate way.

Children’s animation has been around since the 1800s, with animations being made in black and white without any dialogue. Since then children’s animation has come a long way, with more advanced technology being introduced every year, it has become easier for artists to create more detailed animation and bring their imaginations to life.

Animation has given children the chance to visualize ideas that they could only dream of and has given them the inspiration they need to run wild with their imagination.

However despite the improvement in quality with animation over the years, one common thing that children’s animation has been lacking is the representation of minorities

When you look back at all the old cartoons you watched growing up such as the classic Disney movies, you will notice that the entire cast of characters have all one thing in common, they almost always happen to be white with little to no characters of color. With a popular example being with all the early disney movies, in which all the main protagonists being fair skinned, white characters.

In the 1970s, a study was conducted by Boston University on children’s television, in which professor F. Earle Barcus concluded that there was a large differences between the number of white characters and characters of color, in which there were more white characters than characters of color.

In 1983, another study was conducted by Barcus in which he analyzed over 1000 children’s cartoons and found that amongst 1000 characters, there were only about 42 black characters and only 47 other non-white characters

The few characters of colors that were present in children’s media back then were almost always reduced to a stereotype, particularly with the early Disney movies. The popular film, Fantasia, for example, portrays a black centaur being drawn with racially insensitive features such as overly big lips, and had the character be portrayed as a servant to a white centaur. 

Disney removed the character from any later versions of the film.

Another example of Disney portraying racist stereotypes in films is with their movie Aladdin which portrays Arabic people as barbarians and dresses the characters in clothing that is not at all accurate to traditional Arabic clothing. The film received protests from many Arab groups who believed that it was racially offensive and it is still receiving backlash to this day.

In the film Peter Pan, Indigenous people are drawn in a way that is meant to be unflattering, with the characters being drawn with conventionally unattractive features, including offensive stereotypical features such as having black feet, big noses and overly red skin. The characters are referred to as “savages” and “less intelligent.” The chief of the tribe is also drawn in a way that doesn’t make him seem human and is portrayed as someone who is always angry.

Disney has attempted to make up for their racist past before by placing warnings on films such as Peter Pan, Fantasia, Dumbo and many other of their films that portray racist stereotypes, along with a brief statement on how they acknowledge that what the company did was wrong.

While Disney may not be the only company guilty of this kind of behavior, they are one of the more popular examples and are the reason as to why offensive racial stereotypes are so popular in all kinds of media.

Disney is one of the biggest companies to date, with them owning 11 companies in the year 2020 alone. The company is well known worldwide and their films have had one of the biggest impacts on both children and adults alike, this can be applied to many factors such as the magical stories that are being told, the iconic animation, but most importantly, the portrayal of minorities and how that affects the children who watch them. Dorothy L. Hurrel of Eastern University has written her own piece in which she details how the way children of colour see themselves in films can affect their own self image.

“The Fairy Tale is one of the longest existing genres in children’s literature, through the ages children have formed mental images of the princesses and other characters and other characters depicted in these tales from their representation in the written text as well as in the illustrations that have often accompanies those texts” She says.

The article then references a study by Taxes in which the study argues that what children see on screen and in literature shapes they’re beliefs, so having children grow up seeing only white characters on screen leads them to believe those who are white are more important or desirable.

Outside of Disney films, phycologists and people of color have both spoken out in the lack of racial diversity in all forms of children’s med and how its impact on society

“Young children’s racial beliefs are heavily influenced by their environments. Silence about race doesn’t prevent children from noticing racial and other differences; instead, silence inhibits them from asking questions and having conversations about it. This is an especially important issue in classrooms lacking racial and ethnic diversity,” Erin Wrinkler, Phd, says

A study was conducted by Tukachinsky, Mastro, & Yarchi in 2017, in which they concluded that a lack of diversity in children’s media can affect the self esteem of those under-represented minorities, showing the black children are more likely to have lower self esteem than white children.

“If young people are watching negative depictions, or are not seeing themselves reflected at all, in their favorite shows, they may begin to feel invisible or unimportant. They lose the opportunity to see people with their identities and features being portrayed in a positive way,” Jordan Levison wrote to Psychology in Action.

People of color have also spokenout themselves on the lack of racial diversity.

Mr Begho, a film creator, says “in-terms of diversity and in order to understand one another better it is important all children see diversity in books and the media.” 

“If they do not see themselves on TV, they want to be someone else,” one Black child said to CBC

A poll was conducted by the child advocacy group “Children Now” in which children of color were interviewed on how often they see their own race being portrayed in television shown. Asians and Latinoos reported not seeing their race nearly as represented as white people.

Children’s media companies such as Disney have began putting the effort to represent different cultures with films such as Moana and Raya and The Last Dragon, both of which received positive reviews from critics for the way they accurately portrayed cultures. 

However two films are not enough, children’s media need to do more to portray people of color with their own unique personalities instead of reducing them to stereotypes. Representation in media is needed to humanize people of color and make them feel just as special as white people. The children of color of this generation need someone who looks like them to look up to, they need more characters that they can see themselves in order for them to feel more proud and comfortable in their own skin and I hope that these new era of children’s movie will give the children the representation we needed in our own childhoods 

The lack of diversity in children’s media has been an issue for years and companies are only now starting to put in the effort to change that

1 comment on “Representation in children’s media and why it matters

  1. Pingback: The Capabilities I Have Demonstrated Throughout My Work in New Media Lab – Go Ara 294079581

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