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The Importance of Diverse Representation in Children’s Media

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Every week, children of all different genders, races, and sexualities consume over 35 hours of television; this time estimate doesn’t even include time spent on a tablet, computer, or gaming console either. Mass exposure to the media has a great effect on the development of young children’s minds and their inner feelings of self worth and confidence. It showcases the need for representation of minority groups in media designed for children.

A recent study done by Communications Research has yielded disturbing, yet predictable results. The study was created by two Indiana professors to observe the relationship between media intake in 396 preteens and their level of self esteem over the course of a year. At the end, the professors found that white boys enjoyed a healthy self esteem boost after watching television whereas white girls and black preteens of both genders ushered in a decrease in self esteem.

This study also revealed detrimental stereotypes that should have been ditched in the 60s, though they still linger in our media today. These stereotypes include strong (white) male leads, damsels in distress, menacing black men, and what Marissa Lee- a writer who fights for entertainment equality- calls the “exotic and sexually available” black woman.

These stereotypes have been prevalent since the dawn of radio and television, and it seems that they may continue to slither around the foreground of our TV screens for all of eternity. But fortunately there are some television writers who would sooner be kicked off the air than see these demeaning social roles dominate the screen.

Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino, the co-creators of Legend of Korra, faced a whirlwind of opposition and controversy while producing the show. The duo gained fame after their hit series Avatar: The Last Airbender, but Nickelodeon was tentative to approve the sequel and even moved to suspend production when they learned that the main protagonist was a girl.  After test screenings proved that even boys thought Korra was “awesome,” Nick finally approved the show.

Legend of Korra was ground-breaking in that it was an American animated cartoon specifically designed for children and it featured a strong, well-developed, female lead. The show even took equal representation one step further by depicting the two female main characters, Korra and Asami, in a romantic relationship.

Korra and Asami

To put further emphasis on this point, I repeat that this series ended by showing a loving relationship between two women of color. Although the couple had about five seconds of screen time, the impact was undeniable; responses ranged from outrage to extreme praise, but overall many agreed that this was a step in the right direction towards equal representation.

Where the ever-present relationship between the dominating male and subordinate female perpetuates the breadwinner stereotype that has been so common throughout time, Korra and Asami’s relationship throughout the show highlights their mutual trust and codependency.  While Janet Boynes- a self proclaimed “ex-lesbian”- claims that this couple is a merely a tool to promote the gay agenda and sexual promiscuity, many find nothing sexual nor promiscuous about the concluding scene.

As for the claim that the writers are “[indoctrinating] an entire generation of American children with pro-homosexual propaganda and [are working to] eliminate traditional values from American society” (thank you Janet the ex-lesbian for that lovely quote), the same can be said for all of those darn heterosexual couples you see on TV today. Unless your beliefs state otherwise, there is nothing inherently wrong with LGBT couples, and to only show hetero couples on children’s shows is placing an implied taboo on the gay community in the minds of children who do not know otherwise..

There is still the matter of proper representation of different races on media for children.  A notable movie that has made a huge stride in this area is the new 2014 Annie movie, featuring Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie. All over social media, black people are showering Annie with praise- not for the “amazing acting” or the “brilliant score”- rather they are rejoicing that their daughters/nieces/sisters/cousins/etc. finally have an actress that they can look up to and see dark skin and curly hair.

Annie 2014 picture

This is huge. Throughout America’s history, black children have been deceived to think that they are somehow inferior just because of their skin. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll experiments. In these experiments both white and black children were asked to point at which doll (the white doll or the black doll) was more beautiful, nice, or evil.  Both black and white children answered mostly the same- on average they assigned the positive traits to the white doll and the negative traits to the black doll.

But these experiments took place during the 40s when racial tensions were at their height; surely those results couldn’t be replicated today, right? Right?

CNN Clark Doll Test

Wrong. When CNN and renowned child psychologist, Margaret Beale Spencer, recreated the Clark Doll Tests (only this time using five cartoon children) the results were notably similar.  White children had an overwhelming preference towards the fair skinned cartoon and black children still showed a slight bias towards the white cartoons.

There is something inherently wrong when children cannot see the beauty in themselves.  This is why representation matters. Having a black rendition of Annie, two Latino twins on PBS, or a bisexual female lead who can kick butt matters because it shows the children who feel different or inadequate that they are wonderful the way they are and they don’t need to live in insecurity and obscurity.

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The Importance of Diverse Representation in Children’s Media