The Importance Of Representation In Children's Media | Emily Bashforth

The Importance Of Representation In Children's Media


When I was a small child, there was such a lack of representation in what the media fed to me. In the TV shows and movies I watched, 99% of characters were white, they were all heterosexual, they were all cis gender, most were able bodied and most were not religious.
The media that I had access to in the most important years of my life severely lacked in representing minority groups and, ultimately, only painted one picture of society for me to absorb and take as the truth. Any character who was part of a minority group was always highlighted and it was made obvious that they were different. TV shows made it clear which characters didn't "fit in" and their inability to represent all social groups meant that, when marginalised groups were mentioned, the characters stuck out like a sore thumb and led me to question why these people were the way that they were. I remember seeing the occasional disabled character in fictional children's shows and, not necessarily thinking of them as "abnormal" but it was always subtly fed to me that they weren't like everyone else, especially as other characters in the shows would treat them differently.

All relationships I saw on children's TV were heterosexual. Any hint of homosexuality was done in a stereotypical way, such as portraying a boy as feminine who only befriends girls and talks with a high pitched voice. Besides that, every character I saw was considered straight as well as binary and cis gender. A trans boy or trans girl on a children's TV show in the 2000s? Unheard of. You were either a cis girl or a cis boy, you were attracted to the opposite gender, you were able bodied...oh, and you were white.

White people controlled my television experience. Every character was white, pretty much, bar the odd black male (there were rarely any black girls from what I can remember). I obviously knew that people of colour existed, however, I just wasn't exposed to their existence in the way that I should have been. White characters were the norm and that was just never questioned. In cartoons, especially, there was a dangerous lack of blackness and the fact that, when creating a fictional cartoon who can, essentially look however you want them to look, who begins life as a blank canvas...the fact that designers automatically chose to make them white because white was "normal" is...terrifying.

I wasn't raised to be particularly religious, therefore, I didn't watch specifically religious shows, however, I cannot recall ever seeing religious characters in the shows that I did watch. The shows that were aired to the masses on the largest platforms didn't represent religious groups as integrated members of society.
Additionally, characters I saw on TV often occupied a certain body image, females particularly. Characters were usually of a slim build and anyone bigger was either middle aged or not noticeably so. I wasn't exposed to the vast range of body shapes, sizes and types that have always existed. Cartoon characters had stick thin legs, never a hair out of place and waists tinier than tiny. They may be "only cartoon characters" but, if all a child watches are cartoons and the only cartoon characters they're seeing are skinny, straight white people, surely that is going to distort their views on society and their perceptions of themselves?
I know the viewing experiences I had as a young child impacted on how my brain worked. No, they didn't make me racist or homophobic, in fact, I look back now in anger at the lack of diversity in what I used to watch and I think what I saw led me to question my surroundings more. But, seeing thin white women with long, luscious hair, perfect complexions and beautiful outfits in cartoons, seeing actors in TV shows all carbon copies of one another, they injected the idea into me that that was how girls were supposed to look. Subconsciously, I became fixated on the idea that skinny was normal.

Now, the thought of these types of programmes and films, the ones where everyone is straight and white, bores me. It seems so dull, a programme which refuses to represent the real world and which lacks in diversity. Back then, though, it wasn't dull, it was expected.
I say "back then" as if I was an 80s child. I wasn't, being that I'm only 18 in 2017. However, society is fast developing and has become more inclusive in such a small period of time. Sure, TV shows for kids today aren't perfect but they are far more accurate and fair than they were ten years ago. Today I come across beautifully diverse TV shows for young children which do a great job of representing the voiceless in society and the groups which aren't given the spotlight due to producers' narrow minds. Sesame Street have an autistic character, the Power Puff Girls have gained a new member who is black and the character is voiced by a woman of colour, and short animated film In A Heartbeat recently won awards, a film which depicts a school boy with a crush on another boy. Children's media is now much more accurate in terms of how it represents the world we live in and I look at it gladly and proudly. It makes me happy to know that young children today will, hopefully, not know any different than a diverse society in which not everyone is able bodied, white, straight or cis.

What we feed to our children via the media is so important. "They're just children, they don't care, they don't understand," some may argue, but, that's exactly the point. Children don't understand. They begin their lives as blank canvases, just like cartoon characters, and so what we project upon them and the views we feed them, they shall absorb. Children learn from what they are shown and they absorb the information they watch. They're extremely easily influenced, up to their teens especially. So, if you're showing black people as outcasts, gay people as weird or disabled people as weak, it won't be difficult for them to take in these twisted ideals and take them for gospel. Children aren't able to think totally independently so young, which is why we need to take care when speaking to them and ensure we're being fair.

Children deserve to grow up knowing how much diversity exists in the world. They deserve to be given chance to question things and to be given a full viewing experience. They deserve to know that straight, white, stick thin people aren't the only ones worthy of love and attention and that marginalised groups are just as valuable as any other member of society. We are doing our children a great disservice by feeding subliminal messages of "straight, white and skinny is best" via the media. It is an injustice to them as we are not giving them the best start in life or the chance to see the world for how beautiful it really is. We need to continue making diverse TV shows, films and books to create a generation which is accepting and understanding of everyone's identity. Children don't know about the world. They don't know about the inequalities that exist between social groups, which is why we need to teach them so young in order to eliminate these inequalities completely.
By including gay characters on TV, we aren't making our children gay. By including trans characters in movies, we aren't making our children question their gender. By representing the LGBTQ+ community, we're simply encouraging our children to accept and love some of the most vulnerable people in society. Furthermore, by showing our children marginalised social groups, we're allowing them to feel more comfortable withing themselves. Should they grow up to question their sexuality, they'll know that it's okay to do so. And, if youngsters are already questioning their gender, seeing people on TV doing the same thing will bring them comfort and reassurance. Additionally, by fully representing different body sizes on screen, we're giving children chance to fall in love with themselves at an early age and helping to prevent the self hatred that comes in their teenage years.We're encouraging children to know their worth and to recognise that there is not one ideal body type. Moreover, by showing children people with disabilities and other religions, we're helping to prevent them from looking at people in wheelchairs or Muslims strangely in the street. We're helping to annihilate prejudice because children will know no different than "everyone is equal."

There is no way to argue for lack of representation. We always treat the television and film industries as totally separate sectors from the rest of society, as if what we see on TV isn't reality. But, why can't TV, film and real life all be merged together? Why shouldn't television be a proper representation of life outside the screen? Why do the two have to be opposites? The thing is, people of colour, LGBTQ+ members, people of various body shapes and different religions, they exist and by removing them from your movies or TV shows, you aren't removing them from society, you're simply working to create yet another ignorant generation. The minorities in society deserve to have their faces splashed across a screen just as much as any straight, white, cis man or woman. They deserve to be given platforms and we need to continue teaching children about the big wide world so we can build a more progressive one for them to grow up safely and happily in.

What are your thoughts on representation? What are your favourite examples of diversity in kids' media?

Love, Emily :) xx

2 comments:

  1. Yes! I can't remember any noticeable minorities appearing on my favourite childhood cartoons... and, if they appear, they are constantly mocked because of that :/ it's so nice to see a variety of characters today, even if we have a lot of work to do.

    I have enjoyed this post so much.

    xoxo
    Marina
    Teapots and Frills

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for reading my post, Marina, so glad you liked it and could relate! Hopefully, one day, we won’t need to be having these conversations and children’s media will be fully inclusive and representative of society as a whole. It’s truly saddening to see them being fed such narrow minded views. It’s great to see progress being made, though, it and excites me for when our generation become producers and don’t have to think twice about including characters from minority groups. :) xx

      Delete