There is growing consensus regarding the benefits of diversity – both for individuals and for society as a whole. However, while diversity and representation on preschool television are increasing and improving, there are still major shortcomings to address. Whether or not parents want to admit it, preschool children spend a lot of time watching television (Madigan, et al., 2019). Screen time among children has been at an all-time high with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting social activities and in-person education options. The television shows children watch can influence them in many ways, including becoming a part of their dialogue and pretend play, and impacting their toy choices, which are often based on television characters (Auster & Mansbach, 2012; Kampf & Hamo, 2015). As a parent of three young children, I found myself watching the shows they watch and wondering to what extent they were seeing representations of different types of people in important roles. I noticed several shows about girls doing magic (e.g., fairies, unicorns, witches), and I noticed shows where the boys were interested in science and math. I also noticed a lot of shows with a white male in the leadership role, while the females and persons of color were the friends or played supporting roles. Since I could not tell if I was seeing a full representation of the shows available, I undertook a full content analysis of all of the shows targeted toward preschool children that I could find on any network, streaming, cable, or public television, which resulted in an analysis of 135 shows. What I found included some surprises, some positive trends for diversifying character representation, and some unfortunate truths (Hamlen & Imbesi, 2019).
It is important to show girls that they can be leaders, mathematicians, engineers, and technology experts. It is important to show children of all races and backgrounds that they have equal potential to assume these varied roles. Earlier content analyses had found significantly more male characters than female characters (Hentges & Case, 2013; Peruta & Powers, 2017), very few Asian and Hispanic characters relative to their population proportions (Peruta & Powers, 2017), and gender stereotyping regarding leadership roles and actions (Aubrey & Harrison, 2004; Hentges & Case, 2013). In this study, we found similar general trends, but with less extreme results, which suggests that networks, producers, and show creators are moving in positive directions when it comes to diversity in character representation. Research (Power & Smith, 2017) suggests children are more likely to emulate role models of the same gender and race as themselves. It helps for children to see someone who looks like them represented in a variety of roles so that they can more easily view themselves in the same roles.
The most surprising and unfortunate finding from the content analysis was that the creators of preschool programs are overwhelmingly white, non-Hispanic (84.8%), and are more often male (57.6%) than female (24.8%). This same pattern is reflected in the Hollywood film industry, which has historically been difficult for women and minorities to break into, both as actors and as directors and creators (Hunt & Ramón, 2015). While the proportion of women creators, writers, and directors in television is increasing slightly, that of racial and ethnic minorities remains very small to obsolete. Thus, despite efforts to change the representation of the characters children are seeing on the current-day screen, these characters are being created and written primarily by white men. While it is positive for children to see representative characters, the creators of those characters ultimately include their own voices and impressions in the way the characters are portrayed. When persons of the same gender and race as the character are not included in the creation and production process, racial and gender stereotypes are highly likely to be portrayed in the final product (Lundy, 2018). My analysis suggests more diversity in creator voices is necessary for true change to occur in the diversity of representation in preschool television programming. It is not only about appearances on the screen, but it is also about true representations from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, races, and genders so children see authentic diversity and not an illusion of diversity through the lens of the colors of the characters on the screen.
Aubrey, J., & Harrison, K. (2004). The gender-role content of children’s favorite television programs and its links to their gender-related perceptions. Media Psychology, 6, 111-146, 10.1207/s1532785xmep0602_1.
Auster, C. J., & Mansbach, C. S. (2012). The gender marketing of toys: An analysis of type of toy on the Disney Store website. Sex Roles, 67, 375-388.
Hamlen, K. R. & Imbesi, K. (2019). Role models in the media: A content analysis of preschool television programs in the U.S. Journal of Children and Media, 14, 302-323. 10.1080/17482798.2019.1689369
Hentges, B. & Case, K. (2013). Gender representations on Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon broadcasts in the United States. Journal of Children and Media, 7, 319-333. 10.1080/17482798.2012.729150.
Hunt, D., & Ramón, A. C. (2015). Hollywood diversity report: Flipping the script. Report by the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Los Angeles.
Kampf, Z., & Hamo, M. (2015). Children talking television: The salience and functions of media content in child peer interactions. Discourse & Communication, 9, 465-485.
Lundy, A. D. (2018). Caught between a thot and a hard place: The politics of black female sexuality at the intersection of cinema and reality television. Journal of Black Studies and Research, 48, 56-70.
Madigan, S., Browne, D., Racine, N., Mori, C., & Tough, S. (2019, January). Association between screen time and children’s performance on a developmental screening test. JAMA Pediatrics, published online. 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.5056.
Peruta, A., & Powers, J. (2017). Look who’s talking to our kids: Representations of race and gender in TV commercials on Nickelodeon. International Journal of Communication, 11, 1133-1148. Power, S., & Smith, K. (2017). ‘Heroes’ and ‘villains’ in the lives of children and young people. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 38, 590-602. 10.1080/01596306.2015.1129311.