Children consume a lot of media. They watch videos, play animated games, and have favorite streaming television shows. And as they watch, studies show that they are learning to associate specific traits with different genders and races based on how characters are portrayed. They then connect these traits to themselves and the people they see and know in their daily lives, sometimes to their detriment.
RKRF asked media researcher Amanda LaTasha Armstrong to tell us more about how race and gender are portrayed in children’s media. She looked at numerous studies and found that almost three-quarters of children’s television characters are light-skinned, which children typically see as White or Caucasian. A similar number of white characters take the lead in popular family films. This sends a message to all children that white people are more important than persons of color.
When it comes to gender, the ratio of male to female main characters is just over two males for every female. The same ratio applies to lead characters in family films. Armstrong also found that only 11 percent of educational games for young children (ages 3-6) had female central characters. A quarter of games had characters of no discernable gender and the rest – 63 percent – had male central characters. Children thus observe that males are more important in society than females.
Gendered characters also tend to perform stereotypical activities in children’s media. Females are presented in domestic environments, with princess-like manners and virtuous conduct. Some more recent films and shows have given female characters more independent and active roles, but they are still the minority. Characters engaged with technology, action, or fighting are almost always male. And male figures are frequently depicted as taller than female characters. These stereotypes make it difficult for children who differ to see themselves in the media they consume.
An interesting subset of children’s media are commercials designed to appeal to children. Almost 80 percent of female characters in children’s commercials are thin and physically attractive, with sexual overtones. Characters with more ‘normal’ body types are depicted as warm and kind rather than sexy. Such depictions contribute to body image concerns, particularly among girls.
Armstrong also found that race and gender intersect in stereotypical ways. Fair-skinned female characters are depicted as ‘girly girls’ who focus on their appearance, whereas female characters with darker skin and hair are athletic or wild. White characters are often the leaders of racially diverse superhero groups. And, in religious media, characters with any kind of moral authority are typically white and male, whereas villains have traits associated with racial minorities, e.g. accented English, darkened skin color, Semitic facial features. Once again, children may worry that something is wrong with them because their lives do not match those of the characters they see..
The prevalence of race and gender stereotypes in children’s media means that organizations supporting families need to take care with the videos, film clips, games and tv shows they use and reference. Armstrong recommends that community leaders consider the following:
- Review materials beforehand to ensure there is racial and gender diversity. Since evidence suggests there is a lack of diversity in children’s media, leaders may have to intentionally seek materials that showcase racial and gender diversity.
- Even if a specific video or show wins an award for its content, it does not guarantee that it affirms diversity. It may be more helpful to select content recommended from publishers, companies, and organizations that emphasize diversity in children’s media, such as Kidmap.
- Since there are few studies that examine children’s religious media, religious leaders might gather with a small group of colleagues to review materials and curate a list of media resources that attempt to counter stereotypes and represent race and gender diversity authentically.