Oscars May be So White, but So Are Kids' Cartoons

If grownups have grown accustomed to the Whiteness portrayed in most Hollywood products, what does this mean for the children exposed to them?
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Chris Rock had some great zingers at the Oscars. But the line that really got me thinking was when he rhetorically asked, "Is Hollywood racist? You damn right Hollywood's racist, but you've grown accustomed to it." More than anything else he said, this line made me pause, because it made me think of the ways in which it fit into the research my colleagues and I have conducted as part of the Children's Television and Language Project at Tufts. If grownups have grown accustomed to the Whiteness portrayed in most Hollywood products, what does this mean for the children exposed to them?

Over the past several years we've systematically investigated the images of ethnicity, race, gender and age in children's animated programming. Not only have we analyzed the way characters are drawn, we've also assessed how they talk. Linguistic cues, along with visual ones, give children powerful messages.

Studies conducted many years ago found that the world of children's animated television wasn't a very equitable place. Male characters outnumbered female characters by a ratio of almost 6:1. Women were almost always shown in predictable and stereotypical ways, subservient to males, more interested in their appearance and romantic connections than in being a leader. People of Color were barely depicted at all, and in the rare instances that they were, shown as secondary characters with largely stereotypical characteristics.

Our more recent research shows that things have improved, a little. In a data sample that includes the top 20 cartoons viewed by children aged 6-12, we found that male characters outnumber females by a 3:1 ratio. In over 1000 characters with speaking parts, the great majority (75%) were white. Characters of color (not counting the blue, green or other highly colored non-human characters) accounted for only 17% of the sample. Only 10 out of all of the characters we coded were Latino - less than 1% of all the characters we looked at. About 17% of the US population is now Latino, and the percentage is growing. Clearly the world of children's animated programming is still out of step.

Older characters are also underrepresented in the cartoons, with 6.7 % of the characters classified as elderly, versus the 13% of the U.S. population over 65. The vast majority of these elderly characters are minor or walk-on characters (87%), with only 8 elderly characters in our entire 1000 character sample developed as either a major villain (5) or major hero/sidekick (3). "The few characters there were tend to be comic," says my co-researcher, Jennifer Burton, a professor of the practice in Drama and Dance. "With the exception of being on the ugly side, the few elderly characters are generally presented as positive." This is a consistent with other underdeveloped and underrepresented character types (i.e. females), who also display generally "good" traits, versus the complexity of developed characters.

Part of the way that our team of students knew to code characters as being of a particular racial or ethnic background was how they were drawn. But part of it came from some of the contextual cues given in the shows, including the dialect with which a character spoke. And here we found some particularly distressing data.

Of the characters who were clearly evil or cast as "bad guys," more than one-third had discernably non-American accents. This is consistent with earlier incarnations of this study we'd done. Sometimes the accents were Russian, sometimes German, sometimes vaguely Eastern European, sometimes British. But the conclusion was clear: the vocal casting in a number of these cartoons suggested that an accent that sounded "other" than American was being used as a way of identifying the villain.

These results are concerning for a few reasons.

First of all, we know that while children today have many media options and many platforms on which they can receive media, television programs remain the single most prevalent form of media that young children consume. Kids 0-9 watch about 35 hours of television a week, and the most recent Kaiser Family Foundation report found, given the variety of platforms, that the overall amount of television most American children 8-18 watch actually increased to just over 4 hours/day. That's a lot of potential exposure to these images.

We also know from the research that children are able to discern race, ethnicity and gender from about age 3 onward, sometimes simply by assessing "who looks like me/who sounds like me, who doesn't." In addition, Calvin Gidney, a professor of Child Study and Human Development who is one of my co-investigators, notes that "Linguists have found that by as year as age 4, children form judgments about other people based solely on how they speak."

It needs to be said that not all of the cartoons we looked at had stereotypical depictions of race, ethnicity, gender and age. Not surprisingly, the world of PBS animated programming looks different from the world depicted in some other quarters of the children's televisual landscape. Some shows were better than others; some were even fairly equitable. But the majority were not. To have a world of animated programming in which males outnumber females, in which people of Color are largely absent, in which stereotypical images continue to prevail to such an extent, and in which the "bad guys" are often marked by distinctive non-American dialects is problematic.

The next phases of our research will start to assess how decisions get made in children's animated programming that result in characters being portrayed the ways that they are. And importantly, we will then turn our attention to assessing how kids process all of these images that they see and hear. What we ultimately want to know is the follow-on to Chris Rock's question at the Oscars: are America's children really getting accustomed to the stereotypical images and lack of diversity they see in cartoons, and if they are, what does it mean?

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