When Josanne Buchanan was growing up, she loved to become fully immersed in her favourite cartoons on TV.
“I wanted to live like their characters. I wanted to explore their worlds,” said Buchanan, who is now a university student and research assistant for Children’s Media Lab, based at Ryerson’s Faculty of Communication and Design.
“But as much as I wanted to live out their plots and have my own heroic adventures, I sometimes felt like I couldn’t do this.”
As a Caribbean-Canadian girl, she noticed most shows did not often have characters who looked like her. “When we were represented, it was often not as a protagonist but as a side character. And so I felt like most shows didn’t teach me what it would look like or feel like to be the protagonist of my own life.”
The exception was the animated series “Corduroy” on TVO Kids, whose main character, Lisa, was a schoolgirl of Jamaican heritage, said Buchanan. “And I felt so excited when I saw her eating Jamaican food because it validated my own experiences as a Black Caribbean-Canadian girl. But yeah, there weren’t many programs like this with authentic representation.”
A new report from Children’s Media Lab found that — at least among programs released in Canada and the U.S. over the past two years — animated children’s television has come a good distance on racial diversity. While non-white and white characters are balanced nearly 50/50, “there’s still a lack of representation of characters who are South Asian, Middle Eastern or Indigenous.”
Indigenous characters, in particular, were almost entirely absent apart from one show called “Molly of Denali,” said Buchanan, which airs in Canada on CBC Kids and follows the adventures of an Indigenous girl in Alaska.
Gender balance in recent animated children’s programming appears to show an improvement since Children’s Media Lab took a wider look at kids’ TV for a report that came out in 2019. Among human characters in the newer programs, 57 per cent were male and 43 per cent female but, when examining main characters alone, the gap widens with 63 per cent male to 37 per cent female.
The disparity is particularly evident with non-human characters, says Buchanan. “When it comes to things like monsters and animals and robots, we’re seeing that 70 per cent of characters are males, whereas only 30 per cent are females, which is quite surprising. What we want to tell people is that girls can be monsters and robots, too.”
At just two per cent, most notable by absence are characters with disabilities. “That is really a far cry from the 20 per cent of Canadians who are currently living with a disability,” said Buchanan.
Colleen Russo Johnson, lead author of the report and co-director of Children’s Media Lab, said having a diverse range of characters in animated television is especially critical during the pandemic.
“Children have not been able to necessarily be in school or daycare as much, or have play dates or be out about seeing different people,” said Russo Johnson, who has a PhD in development and child psychology. “Or perhaps the kids live somewhere where they don’t have great diversity in their town. These TV shows are a great way to show them what the larger world around them looks like.”
While the new programs explored in this study have a better mix of diverse characters, it’s important to note that much of what airs on the networks is reruns of older programs, she said.
But streaming networks offer parents the opportunity to curate the viewing experience for their preschoolers, said Russo Johnson, who is also the parent of a son and a daughter, ages two and three.
“Parents today have complete control because what they can do is — let’s say they watch Disney Plus or Netflix or whatever — they can go through, pick out the shows they want their kids to watch and download that content, or turn the device on airplane mode. You can literally just have them think that the download screen is what Netflix is and that those are the shows they have to choose from, and you can self-select there to have it be these diverse characters and the gender norms you want.”
In the consultations with the networks and show creators that Children’s Media Lab conducts, Russo Johnson said they caution against taking a one-and-done approach to diversity.
“It comes down to nuance. I want kids to see lots of Indigenous experiences. Especially given how they’ve been treated in the past, we really need to counteract stereotypes and create more understanding,” she said.
Likewise, showrunners might think they’ve got disability covered with one episode featuring a kid in a wheelchair. “But that’s not what we want, because if you have a side character who comes in a once in a while and the majority storyline is about them being in a wheelchair, that’s not what we want to get across because kids in a wheelchair, that’s not their entire identity.”
She said the lab has also had a lot of illuminating conversations with networks and content creators about the subtle aspects of how genders are portrayed, including the report’s finding that eyelashes are drawn almost exclusively to denote femininity. The report found that all but one character who had been drawn with eyelashes was a girl. “And what does that suggest? Makeup. Mascara.”
Likewise, they want to see that when girl characters are depicted in dresses or skirts, they’re also drawn with leggings so those characters look just as ready for rough-and-tumble play as their male counterparts, and that they’re shown with a better range of body shapes, said Russo Johnson.
The report found that zero female characters were portrayed with larger body sizes, compared to 16 per cent of male characters.
Kids pick up on these subtleties far more than parents expect, she said, and internalize messages about what girls and boys are “supposed” to look like, just as they do what kids from their cultural background are capable of achieving, she said.
That certainly rings true for Buchanan.
When girls like me who have diverse social identities see themselves represented in a variety of characters who are scientists, musicians, chefs, carpenters, we feel capable of fulfilling these roles in real life,” she said. “What we see on the screen informs what we believe is possible for ourselves after the credits roll. And that is incredibly powerful.”