I am not what you would call a television pessimist. I think that for minorities, television today is much (much) better than what we had as children, especially when it comes to programming targeted for kids.
As a young Black boy growing up in the suburbs, my only kids television role models were the smart Black guy on the Godzilla cartoon (blink and you’ll miss him), Roadblock from GI-Joe who was the team cook, always spoke in rhymes and warned off pedophiles, and failed attempts at re-imagining the Star Wars saga’s Land Calrissian as anything other than a pimp and a hustler.
It was worse for Black girls, you had Melody from the Josie and the Pussycats who hardly spoke, Shana from JEM and the Holograms who was a singer and designer, and finally Diana from Dungeons and Dragons who ran around in a mammoth hair tank top.
Unfortunately, recent research shows that the world of television isn’t much better for minority youths today. In fact, continued exposure to the one-eyed-babysitter is actually wreaking havoc on kid’s self-esteem.
A recent article in by Dr. Nicole Martins in Communications Research found that prolonged exposure to electronic media (television) had a negative impact on the self esteem of Black boys, Black girls and White girls. In other words: television makes everyone feel pretty lousy about themselves except for young White guys. Dr. Martins’ team did a year-long study of elementary school children in the relatively poor Danville area of Illinois, home to one of the state’s largest prisons, where 92% of the children in the study were on some type of free or subsidized lunch program. They found that minority children consumed much more television than their White peers, regardless of the socioeconomic status of the parents. Further research showed that a steady television diet of seeing yourself either as a highly sexualized object, clown or buffoon had serious consequences for children.
When I talked to Dr. Martin she pointed out in particular that “The roles for young girls on television, they are usually secondary characters, or don’t have major speaking roles. People are amazed when a movie like Pixar’s Brave comes out that focuses on a female lead [targeted at] children.”
None of this is new however. There are dozens of stories every year about how certain kinds of programming, in heavy doses, does a number on kid’s self esteem, their weight and a whole host of other issues.
But Dr. Martin came away from her research with a different kind of question that is seldom addressed in social science or popular punditry:
As much as we adults like to sit down and pontificate about what is on television and how good (or mostly bad) it is, almost no one really watches children’s programming and even fewer people actually discuss with children what they are consuming. While the study did not specifically target what kind of programs kids were watching it is fair to assume that they were absorbing steady diets of kids shows as much asGossip Girl and Basketball Wives. As an avid children’s programming watcher I did a survey of the main or recurring African American characters on the Disney Channel, Disney XD (for boys), Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and the HUB. What I found was a consistently disturbing pattern of racial stereotypes and minimization of people of color.
|Disney XD Shows||Minority Character||Personality|
|Zeke and Luther||Kojo||The goofy, effeminate antagonist to the main stars|
|Pair of Kings||Boomer||The chubby child king who cares more about food and has no love interest|
|Kickin’ It||Eddie||The chubby shy kid who does karate to avoid taking dance lessons|
|Motor City||Dutch||Creative Engineer on Team|
|Ultimate Spiderman||Luke Cage||Jive talking muscle of team|
|Lab Rats||Leo||Leo ends up with 3 super-powered siblings when his mother re-marries a White scientist who created his own children|
|Nickelodeon and Disney Shows||Minority Character||Personality|
|A.N.T. Farm||Chyna||Musical prodigy oblivious to her White love interest|
|True Jackson V.P.||True Jackson||Fashion consultant with crush on White mail room clerk and a possibly gay Black male secretary|
|Young Justice||Aqualad / Kaldur||Team leader constantly doubting his abilities who loses his girlfriend to his best friend and eventually becomes a villian|
So basically if you are a young Black boy your children’s programming options are being a chubby side-kick, having no luck with (or interest in girls) and generally being soft and deferential to the White male hero in your show.
If you are a Black girl, your options are slightly better – so long as those options include singing, dancing and having White boyfriends only. No wonder kids are depressed. A steady dose of those shows every Saturday morning and I wouldn’t want to go outside and play either.
There is hope though, and much of it stems from the research itself. By and large African American boys and girls have higher levels of self-esteem than their White counterparts. This is based on the fact that minorities tend to judge themselves based on their own communities instead of the White majority.
So it would seem that when little Black boys and girls are comparing themselves within family they’re fine, and their self esteem suffers when they are bombarded with negative and passive aggressive images from Hollywood.
Therefore the solution is right in front of us. Above and beyond the basics that children should spend less time in front of the television, the time in front of the television should be evaluated by parents. Mom, Dad, Grandma, uncle or whomever should be talking to kids about what they are seeing, why it matters and how the images on the screen may or may not reflect the real world, let alone the African American community. That way your kids will know, and as Roadblock told me all those years ago, “knowing is half the battle.”
This article originally appeared online at Politic365.com.