With American children consuming so much media on a daily basis, the many messages that they take away from video games, computer games, and music should be concerning. But even in the age of tween YouTube-watching sessions and social media procrastination, TV — and therefore scripted shows — still occupies a large piece of childen’s media diet. And unless you’re raising a white son, general programming and plots definitely aren’t doing your child any favors.
Nicole Martins, an assistant professor of telecommunications in the IU College of Arts and Sciences, and Kristen Harrison, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, surveyed 400 black and white Midwestern tweens for a year. Although both researchers didn’t examine particular shows or genres, they did discover that time in front of the screen took quite a toll on the self-esteem of children — except for white boys.
Due to the common narrative that occupies most programming — that of heroic white males with resources, pretty girls, and power — white boys often glance at the screen and consequently feel all right about their place in the world.
“Regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for you,” Martins said of characters on TV. “You tend to be in positions of power, you have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife, with very little portrayals of how hard you worked to get there.”
White girls and girls of color not surprisingly see female characters that function merely as decoration, love interests, or passing amusements for said white male protagonists. As the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has noted in their research, male characters outnumber female characters three to one in family films, implying that girls aren’t capable of having their own stories, adventures, or even autonomy. Furthermore, female characters are four times as likely as male characters to be depicted in sexy or revealing attire during their limited time on camera, once again solidifying their sole status as love interests.
Upon founding her institute, Geena Davis commented on the disparity last year after watching several children’s films with her girls:
“Pretty much the only aspiration for female characters was finding romance, whereas there are practically no male characters whose ultimate goal is finding romance. The No. 1 occupation was royalty.”
Martins’ and Harrison’s self-esteem research mirrors Davis’ observations entirely, adding that consumption of these narratives harms girls:
“If you are a girl or a woman, what you see is that women on television are not given a variety of roles,” she added. “The roles that they see are pretty simplistic; they’re almost always one-dimensional and focused on the success they have because of how they look, not what they do or what they think or how they got there.
“This sexualization of women presumably leads to this negative impact on girls.”
Boys of color aren’t feeling too awesome about themselves either considering how the media often depicts them, as the same racist stereotypes tend to dominate plots:
With regard to black boys, they are often criminalized in many programs, shown as hoodlums and buffoons, and without much variety in the kinds of roles they occupy.
“Young black boys are getting the opposite message: that there is not lots of good things that you can aspire to,” Martins said. “If we think about those kinds of messages, that’s what’s responsible for the impact.
Martins also reportedly said that their findings defy recent claims that producers should be patting themselves on the back for showcasing “under-represented populations.” According to the Geena Davis Institute, the ratio of female to male characters in family films has remained the same since 1946. And with the average child’s media consumption now tipping towards 45 hours a week, those homogeneous story lines and characters absolutely impact the way children esteem both their own capabilities and the capabilities of others.