OPINION: How is representation in children's movies and TV stacking up in 2018?

Children's film and media
Children's film and media

It’s hard to argue with the fact that mainstream media’s representation of minority groups has improved over the last few years. More and more, we’re starting to see major films with diverse characters and story lines, but is it enough?

I, for one, feel we certainly still have a long way to go. Inclusivity and representation in children's film and media are ongoing struggles and I’m here to address it.

Children usually gravitate towards any kind of visual entertainment they can find, and most of the time they find it in movies and TV shows. They are constantly introduced to new characters with their respective quirks or woes, but they aren't really seeing different kinds of characters being represented in the shows. Since children are so impressionable and receptive, this becomes a problem. 

Truth be told, the film and media industry still lacks so much POC representation, so much LGBTQIA+ representation, so much hijabi representation, singe parent representation, little to no representation of the disabled… I could go on.

As much as the stories being told are all part of the human experience, to say that it is more about the story than who the character represents screams inequality. Instead of getting different perspectives, we get the same regurgitated characters in the same regurgitated story lines, and it all becomes so tiring.

Just thinking about it, I could probably count the intelligently presented black students in films on one of my hands but run out of fingers if I were to count the amount of times I've seen the popular blonde girl narrative – yawn.

Be it race, gender, sexual orientation, faith, or anything of the sort, there’s just not enough diversity on TV. So many more stories can be told, so many lived experiences are dying for a voice, and there is so much talent in this world that there’s really not any excuse for these stories not to be brought to life. 

On the occasions that children’s media is welcoming of minority representation, they often contain subliminal messages or are misrepresented, like how the bad guy always has a Russian accent, or the edgy or alternative kid is “weird” or “scary”.

The problem is that children often accept things at face value and they start to believe these stereotypes. POC are also represented in a stereotypical way or used as a token character to seem like there is in fact “representation” (shout out, Dean Thomas). If there are black characters, there's also the issue of colourism. If there's queer relationships, it’s implicit, unlike explicit heterosexual relationships. The "take what you get" approach isn't enough.

It comes as no surprise that cartoons reinforce gender roles too. Growing up, the “girly shows” I watched showed soft, submissive, “ladylike” characters with barely any cool, badass roles like boys had. Although there’s nothing wrong with girls wanting to do typically “girly” things, it’s reassuring for girls to know that they aren’t limited to that.

I guess that’s why I enjoyed The Powerpuff Girls so much growing up – I could be sugar, spice and everything nice but still have a little chemical X (I’m about 100% sure that didn’t sound as cool as I thought it did in my head). 

It isn’t all bad, though. Earlier this year I watched an Oscar-nominated animated movie called The Breadwinner, a deeply touching movie about an 11-year-old girl living in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. She disguises herself as a boy to earn money for the family after her father is wrongfully arrested.

Another recent popular teen movie, called Love, Simon, tells the story of a gay teen forced to come out to his family and friends after an email to a love interest gets leaked. It is another touching move that has all the quirks of a typical teenage movie too. 

While both are amazing movies with stories that need to be told, I wish we saw these kinds of characters being portrayed in a different light. Why can’t it be about a queer person just living their lives for once? When are we going to see hijabi girls just hanging out with their friends or be in some unrequited-love-turned-romance story or something? Their stereotypes still limit them.

While we still have a long way to go in terms of representation in children’s media, there are a few glimmers of hope every now and then, films that should be applauded for their representation. You know I can’t dare utter these words without mentioning Black Panther. The response that movie has gotten is so heartwarming, seeing black people globally be filled with such a sense of pride and joy was something to marvel at. 

Even more recently, with the hit Netflix teen romance To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, an Asian woman was cast as the lead. It was so refreshing to see the typical blonde Manic Pixie Dream Girl with Eurocentric features narrative take a break for once. Also, Noah Centineo is absolutely dreamy, so what’s not to love about this movie?

The point of my very lengthy rant is this: when children see characters who look, sound or act like them, it’s comforting. Think about how comforting it is to be going through something and finding a song that perfectly encapsulates how you feel, or a movie that resonates with you so deeply because you’ve been there or are going through the same themes. It feels like you’re being hugged through a screen just because you can relate. Not having that can be extremely frustrating, especially when you feel misunderstood.

When representation happens, the world rejoices, and rightfully so. We all have a place in this world and we should be able to see more of it. Children need representation because they need to know that it is okay to be who they are, they are embraced and celebrated. Certain topics need to be normalised for them, because they are normal, valid and they exist. Children often look up to these characters and when they see ones who look like themselves, they’ll start to believe that perhaps, they are magic too. 

Do you feel that there needs to be more representation in children's film and media? Let us know by emailing us at chatback@Parent24.com and we could publish your comments. Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.

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