The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Children’s Diversity and Representation – Not Just Skin Deep

Marcus Ryder is a journalist with over 25 years of experience, including 10 at senior management level. He is currently Head of External Consultancies at the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity at Birmingham City University.

This article was commissioned by the Children's Media Foundation and published in the Children's Media Yearbook 2021.

A few years ago the hashtag #FirstTimeISawMe started trending on social media.

The hashtag primarily focused on ethnicity but soon grew into a wider discussion on issues around gender, sexuality and disability. The social media conversations vividly illustrated what it meant to people to feel represented for the first time. Tweets, Facebook updates and Instagram pictures all built up, giving deeply personal accounts that proved how important on-screen diversity is for people.

However, while much of the debate this stimulated centred on the “ISeeMe” part of the hashtag, which was all about diversity and representation, there was little debate about the first part of the hashtag; “FirstTime”.

Considering we all watched television as children this was implicitly a debate about representation (or lack thereof) in children’s programming - whether people realised it or not. If the first time people “saw themselves” was in adult programming this must surely mean they did not see themselves represented throughout their childhood. Conversely, if they cited examples from children’s programmes or family programmes this was a powerful endorsement of representation in programmes aimed at children.

Interestingly the examples that people gave of the #FirstTimeISawMe were rarely about their race, gender, disability or sexuality alone. It was always a lot more complex and nuanced. If one looks at ethnicity for example, while black people usually gave an example of a black character for the first time they saw themselves, it was rarely the actual first time they had seen a black character on TV. Ethnicity alone did not guarantee that people felt “seen” or saw themselves in the character.

People’s race plays an important part of them seeing themselves reflected on-screen but it is just one part of a far larger whole. This complexity is almost taken for granted in representation of white characters for a white audience… no one expects a white child to identify with every white character they see on screen.  Obviously a raft of other factors come into play such as gender, class, regionality and more. However, when I speak to people about on-screen black representation with senior television executives this complexity is often overlooked.

Yet it is crucial.

I remember the first time I “saw myself” on television.

John John was a small black boy with an afro counting to twenty with Herry Monster on Sesame Street. For a small black boy living in a predominately white London suburb, I had found my place in the world. It also didn’t hurt that my full name is actually Jon-Marcus and my family often called me “Jon Bon”, it was close enough to “John John”.

There were other black children on Sesame Street but only John John was me. His afro, his age, his name, and the fact he loved counting all added up to enable me to see myself.

I saw my own 5-year-old son go through the same experience a few months ago.

He is an avid watcher of the CBeebies series Go Jetters, a cartoon with four intrepid adventurers guided by a disco loving unicorn, who rescue global treasures from being destroyed by the evil Grandmaster Glitch. The four adventurers are of different races, three of the four are boys and one is a girl.

One of the characters, Lars, is black. But for the whole first series my son, who is also black, did not seem to notice him any more than any of the other characters. If anything, he seemed to identify most with the unicorn.

Then, in series two something interesting happened.

Throughout the first series the four adventurers wear one-piece uniforms with hoods covering their hair. I have never produced animation but I assume it is a lot cheaper to have characters that don’t have hair. But with a successful first series the creators started to do a few scenes with the adventurers’ hair exposed.

All of a sudden, my son saw Lar’s curly hair and that moment of recognition was almost electric.

At five-years-old my son does not have a strong understanding of race, quite understandably and possibly thankfully. But currently he seems to mediate his own race, and any racial differences and similarities he has with friends, through his hair texture.

The second he saw Lar’s hair he identified with the black character. He did not identify through the different skin tones of the different characters. His perception of self and (I suspect) race is seen through the prism of hair not melanin.

Representation matters and my son saw himself.

Why do I bring this up?

It is because when we discuss diversity and race we often see it through categories recognised through our adult perspective. If we were to objectively assess the on-screen diversity of Go Jetters series one vs. series two nothing had changed: Four different characters, one of them is black.

But for my son, and perhaps for countless other children it went from four characters of different hues to suddenly seeing themselves.

This also illustrates a point I’ve made before that too often diversity is seen as an end in itself - however diversity is just a means to an end.

If diversity was the end goal Go Jetters accomplished its mission in series one, when in reality it only hit the mark (as far as my son is concerned) in series two.

If our goal is to ensure that children can personally connect to the characters in the story and feel positive about themselves, we need to ensure that we explore how children racially identify themselves, not how we (as adults) identify them. There is literally no point in getting the brown paintboxes out if skin colour is not how they identify themselves. Put another way, we can’t just stop at the brown paintbox.

The same goes for any number of identifiers, from accents to family structures, and from disabilities to genders.

Identity is multi-layered.

Which brings me to my main point. If we are to achieve effective on-screen diversity that connects with our children then better representation behind the camera is essential.

Having grown up as a black child and now raising a black boy gives me a completely different perspective of what “genuine representation” looks like and what small points need to be brought out.

For example, before my son became an avid Go Jetters fan he loved Bing (an animated bunny who lives in a neighbourhood with other anthropomorphic friends and their carers). Again, there is little doubt that the creators of Bing are sensitive to issues of diversity with many of the characters seeming to have different accents.  But in all the episodes I have watched (there are a lot  - so I will not pretend to have watched them all) not once did I see Bing, or any of his friends, have “non-Western” food. Food is often a central theme in children’s stories and in a wider context food is often one of the easiest ways to convey different cultures. And yet representations of food frequently become exclusionary for children of different ethnicities and cultures. Samosas, jollof rice, and jerk chicken are relegated to non-experiences or are exoticised in “special” episodes which primarily focus on ethnicity.

Irrespective of how many black or brown characters directors and storytellers create, if children view their identity through food the nominal racial diversity will do little to help children connect with these characters and “see themselves”.

Similarly, knives, forks and spoons in children’s cartoons seem to be a given. I have never seen a parent serving food with chopsticks or children characters using them despite the fact that by some estimates a third of the world uses chopsticks on a daily basis. From Ethiopia to Indonesia, millions of people mark family time or special occasions with shared food, in many cases eaten with hands.

If we want children to recognise themselves we need to constantly strive to normalise different cultural experiences and recognise that ethnicity goes way beyond simple signifiers of skin colour.

Another example is shoes. I have lived in Asia for just over five years, first in China, briefly in Thailand, and currently in Malaysia. In all those years I have never seen anybody wear shoes in their house. When I visit another home, I am expected to take off my shoes before entering and may be offered slippers to use inside. And yet, like the example of chopsticks, I cannot recall ever seeing a child take their shoes off in children’s cartoons when they go into someone’s house.

In the simple act of keeping their shoes on a character goes from being an Asian character that Asian children may be able to relate to, to yet another character who simply has different skin colour.  This is of course despite the best of intentions the director behind the camera might have had to represent a multicultural audience.

The examples of how we can undermine our best intentions are too numerous to cite and almost impossible for someone who is not immersed in that culture to recognise. Which is why diversity behind the camera – and specifically in editorial positions - is so important. It is the small nuances that can make all the difference. What kind of food would the character eat? Why is their hair important? What do they do when they enter a house? How should they address their parents? Would their grandparents live in the house or nearby? Do they eat with their hands or chopsticks or knives and forks?

It is literally too exhausting if we have to think through every one of these questions consciously, and elongate the list too. Which is why ultimately you need content creators from a range of backgrounds who do not have to think about these issues consciously but for whom it is simply second nature if they try to represent their own culture that they draw on their own childhood for reference.

If I have not yet been able to convince you of the importance of diversity behind the camera when it comes to kids’ shows I have one last point:

One is not enough.

If we accept that our identities are multi-layered with things such as race or gender only playing a part, then the idea that a single black character or female character will be able to capture all the representational needs of children of that gender or ethnicity runs contrary to common sense. And yet all too often we still see the single black or single female character in a larger group majority white or male group.

Returning to my experience of “seeing myself” for the first time in John John in Sesame Street it is important to remember that Sesame Street had a range of different black characters. I didn’t “see myself” in Sally (another black child in Sesame Street) for example.

We must break free of the idea that diversity and representation can be achieved through a single character in a story any more than we think every white child can identify with every white character.

Diversity is not the same as representation and is only part of a far larger whole.

To achieve true representation in front of the camera which children can relate to, we need true diversity and representation behind the camera.

If the hashtag #FirstTimeISawMe was able to open up a whole discussion about on-screen diversity, maybe  those of us working in the media industry need to start a new hashtag #FirstTimeISawMeWorking. Now that would be real progress!

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