Research by Dafna Lemish, professor and chair of the Department of Radio-Television at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, suggests that with a few exceptions, character roles, gender, and even the ethnicity of children’s television programming continue to reinforce stereotypes.
An international scholar on the media’s role in children’s lives, Lemish came to SIUC in July 2010. She hopes her research serves not only as an anchor to help current producers reverse existing trends, but also just as importantly, offers her students a “practical education” for making change.
“We are training future producers of television for children,” Lemish said of the students in her course, “Media in the Lives of Children and Adolescents.”
“We want them to be the kind of producers who care about equality; who understand that you can use television to promote gender equality and racial equality,” she said. “This is transferable to real-world issues and the quality of education of our students.”
Lemish said her five-year study and research based on interviews with 135 producers of children’s television from 65 countries shows a concern with what children see on television. The producers she spoke with were mostly not from large corporations, but affiliated with public broadcasting and educational broadcasting. Only about 15 percent of them also were not from the United States, she said.
“I was positively surprised to find out how many wonderful professionals who are involved in the media around the world are doing innovative, substantive great work,” she said. “I was surprised at the diversity of concerns these producers have and how they think of television as a tool for positive change — which is quite different from most of the market-driven commercial television we have here.”
Lemish said there are many producers of children’s television shows in the United States who also are “wonderful and creative.” However, a large factor in this country is the amount of commercially driven programming where even young children, and their parents, become consumers of the latest program-related toys, clothing and accessories.
Lemish’s 2010 book, “Screening Gender on Children’s Television: The Views of Producers around the World,” which she utilizes in her class, has what she describes as “eight working principles for change.” The principles, she said, are a compilation of what media professionals shared with her in her research.
The concepts involve equality, diversity, complexity, similarity, unity, family, authenticity and voicing, she said. Equality involves boys and girls both having equal roles in television while their differences are respected and recognized, Lemish said. Diversity involves the importance of showing a wide range and variety of characters with various categories of race, gender, ethnicity and disability.
Complexity, Lemish said, involves showing boys and girls who are more complex, rounded, and not stereotypical, while at the same time highlighting the life experiences that boys and girls share.
The concept for unity looks at friendships and relationships between boys and girls built upon equal terms, while family refers to social contact of a child’s life that features positive role models for parent-child and adult-child relationships.
Authenticity refers to the need for television programs to depict true-to-life characters, narratives and social contexts, and voicing involves presenting programs that reflect the perspectives of children themselves as they view and express them, Lemish said.
Another study Lemish was involved with looked at 20,452 children’s television programs from 24 countries – more than 2,400 hours’ worth. The study found that 68 percent of the main characters in the programs around the world were male with 32 percent of the main characters female, Lemish said. In addition, the about half of programs shown throughout the world come from the United States, she said.
Excluding the children in the United States, United Kingdom and China, approximately 85 percent of the programs children view are produced outside of their own countries, with most programs originating in the United States, Lemish said.
“It’s not like this is an act of God or fate … it’s a market-driven culture,” she said.
Much of what international producers say and do is in comparison to the U.S. industry, Lemish said. In addition, children in the United States receive very limited programming from other countries. The same study from the 24 countries shows the skin color of characters of the television children around the world to be 72 percent white, 11.6 percent Asian, 6.4 percent African-American, and 2.7 percent Latino.
While male characters have personality traits that include being a leader and involved with action and adventure, female characters, including in cartoons, are often defined by their appearance, emotions, and interest in romance. Of course, there are exceptions. The popular cartoon “Dora the Explorer” is a program that breaks many stereotypes — a lead female character that is inquisitive, independent and diligent, Lemish said.
The findings are particularly important when a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation Study shows an increase in total viewing consumption — via television, the Internet, cell phones and iPods — to four hours and 29 minutes a day, or more than 31 hours a week, for children eight to 18 years old.
Children are spending more time with media than any other activity, including time spent in school and sleep, she said.
Lemish said she also hopes her research helps parents to realize that television is not “just plain entertainment and doesn’t make a difference,”
“All television is educational. The question is, ‘What does it teach?’ You have to check whether it is teaching the values you want to teach your children,” she said.