What are kids entertainment execs doing for girls and racial diversity?

by Guest Contributor Rachell Arteaga, originally published at The Majority Post

A member of Women in Children’s Media, I recently had the privilege of attending this year’s 10th annual KidScreen Summit. With just over 1000 attendees and hundreds of speakers from across the country and all over the world, this truly was a Mecca for all those who are in the business of creating kid’s media. I, however, attended as an observer absorbing what I could from workshops that really delved into the inner workings of the content and production of children’s media. I arrived at this three-day extravaganza with one question – what is the kids’ media industry doing to serve girls and children of color?

I couldn’t help but feel frustrated by the answer. While programming aimed at children in preschool and ages 5-7 seem to do their part with shows like Dora the Explorer, Maya and Miguel and Little Bill, ‘tween audiences (ages 8-12) seem to be left in a vast cultural wasteland with a dearth of empowering female role models and an even greater absence of featured children of color. This hole in representation is glaringly more apparent in animation. Dr. Maya Götz, head of the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI), conducted a study which surveyed television shows throughout the globe. In it, IZI found that “Only 32% of all main characters in children’s television are female. The ratio of male to female characters in animation programmes, especially if the main character is an animal, monster, etc., is as disparate as 87% male to 13% female.” The same study found that “72% of all main characters in children’s television [around the world] are Caucasian.”

I willingly admit that this experience has done a lot to invoke my own childhood interactions with media. I am a Latina that grew up in a single parent home, living in a small, broken apartment. I heavily consumed media as a child, perhaps for escapist reasons, but know that this experience exacerbated my frustrations. All I saw staring back at me were male rabbits, white super heroes, or helpless white princesses. Whether live action or animated, I almost never saw anyone who looked like me entertaining or teaching me in my ‘tweens. As an adult I feel a similar frustration on the behalf of children when I see, twenty years later, virtually the same perpetual television culture. While there has been a noticeable increase of female leads, there needs to be a shift in the way we see diversity – beyond just black and white and beyond families that are strictly heterosexual.

A major cause of these television inadequacies can be attributed to the lack of diversity that plagues the community in charge of buying and producing content. I was pleasantly surprised (though not fully, given that it is supposedly more “acceptable” for women to work in anything child related) to see that there was a very healthy mix of both women and men execs who are at the upper rungs of production and children’s media business at the Summit. However, I was extremely disappointed to see that there were very, very few executives of color. Meaningfully diverse content that is more reflective of the children in our country and around the world cannot be created without these media generators being more culturally and racially inclusive. Kids of color need to see more of themselves in leading roles. The “token black kid” is no longer sufficient.

Money cannot be ignored as a driving force in this seemingly homogenous programming. I can’t help but think that it could be due to the increasing spending power of the ‘tween market. It seems that as kids get older, programming becomes more and more targeted at those perceived to have more disposable income (i.e, white, middle class and upwards). However, the industry, on a whole, seems to miss the golden opportunity to marry empowerment and more inclusive representation with successful, money-making programming.

These opportunities are not always lost by all – True Jackson, VP, currently on Nickelodeon, is an example of successful, mainstream ‘tween (and teen) programming that features children from diverse backgrounds (going beyond mere tokenism and the typical black-white model of “diversity”). And while it does not address all racial and cultural deficiencies, such shows can begin to serve as golden model for other kids’ content producers to build on. Not surprisingly, it is much harder to find such examples within animation. While money will always be a driving force in selecting “the next big thing” there is no reason why content producers can’t acknowledge the increasingly heterogeneous population that the United States is and becomes every day.

On the third day of the almighty KidScreen Summit I left with much ambivalence. Feelings of awe at the power of creativity and technology intermingled with the dissatisfaction of the sad, simple answer to my question – Not very much.