NEWS

Representation in Media Is Improving, But There's Still a Long Way to Go

A young black girl in the foreground happily gasps at something on the TV, out of frame, with her family.

Key Takeaways

  • Children's reactions to the new trailer for "The Little Mermaid" live-action film are going viral, showing just how important it is for kids to see people like them in media.
  • "Peppa Pig" and "Thomas and Friends" are adding LGBTQ+ and neurodivergent characters.
  • Child development experts say diverse, positive representation is important for children to learn about their value and the value of others.

“She’s brown?” A little girl’s eyes well up with tears as she smiles, watching Halle Bailey emerge from a dark cavern as Ariel in Disney’s teaser trailer for the live-action remake of "The Little Mermaid." Parents’ videos of their Black children seeing the new Ariel for the first time have gone viral, a testament to the joy children experience when they see themselves represented on their screens. Representation in children's media has come a long way—but there is still a long way to go.

Representation in Children's Televison

If it seems like television is becoming more diverse, it’s not just your imagination—positive representation of marginalized groups has become more and more common over the years.

“Part of that is because we are becoming a more enlightened population. Part of it is there are so many more places for programming to do this now,” said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture and a trustee professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "There are all of the cable opportunities, Disney, Nickelodeon, streaming, and all of that."

For children, seeing themselves in the cast of their favorite show doesn’t just feel good. It makes a difference in how much they learn from or connect with a show.

“It’s not just about seeing yourself on screen and seeing the visible parts of your identity; it’s about feeling a personal connection to the material and a genuine understanding of the character and their experiences,” said Naomi Dambreville, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Mount Sinai Health System and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine.

This is something that's been studied for a long time. "Research around 'Sesame Street' and other PBS programs found children pay more attention and more readily learn from characters who look like them," said Paul D. Hastings, PhD, a developmental psychologist and professor of psychology at UC Davis. "It contributes to forming a sense that this is personally relevant, this is something that speaks to me, that I can learn from.”

While most people assume diversity in children’s shows only impacts marginalized children, experts agree it’s good for everyone.

Naomi Dambreville, PhD

It’s not just about seeing yourself on screen and seeing the visible parts of your identity; it’s about feeling a personal connection to the material and a genuine understanding of the character and their experiences,

— Naomi Dambreville, PhD

“We live in a very diverse world, so good media should reflect the world we live in,” said Daniel Marullo, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s of Alabama. “It normalizes [marginalized people] as part of the world we live in. It helps kids see that people are people, and there are differences in how we dress or talk, or do things, and that’s a great thing. Parents, caregivers, and teachers can help by putting things in context and offering information.”

Dr. Marullo said, for example, that a child might see a character on TV who uses a wheelchair before they see someone doing so in real life. Having a parent explain that wheelchairs are how some people move around, and that person still likes to play and do the same things as their child, is helpful, he said.

Positive Representation Makes A Difference

Thompson said PBS is responsible for some of the earliest positive depictions of marginalized people in children’s TV, on classic shows like "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood."

“From the beginning, [these shows] made an effort to include lots of people and populations we didn’t see in standard children’s programming,” he said. “'Sesame Street,' of course, took place in a diverse [city] neighborhood. Mister Rogers did an interview with a child in a wheelchair in one episode.”

Over time, as Black, Hispanic, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and neurodiverse characters gain more representation, their stories are taking center stage, a la Halle Bailey’s portrayal of Ariel. They are being told with depth, and this matters to young viewers.

“A lot of representations that do show up in media of Black, Brown, and Indigenous children tend to be one-dimensional—the token friend who takes a back seat to predominantly White characters,” said Dr. Dambreville.

Naomi Dambreville, PhD

A lot of representations that do show up in media of Black, Brown, and Indigenous children tend to be one-dimensional—the token friend who takes a back seat to predominantly White characters.

— Naomi Dambreville, PhD

Tokenism like that is almost as damaging as excluding marginalized groups. "[Tokenism] suggests to children their position is sidelined, a support role, or less important," says Dr. Hastings. "[Diverse] characters need to be treated with as much attention and respect as any other characters in the show for children to realize these characters are likable, can do things, and are people with whom other characters want to engage.”

TV Characters That Look Like My Child

Today, more races and cultures are being included in children's television shows than ever before. Think shows like "Mira, Royal Detective," "Doc McStuffins," "Nella, The Princess Knight," the "Blue’s Clues & You" reboot, "Odd Squad," "Molly of Denali," "Glitch Techs," and many more. The viral reaction to the new "The Little Mermaid" is proof this change is not only welcome but necessary.

“From 1830 to 1880 minstrel shows were the dominant form of American entertainment. Racial diversity on television didn’t exist much at all in the very beginning. What representations we did have were highly stereotyped and harmful,” Thompson says. “There began to be some movement in the 1960s, but there were still not many roles for people of color. Now there are a number of programs.”

In children’s television, "The Adventures of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" was one of the first popular shows with a majority of Black characters. "Sesame Street" and Mister Rogers were also known to have inclusive casts. Halle Bailey’s Ariel (who also has locs) is seen as the latest win in a fight for more equitable representation.

“It’s important to see yourself as the protagonist,” said Jacqueline Hargrove, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Mount Sinai Health System and assistant clinical professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “In psychology, we talk about how the narratives we tell ourselves are powerful, impact how we feel and the choices we make. If there aren’t narratives that center Black, Brown, and Indigenous children of color, it implies, ‘I can’t be the author of my own story.’”

Dr. Hargrove added that seeing characters like Ariel is important for White children too. “It’s important that White children have this exposure as well because stigma and prejudice are reduced with contact," she explains. "In this case of a Black mermaid, that’s important for White children to see. It shows them characters from a variety of backgrounds can be centered. We’re all made better for it.”

Children's TV Shows Featuring LGBTQ+ Characters

In early September, "Peppa Pig" introduced the first same-gender couple in the show’s 18-year history. Airing first in the United Kingdom—Peppa’s friend, Penny Polar Bear, draws her family, explaining that one of her mothers is a doctor, and her other mother “cooks spaghetti.” The episode aired two years after a petition calling for same-gender parents on the show received nearly 24,000 signatures.

Penny’s parents aren’t the first same-gender couple on children’s TV, though. GLAAD Media Award-nominee "Steven Universe" aired the first same-gender wedding on children’s TV in 2013, and "Arthur" depicted one in 2019. The spinoff series from "Arthur" called "Postcards from Buster" showed a same-gender couple back in 2005, Thompson notes.

There are many more series and characters representing LGBTQ+ people today: "The Loud House," "Adventure Time," "She-Ra," "Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts," "Danger & Eggs," "The Bravest Knight," and "The Babysitter’s Club" reboot, for example. Thompson noted stories about LGBTQ+ characters often deal with themes of identity and relationships, which aren’t usually covered in media for young children, and may explain why these shows skew older.

Neurodiversity Representation in Children's Television

In early September, the popular series "Thomas and Friends" announced it would soon welcome Bruno the Brake Car to its ensemble of train characters. Bruno is autistic and was carefully written to portray the disability accurately. He loves routine and schedules and sometimes flaps his ladders. That's the train equivalent of hand-flapping, a form of self-stimulation that can comfort an autistic individual when they’re feeling intense emotion, according to the National Autism Center.

Neurodiversity doesn’t only refer to autism spectrum disorder. The term encompasses a range of conditions, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Down syndrome, mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or social anxiety, intellectual disabilities, and more.

Parents and kids can find neurodiverse characters on "Sesame Street," "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," "The Owl House," "She-Ra," and "Hero Elementary," to name a few. However, positive depictions of neurodiverse people on TV are relatively new.

Prof. Robert Thompson

With neurodiversity, we as a population have been so uninformed about this for so long.

— Prof. Robert Thompson

“With neurodiversity, we as a population have been so uninformed about this for so long,” Thompson says. “For the longest time, what we now see as a kind of neurodiversity, you would see [portrayed] as the 'weird' people in a crime series or comic foils on TV programs. They were presented at best as nerds, and at worst, as people to laugh at.”

Dr. Marullo works with children with neurodevelopmental disorders. He stressed that while TV can introduce children to new kinds of people they haven’t met in real life, it also has the potential to depict them inaccurately (or downright negatively).

This is why it’s important for parents to watch along with kids, and be ready to discuss what they see. “The danger of media is that sometimes people may be depicted as stereotypes or presented for comedic effect, and that can be very confusing and potentially stigmatizing,” Dr. Marullo says. “Certainly with younger children, and even with older kids and teens, adults putting things in context can be helpful.”

These kinds of conversations can help pave the way for a better understanding of all types of neurodiversity. “As we have become more aware of neurodiversity, and therefore become aware of the fact that many of our fellow citizens fall into that community, it makes sense we should see television shows including for kids that represent people like that who we encounter,” Thompson says. “Even if it’s about pigs or aardvarks, they always are depicted as existing in a world kind of like the one we live in, and that world is filled with diverse characters.”

Still Work to Be Done in Children's Television

While children’s television today is significantly more inclusive than in previous decades, there are still many children who struggle to see themselves on screen. “Across the board, Native Americans are underrepresented. The Latinx population, which is a huge part of the American population, is underrepresented. The Asian population is also underrepresented,” Thompson said.

Drs. Dambreville and Hargrove agree that representation will begin to feel more equitable when the stories being told about Black, brown, and Indigenous people aren’t focused on their race at all. "The Little Mermaid" isn’t about Ariel’s Blackness, Dr. Hargrove explained. She just so happens to be Black.

“In order to start telling a new narrative, the first image is typically one that’s hyper-culturalized, like 'Moana,'” said Dr. Dambreville. “It’s a deep look into the Polynesian culture, which is great because that is a central part of the story. We may see [characters] become more mundane, everyday representations of the lives of people, like the movie 'Turning Red' about Asian culture and identity development. I think we have these stories, just not enough.”

Ultimately, all of these experts agree representation of every kind of character is important for all children to see. It’s one way to help them visualize a more inclusive world so they can create the same in real life.

“Representation is never the final goal or the thing we’re aiming for. It’s an important piece of moving toward a more equitable reality,” said Dr. Hargrove. “Representation is important, but if there aren’t consistent efforts to address systemic obstacles that get in the way of certain groups succeeding, what purpose is it actually serving? The faces of all these young Black girls [reacting to "The Little Mermaid"] are evidence of why it’s important.”

What This Means For You

Representation in children's media continues to grow. If you are a parent or guardian, you have more ability today than ever before to find series for your child that make them feel seen and validated. Parents should watch along with their children to make sure the content aligns with their family’s values, and be prepared to discuss anything problematic or new to their child. Your involvement can help them be more understanding of people who are like them and different from them, both on TV and in the real world.

9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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