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Study examines television, diversity, and self-esteem

June 6, 2012

This month, the academic journal Communication Research published a study by two Indiana University professors called “Racial and gender differences in the relationship between children’s television use and self esteem: a longitudinal panel study.”

This unique piece of research studied 396 black and white preteens in communities in the Midwest United States over a yearlong period. Researchers focused on how much the kids watched TV, and how that impacted their self esteem. What they found –although kind of common sense–is making headlines: Television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for white and black girls and black boys, and an increase in self-esteem among white boys.

(The study was conducted in school districts in Illinois that had predominantly black and white students. AngryAsianMan hopes for a future study on television and the self esteem of Asian American children. The researchers also controlled for age, body image, and baseline self esteem to determine if television was making an impact.)

When CNN contacted Michael Brody, the chair of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, regarding this study, he said that children are affected when they don’t see themselves represented on TV, and it affects them when the young people who look like them are seen doing something wrong.

In discussing the results of their findings, the authors point to three potential explanations:

  1. Male characters are portrayed as powerful, strong, rational, and the main character, while in contrast, female characters are portrayed as emotional, sensitive, and more likely to be a sidekick or love interest. In contrast to white characters, black male characters are more likely to be depicted as menacing or unruly, and black female characters are more likely to be shown as exotic and sexually available. As a result, young white boys have greater access to positive media representation. Social identity theory would argue that exposure to this coded messaging helps young white boys believe that anything is possible, and that they can attain, achieve, and be heroes.
  2. If television serves to reinforce gender and racial stereotypes, then social identity theory also predicts that the white girls, black girls, and black boys in the study used messages from the media to evaluate themselves, and that these comparisons can impact self esteem. In addition to messages kids get from family members, peers, community members, and other areas in their lives, if white and black girls and black boys also absorb messages from the media, it could impact their self esteem if they do not see themselves as successful, as main characters, or as heroes.
  3. If kids are watching television, this might be displacing real-life experiences that could otherwise build self esteem. (The study found that black kids watched 10 hours more of television than white kids did.) Arguably, these kids could be learning more about themselves through activities other than television, which could otherwise have raised self esteem. (The authors note that this theory does not explain why watching television hurts self esteem for girls and kids of color but raises self esteem in white boys who watch a lot of TV.)

Co-researcher Nicole Martins explained the contrast between white male, female, and black male characters on television:

“Regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for [people who look like] you. You tend to be in positions of power, you have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife, with very little portrayals of how hard you worked to get there.

“If you are a girl or a woman, what you see is that women on television are not given a variety of roles. The roles that they see are pretty simplistic; they’re almost always one-dimensional and focused on the success they have because of how they look, not what they do or what they think or how they got there.

“Young black boys are getting the opposite message: that there is not lots of good things that you can aspire to. If we think about those kinds of messages, that’s what’s responsible for the impact.”

Amy Jordan, director of the Media and the Developing Child sector of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, noted to CNN that pre-teen boys are exposed to a lot of television shows featuring superheroes.

Both superhero shows Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Young Justice feature more male characters than female characters, and more white characters than characters of color.

Superhero television shows almost always feature a majority of white male main characters(even if they do have black or female characters, these characters are usually featured less often than white male characters, and nearly always in secondary roles. Including off to the side in promo pictures.) Kids notice when people who look like them are not as represented or are depicted as less important. It is significantly harder to find television shows featuring women or characters of color, particularly women characters of color, and that is what makes shows like The Legend of Korra–which targets the tween demographic–so important.


The Legend of Korra, which features a woman of color as the lead character, is basic cable’s number one kid’s show

According to an NPR interview with Korra show runners Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, Korra defied industry expectations and boys at test screenings were open to and enthusiastic about the lead protagonist. (NPR: “Boys said they didn’t care that Korra was a girl. They just said she was awesome.”)

Perhaps if there were more television shows like Korra to even out representations and dilute stereotypical representation, television would stop lowering the self esteem of girls and children of color. If television can increase the self esteem of white boys, maybe an increase in equal and diverse representations can also help increase the self esteem of girls and children of color. This study is definitely a sign that the television industry–and advocates who care about diversity in media–need to continue stepping up our game!

Categories: blog

About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • Youngblood23

    Good article and I totally agree we need more programming like Korra. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/George-William-Claxton/1430575253 George William Claxton

    You forgot the trope that “the black male almost always dies first.”
    A perfect example of this is “X-Men: First Contact” in which the only hero to die is the black guy (whose major ability in the comics is that he can adapt to anything, even death). Also, the only woman of color in the movie is a stripper who turns traitor at the earliest opportunity.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/5ZXIEGCAFZ4F7LBI6QTTN3YJCY Ashe

       I was really frustrated by that. I got to preview the movie with my co-workers and my mood was quickly soured by how eagerly they got rid of the people of color in the cast.

      • moneymalkom

        Interesting I just watched “X-Men First Class” the other day and noticed this same thing. Almost turned the sh1t off!

        • Shantella Sherman

          Wow! Had a friend walk out of the theater at that point in the film. Not so subtle subtlety…

  • Anonymous

    I just discovered this website through a comment on “Racialicious”.  Must say that it is great!  Keep up the good work. 

    Not surprised that children are being negatively impacted by the lack of racial diversity on television.  It’s hard to believe that the Cosby Show was once number 1 in the 1980s!  Those were the days.

  • Javisbc

    I have to go in defense of young justice, this season features much more diversity, i think Greg Weisman should be merited for this, he at least is trying to bring diversity

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1418569472 Phillip Lozano

    It’s worth noting that ‘Young Justice’ has added more female and non-white characters in its second season. My children were particularly pleased to see the introduction of Batgirl, Wonder Girl and the young, Mexican-American incarnation of the Blue Beetle, as well as the (re)introduction of Native American characters, in the guise of the Longshadow family (a reference to the 1970s character Apache Chief).

    • http://www.racebending.com Marissa Lee

      Yes, Young Justice has done a great job adding diversity to it’s cast! Hopefully this will be reflected in promo materials (DVD cover art, toys, etc.) and not just on the show.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1418569472 Phillip Lozano

        The Jaime Reyes Blue Beetle was extensively promoted and marketed as part of the “Batman: Brave and the Bold” TV series and toy line, along with the Asian-American Ryan Choi version of The Atom (“Young Justice” features the Silver Age Atom, Ray Palmer, but his African-American female protege, Bumblebee, is now a part of The Team); however, there doesn’t seem to be as much merchandising for “Young Justice,” perhaps because the TV series skews to a slightly older demographic. Aqualad is the only non-white character I’ve seen represented in the “Young Justice” action figure line, but female characters Artemis, Miss Martian and Black Canary have all been represented. Aqualad and his father Black Manta were both represented of the McDonald’s Happy Meal promotion.

        • Megan Thompson

          It is also worth noting that central cast member Artemis (while irritatingly blond) is clearly represented in the show as being half Caucasian and half Asian-American.

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  • asdf

    Young boys watch Avengers and Young Justice? That’s news to me, and I’m pretty sure it would also be to Marvel and Cartoon Network who cancelled those shows due to lack of popularity among kids. Why not mention shows they actually watch like Phineas and Ferb or iCarly?

  • Robert Trujillo

    First off I want to thank Racebending for promoting critical thinking, especially on topics like this. It is important to me as a parent and as a man of color. As for action steps, one thing i’d like to see is a regular or permanent section where we can see, find, or share animation, comics, YA novels, and or picture books that feature children of color. There are many blogs for separate things, but i’d be nice to see them all together; especially independent companies or studios who are trying to reach and build their audience.

  • honey

    i dont think you saw enough to notice that the legend of korra’s characters undergo a lil thing called development. Korra starts off this way yes, and she is flawed. Thats what makes her a great character. even so, she grows and matures as a character. she permanantly lets go of her love interest, understanding that its just not working. By the end of book two, shes a whole new person. thats the thing with the avatar series that people love so much, the character development.