Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
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:
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.
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.
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!