Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa / Black Panther in “Black Panther” (Credit: Marvel Studios)
The hype surrounding “Black Panther” has been as hyperbolic as any feat its characters might perform, with the film being praised for its layered story and what’s been described as its “Afrofuturist” cast. And “Black Panther” will be joined by “A Wrinkle in Time,” another film with blockbuster potential and an interracial cast.
But no matter how much money or how many awards films like “Black Panther” and “A Wrinkle in Time” amass, our research strongly suggests another reason they’re important: Children need a diverse universe of media images. And for the most part, they haven’t had one.
Some progress, but . . .
In the 1970s, Boston University communications professor F. Earle Barcus began publishing the results of content analyses he had conducted on children’s television. His findings showed large disparities between the numbers of male and female characters and between the numbers of white and non-white characters. In a 1983 study, Barcus analyzed over 1,100 characters in 20 children’s television programs and found that only 42 were black. Just 47 others belonged to some group other than white.
Since then, researchers have consistently found that the animated worlds children see on television are out of sync with their real environments.
Over the past seven years, we’ve continued studying this topic at the Children’s Television Project (CTV) at Tufts University, documenting images of different races, gender and ethnicities in the most popular children’s animated series. We’ve also taken steps to try to understand why stereotyped portrayals still exist well into the 21st century. Finally, we’re starting to develop ways to study and collect data about how children process the images they’re exposed to on TV.
In order to categorize the images children see, we’ve developed a system for coding the race, ethnic identity, gender and age of primary and secondary characters in children’s animated television shows. We’ve also included a sociolinguistic component to the analysis, because we know that children are absorbing both sights and sounds as they process media.
The good news is that the world of children’s animated television is more diverse than it used to be. For example, we’ve found that female characters account for just under one-third of all characters. Discouraging as this may appear, it’s a significant improvement from the 1:6 ratio that F. Earle Barcus had previously found, and better than the 1:4 ratio that communications professors Teresa Thompson and Eugenia Zerbinos found in the 1990s.
There’s more racial and ethnic diversity, too. Black characters account for 5.6 percent of our total sample of over 1,500 characters. (A study conducted in 1972 by researchers Gilbert Mendelson and Morissa Young for Action for Children’s Television found that over 60 percent of the TV shows in their sample had no racial minority characters at all.) There are many more Asian or Asian-American characters (11.6 percent), though this likely due to the prevalence of a few popular cartoons featuring mostly Asian characters such as …read more