By Corey Heller
Photo: Loren Javier
This past week my my children and I came down with some nasty illness. Lethargy, exhaustion and fevers abounded in our household. I wish I could say that I recovered quickly and was back in action with lightening speed but unfortunately that was not the case. Instead, my children and I have been snuggling on sofas and waiting out our illnesses.
I was far too exhausted to even think of reading to my children, which is what I usually do when my kids get ill (we love it!), so instead we all eagerly turned to our media babysitter: Netflix (we subscribe to the streaming option). We started off by watching carefully chosen documentaries (Guns, Germs and Steel, Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, and When Worlds Collide these fit well into my children’s homeschooling subjects – I highly recommend them). However, not surprisingly, as our illness continued, we soon turned to a variety of children’s media (holiday films, TV shows and cartoons) that we had never seen before.
We all know that too much screen time for anyone is unhealthy, so I did feel a little guilty for allowing my children (and myself) to watch so many hours of it. However, that is not what ended up concerning me. (In fact, we ended up having a great time checking out so many different programs that we had never seen before.) What I ended up finding most unhealthy were the stereotypical cultural expressions that my children were exposed to from one mainstream children’s media production company after another. At times I was shocked and almost disgusted with the way cultures were being represented, especially German. I asked myself and my children: “How do you feel about this?”
Last year Disney was praised in the media and by bloggers for it’s film, Toy Story 3, in which the character, Buzz Lightyear, was accidentally reprogrammed for a while to speek Spanish. Even though my children enjoyed the scenes, through the media and blogger frenzie I couldn’t help but see this as a targeted marketing ploy aimed at Spanish-speakers (which seems to have worked wonderfully), which left me feeling pretty negative about the whole thing.
My children and I have enjoyed watching movies from Disney and other production companies over the years and we will continue to enjoy their movies. However, I can’t help but wonder if stereotypical cultural and linguistic bursts in a film really do the service to multicultural families that so many claim? Or do they actually do the opposite by instilling stereotypical images and impressions even deeper?
What I found to be the worst this past week were the TV shows aimed at children, especially shows from all-day children’s programming channels. The way cultures and characters were portrayed in these programs was, at times, shocking to me. Some were just fun, others were down-right disturbing.
Here are some general examples of what I observed in these mainstream children’s TV programming:
- The Bad Guys: Very often the “bad guys” in a show were from another culture. I found this to be the most disturbing, especially since in one show after another, the bad guy was German (one of my children’s cultures). They spoke with a German accent, at times wore traditional German clothing, and had stereotypical German traits (e.g. intelligent and efficient). In one show, the bad guy was shown as a child in his past childhood home in Germany where he showed how strict and mean his parents had been to him (implying that this is why he turned into a bad guy).
- Poor Character Traits: In many shows, the independent, arrogant, slang-talking child (usually American) was the hero. Ignoring authority and parental advice was what made him admirable and successful. Is this really how we want our children to become?
- Stereotypical Portrayal: When someone from another culture was included, they were often portrayed stereotypically, displaying traditional manners, clothing, food choices, attitudes and accent. Do we want our children to believe that people in other countries wear their traditional, festive clothing all day long and every day?
- Simple Characters: Protagonists (American or from other cultures) in most shows had no complexity and were rarely thoughtful. They made snap decisions, were reactionary, were rarely confronted with issues that needed careful consideration, and were rewarded when punishing those who had done him wrong. Is dumbing-down characters really necessary for children to appreciate a storyline?
- Lack of Culture: More often than not, the shows didn’t even portray characters from different cultures or with different skin colors. Everyone was a perfectly fit, attractive, Caucasian.
- Speed: The rate of image switching was so incredibly fast that I don’t think it could be healthy for anyone, adult and child alike. When I finally insisted that we go back to some “normal” programs, it felt like things were moving in slow motion. Could this have something to do with our children’s poor attention spans?
What I find most unforgiveable in today’s children TV programming is the way in which children’s media companies seem to have all agreed on a set of simple, stereotypical representations for each culture (native costume and accent included). My children, with their bilingual upbringing of American and German cultures, are continually confronted with images of German characters who are the evil and cruel bad guys. American characters are often greedy, arrogant and disrespectful (yet often win in the end nevertheless). Strong characters are often caucasian, attractive and wealthy, while the underdog often has a skin color, lives simply and isn’t very smart. (As a side note: the ultra-politically-correct children’s programming that goes overboard is also doing a disservice, as far as I am concerned. Often those shows are just, plain boring!).
When it comes down to it, I would almost rather that children’s programming not include characters from other cultures if it can’t be done well. I’m not saying that the differences between cultures can’t be shown, explored, discussed and represented. My children and I thoroughly enjoy witnessing cultural differences represented with fun and humor in children’s shows (I’m thinking of a few PBS children’s shows). It’s just that if our children are sponges, as we are told, then they are soaking up each and every image and storyline that we offer them, so let’s do it right!
I don’t want to specifically target Disney TV here since so many mainstream programming channels are doing the same. Thus, my current approach with mainstream children’s media for my bicultural children is that we simply avoid it, or at least encounter it only occasionally. Talking with my children about how media programming is created for entertainment, but is often not an accurate account of cultures in our world, is helpful but it won’t change the influence that it has on my children.
Regardless of what we say to our children, if we expose them to regular stereotypical images of their (and other cultures), this is what they will come to internalize.
How do you feel about your children being exposed to stereotypical images of your culture? Is it better to at least show characters from different cultures, even if they are portrayed stereotypically or negatively?
Do you have some good examples of children’s programming that you can recommend?