It’s More Important Than You Think
from Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar
I have been taking care of children for over a decade. Over the years, I’ve watched families of all kinds; single parents, rich parents, poor parents, parents who don’t allow television, parents who do; but the one thing I’ve noticed is, no matter what, the children are absorbent. Be it something we read, or something I say, the kids pick up on a lot more than you might think.
How many of us fit the American ideal? How many of our families fit the 100% white, heterosexual, cis gender, able-bodied and -minded, middle class nuclear family?
- Via Lee and Low Books
Think back to your childhood.
Maybe you were mainly into reading, and spent hours picking out books at stores or libraries. Maybe your babysitter was the television, where you met hundreds of characters and personalities through your screen. Maybe you played board games or went to the movies on weekends.
Who do you remember? Junie B Jones, the spunky 6th grader? The Hardy Boys, always looking for a new mystery to solve? Dexter and his annoying sister, DeeDee? What’s one thing most media we consumed have in common?
Well, the first thing I notice is how white most of it is. Growing up, the only racially diverse shows I can remember are That’s So Raven and the Proud Family. And the books I was into; Nancy Drew, Harry Potter, or any of the other dozens of series I spent hours reading, while they often had a strong female presence, they very rarely had any racial diversity. And I don’t think this has anything to do with my parents choices, necessarily, but more with the fact that diverse books were just very hard to come by.
Infographic by Tina Kugler
Here we see an infographic detailing race representation for children’s books in 2012. I thought it illustrated the disparity pretty well (even though I’m not a fan of the use of the word caucasian).
What happens when children don’t see themselves represented? According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, as of 2014, “37% of the US population are people of color, but only 10% of children’s books in the last 21 years contain multicultural content“.
And so much of what currently exists is based on stereotypes. I can’t even begin how much of the media I consumed as a child relied on the tired stereotypes of the super smart, desexualized Asian man, the docile Asian woman, the basketball star black man, the loud and crass black woman.
Are there people who fit these descriptors? Sure, but it’s important to remember that people are more than a few key words, and not every one who happens to share similar lineage acts the same. And this is where we hit the issue of positive representation verses the danger of hyper-visibility. So a show has a main character that’s a black man- but his “thing” is hot wiring cars, and there’s not much character development past that. Is the cast of the show “diverse”? Certainly. Are the ideas behind the character healthy? Hardly.
How are black boys supposed to feel about themselves when the representation they find tells them that they’re destined to either make it as a basketball star or fail and become a drug dealer?
And this is why media is so important.
What we consume controls how we view the world around us. Take this clip from the book, I’m Glad I’m A Boy! I’m Glad I’m A Girl! published in 1970: Now, that was 1970. In 1970, my mother was 6. This was a very popular book when it came out! So that means that at least as recent as my mother’s generation was indoctrinated in a very blunt way with these very rigid gender roles. But I often find these baseless rules are usually conveyed in a more insidious manner.
Take this quote from Lino Di Salvo, the head animator on the enormously popular movie, Frozen:
“Historically speaking, animating female characters is really, really difficult, because they have to go through this range of emotions, but they’re very, very — you have to keep them pretty… So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough.”
I think this quote says a lot more about the industry in general than it does about Di Salvo’s personal views. But this is how we see such a lack of representation. The belief that women have to be pretty at all times, whether they’re frolicking through flowers or having an emotional breakdown.
The creator of Steven Universe, Rebecca Sugar, is the first woman to independently create a series on Cartoon Network. This in itself is a really big step forward. She’s quoted as saying,
“My goal with the show was to really tear down and play with the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children because I think that’s a really absurd idea that there would be something radically different about a show for little girls versus a show for little boys.”
And she’s accomplished that. Steven Universe is a young boy, being raised by his mother’s three best friends and father. As a show it contains non-binary women, lesbian relationships, people of color, and a family that is far from the nuclear set up we see so often. It’s beautifully made, featuring catchy songs and quirky characters.
What Can We Do?
We see some examples of diversity in television and books, but when you compare it to the thousands that have been made, it’s not enough. So what can we do to change things?
The first example of someone taking action is Marley Dias; an eleven-year-old black girl who was tired of never seeing herself in the books she read. She started what became a movement to try to find 1,000 books about black girls, #1000blackgirlbooks. It went viral and she went above and beyond her goal, 4,000 and counting.
photo by Andrea Cipriani Mecchi
There’s also a campaign called We Need Diverse Books, started by Ellen Oh, that helps promote books that contain diversity from all over the spectrum of the human experience. They have a huge hashtag following and reading challenges that inspire readers to find more books with diverse authors and/or casts.
These are all about books. I have yet to see a campaign or organization dedicated to encouraging diversity in television and movies, but don’t let that discourage you! The best thing we can do is both participate in things like We Need Diverse Books, as well as taking action ourselves to tell networks and production companies what we want to see: ourselves, and those we love.