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The stories children are watching

ajosephs Icon Posted by Ammu Joseph

May 14th, 2008

In the largest-ever detailed analysis of children’s television worldwide, researchers based in different parts of the globe tracked gender representation in nearly 20,000 fictional programmes from 24 countries. According to the international, scholarly team led by Dr. Maya Götz, who heads the Munich-based Internationales Zentralinstitut fur das Jugend und Bildungsfernsehen (IZI) and Prix Jeunesse International, the results show under-representation and stereotypical depiction of female characters across the world.

Studies of children’s television in the United States of America and Germany (”The main characters of German children’s TV,” Maya Götz, 2006) have already established gender imbalances and stereotypes within the national context of those countries. Some details about the US studies are available in an earlier post on WIMN’s Voices. This new research project, “Children’s Television Worldwide: Gender Representation,” set out to address the gaps in information and understanding of the situation in other countries and globally.

Close scrutiny of over 26,000 fictional characters revealed certain clear trends. For example, there are twice as many boys as girls on children’s television across the world:

• Only 32% of all main characters on children’s TV are female, while 68% are male
• In animation programmes, the imbalance is even greater: 87% males and 13% females — especially in shows featuring animals as main characters

The demographic reality of 51% females to 49% males in the world population is obviously not represented on children’s television. The study exposes gender imbalance all over the world, in public and private television, in imported/international and domestic programmes, and in animated and real-life formats.

The researchers found that most main characters in children’s TV have body types that conform to the “normal range” generally seen on television. However, the gender-related findings are quite unambiguous and significant: 15% of the female characters are very thin; this is more than twice the proportion of equally thin male characters (6%).

Another trend concerns race/ethnicity: the majority of heroes and heroines in children’s television is white. In their analysis of the skin colour of the nearly 15,000 human characters included in the study, researchers found that 72% were Caucasian (white). Only 12% had what could be viewed as Asian physical traits, 6% were black and 3% could be classified as Latina/o. Interestingly, women/girls seem to be represented as Asians, Africans or Latinas more often then men/boys.

In another surprising finding, South Africa topped the list with the highest percentage of white characters: 81% (when only 9% of the country’s population is white). Children’s TV in Kenya seems to have more girls of Asian origin (16%) than black African girls (11%) - again rather different from the composition of the actual population. An important reason for this kind of anomaly is the high percentage of non-domestic productions. For example, fictional television shown in Kenya is entirely produced elsewhere – mainly in the USA.

Acknowledging that quantitative analysis can provide only a partial picture, the researchers will next examine children’s programmes using qualitative methods. Nevertheless, they point out, the results of the quantitative analysis clearly establish the need for more diversity in children’s television.

The results of the study will be presented at Prix Jeunesse International 2008, “Girls and Boys and Television,” scheduled to take place in Munich from 30 May to 4 June 2008. By then details of the study, including country reports, will also be available on the IZI website (in English, too).

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