Talking with Kids about Diversity and Representation in Characters and Media
Due to increased national dialogue about what and how different cultural groups are presented in the media, we have many opportunities to talk with youth about who they are seeing on TV, in books, in the movies and in the software they use. Several studies have shown young children notice differences in people’s physical attributes associated with race and gender. Media scholars have engaged elementary students, as young as 6 years old, in conversation about the portrayal of characters. They found children are aware of, understand, and may internalize messages about racial and gender groups based on characters’ performance.
These studies show that media is another tool that can inform and influence children’s and youth’s knowledge about people from varying racial and gender groups, even if what they see in the media doesn't reflect real lifeIntegrating conversations about media characters can be one strategy that allows children to: notice patterns of what is seen and whose stories are told, examine characters’ representations and their authenticity to diverse communities, and engage in conversations about how media informs their perception of others. Below are some strategies facilitators, educators, and extension agents can implement in their programs.
Researchers have examined the frequency of racial and gender groups portrayed in children’s media. Results show White characters are presented more often and in more primary roles than any other racial groups. Whereas characters of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color) communities are seen less frequently and typically assigned secondary and minor roles. Scholars tend to examine gender from a binary perspective (e.g., male and female) and have revealed males characters are seen more often and assigned more central roles than female characters.
The Geena Davis Institute and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison provide freely available research that illustrate the representation disparity of characters from different gender and racial groups. You can gather information from these two institutions and other sources to examine representation patterns across different forms of media and trends over time with children and youth. When I work with young people, I use findings from children’s books, computer software, and film studies to show that female characters and those from BIPOC communities are underrepresented and more likely to be assigned secondary and minor roles.
Personalize and adapt research findings to the ages of children and youth in your program as well as how they learn (e.g., visually, auditory, language, etc.). For instance, you can combine text, photos, and informative images to make research more relevant and comprehensive to participants. This customization will help stimulate reflection, critical thinking, and discussion.
Amanda Armstrong discussing game design strategies with Summer Think Tank students.
Share your experiences
While research illustrates various findings on character representation, using examples from your life can help contextualize and make the information relatable. Talk about your experiences with media, particularly how representation influenced you, if you evaluated others based on what you saw, or if you were evaluated due to the representation of racial, gender, or other identity groups.
In my case, I share memories from my upbringing as I present research findings. To make my stories relatable, I use images of the shows and characters that I reference as well as images of myself and other people who represent my cultural group.
Some strategies that may help you think of memories:
Identify your favorite media characters. What did they look like? Did they look like you or people in your community?
Was it easy to find media characters who have similar physical attributes to you?
What were the popular tv shows, cartoons, and characters as you grew up? What did the main character(s) look like? What did the supporting character(s) look like?
While I found it fitting to weave my stories as I discussed the research, you may decide to share your experiences in a different format. Decide what feels best for you.
Engage children and youth in the topic
Give children and youth time to process, reflect, and discuss the information and experiences shared, so they can make the content more meaningful and relatable. Intentionally include times to let them “sit with” the information, ponder questions that may prompt their thinking, and offer any feedback or ideas they would like to share.
Here are some questions you may decide to ask children and youth:
“Take a moment to think about your favorite shows, films, and books. What do the characters look like? How do they act?”
“Do your favorite characters look like you (hair color and texture, skin tone, eye shape and color)? For those characters that look like you, do they also act like you or have similar interests? Is it easy to think of a character that looks like you?”
“Who’s missing?” “Whose stories are not being heard?” “How do you think media can be improved?”
Along with facilitating discussions, implement activities in which children and youth observe and take notes on character representation within the media they consume to notice patterns. For instance, ask them to look at their books, cartoons, and/or movies and write titles on a sheet of paper. Then, sort them by features of the main characters (skin tone, hair color, eye color), then count each group. Other ways they may sort characters are by interests (science, music, math), how they treat other characters (nice, mean, etc.), clothing, accent, or language.
Summer Think Tank students discussing their own game design ideas.
Discussion and activities can further their understanding and interests in media character representation.Give children and youth several opportunities to build their awareness of character representation, instead of implementing one-off learning experiences. Think of this as an ongoing process conducted over time and in meaningful ways.
You can facilitate group discussions where children and youth talk about character representation patterns, collaboratively identify the creators of their favorite media and notice if there are identity groups that are missing or less frequently seen, or conduct oral his(her)story projects with members of different communities to learn their stories. Perhaps children and youth can watch portrayals of the same identity group on different forms of media and compare the similarities and differences between these portrayals as well as compare these portrayals with stereotypes about that particular identity group. When making media, ensure all the members of the team have a voice and the storytelling is authentic to the experience and community. By intentionally conducting these activities, you can support children and youth in selecting, creating, and advocating for media which present fairer and more authentic representation of diverse communities.
Written by Amanda Armstrong, Games Lab Coordinator, email@example.com