Race in Media and Diversity in Children’s Television

As a mother of two young children (aged two and six), a lot of the television I encounter these days tends to appear on Disney Junior — which I watch on Malaysia’s PayTV network, Astro. I imagine there is an equivalent in most countries, considering there was a special Playhouse Disney (what Disney Junior used to be called here) show at the Disney Studios in Paris when we went last year.

Disney has copped a lot of flack in the past (and, well, sometimes still now) for perpetuating racist and misogynist views. I’ve previously lamented the fact Song of the South will not be released on DVD by Disney due to the controversy surrounding the way black people were portrayed, though that’s not something I’ve blogged about. That decision is interesting to me because I grew up watching that movie a lot and thought Uncle Remus was a great character. It didn’t even occur to me that black people were mostly in servitude roles in the film. Even so, now that I understand it, I don’t think it should be swept under the rug as if it never happened — these things should be available to allow us to learn from them.

In that vein, I grew up in Australia. The use of slavery in the US’s past is still rather abstract to me, beyond what I’ve discerned from media I’ve consumed. The research I did into slavery for my novel was centred around the Caribbean, not the US. And I guess that’s why I was interested to see the movies Lincoln and Django Unchained in the cinema this year. I do think it’s important for us to continue this dialogue through media, because it’s important history to remember and acknowledge, and it allows us to understand how racism can manifest itself in different countries. Living in Malaysia where race is very openly discussed seems so different from what things seem like in the US.

I want to note my background here because I know my views are different from an American who lives in America (distinction made because I’m an American who has never lived in America).

Why is Song of the South banned, and yet Peter Pan (which I read to my eldest son for the first time last year) — which very overtly uses words like “Redskins” and portrayed the “Indians” as needing the superior white Peter Pan — is perfectly acceptable? Are these issues discussed? I’m ashamed to admit I feel like I know less about Native American history than I do African Americans. I flinch when I see them referred to as Indians because, to me, Indians are people whose ancestors are from India. Is this just because I’m presently living in a country where Indians are one of the three major races? When I was in Washington, DC last year, I went to the Museum of the American Indian, and even then wondered why it was called that rather than Native American. Another trip I made last year was to a resort in Melaka called A’Famosa, which had a “Cowboy Town”, where they had Malaysians dressed up as Native Americans and referred to them as “Red Indians.” What is seen as racist to some is clearly not universal.

It’s interesting to me because, the more I try to understand, the more I feel like I have to learn. And yet… being white, and brought up in Australia, I find myself being afraid of asking questions about race. We’re taught to ignore it, because we’re “all equal” and you shouldn’t judge someone by the colour of their skin. Whilst I agree with that in theory, I think it in itself causes problems, because though skin colour might not have an affect on who we are as people, or how much our life should be valued, our cultures are different, and should be respected. Isn’t it better for us to learn about other cultures than pretend that we’re all the same?

I’ve gone off the topic I came here to write about, but I think there are some improvements being made now, in children’s television, compared to when I was a child. I think in some ways it was harder for me to comprehend why race might even be an issue in my youth, as a white person. Of all the media I consumed, all the characters were white. Most of the kids I went to school with were all white. It’s only in the last few years as I’ve been exposed to a more diverse range of people and have been reading about why this is a problem that I’ve been learning.

So I’ll bring us back to Disney Junior now. There are a couple of programmes on there that I think are a good start in exposing more kids to the diverse world we live in, whilst also empowering kids who aren’t white, because the main character isn’t. Now, I know about Dora the Explorer and Diego, but I don’t watch Nickelodeon these days so I can’t really discuss them.

Picture source

Handy Manny is a Mexican repair man. The entire town respects and adores him. Doc McStuffins is about an African American girl who is a doctor to toys. A girl who is a doctor! Fancy that! Not only that, but her mother is also a (people) doctor. I think this is an excellent step forward, as it’s great for everyone. Black kids can see they can have these important roles. Girls can see they can have these important roles. And, just as note-worthy, all kids can see it’s acceptable for people who aren’t white men to follow their dreams and still be damn good. Hopefully the boys raised on shows like this will not become the entitled sh*ts we get today.

Oh, and one last thing I wanted to mention. In the last week or so, I’ve also seen a couple of episodes of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse where the female characters (ie Minnie, Daisy, and Claribelle) take the lead roles, and act as a super sleuth team to solve a problem. The episode I watched today saw them saving Goofy and Donald, and I just loved seeing them being portrayed as heroes.

Disney has made and can continue to make more mistakes when it comes to race and women issues, but it’s a joy when I get to see them make these sorts of improvements in children’s television.

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