What does it mean when disability is portrayed as a villainous trait?

Differently-abled characters are lacking proper representation on screen, and other findings from a recent study on UK inclusion among preschool shows.
July 17, 2019

One in five people in the UK live with a disability or impairment, yet this isn’t reflected in the content kids are consuming. Disability is not only underrepresented across children’s programming, but when it does appear on screen, it’s often associated with villains, according to a new study commissioned by preschool SVOD service Hopster, done in partnership with kid research firm Dubit. According to the paper, Is TV Making Your Child Prejudiced: A report into pre-school programming, disabilities were only shown in 16% of the 50 programs included in the study.

(Despite the study’s title, the research doesn’t answer the question of how a lack of representation affects children’s prejudice development, though a number of studies over the years have suggested because prejudice is a learned behavior, a lack of diversity on screen does have a negative impact).

More than half of the programs featuring disabled characters were showcased in a tokenistic (characters who aren’t central to the storyline) or in a negative way (disabilities are used to add menace to a character). The findings align with research released this past April on children’s TV in North America by the Center for Scholars and Storytellers out of UCLA and Ryerson University in Toronto, which found that there was virtually no characters with obvious physical disabilities in US or Canadian content (1% and 0%, respectively).

“A character who’s lost a limb is sinister [LEGO Ninjago] or has Tourette’s Syndrome is one of the baddies [Dinotrux],” says Nick Walters, Hopster founder and CEO. “And you start thinking: ‘Well, if that’s a child with a disability, how do [viewers with disabilities] grow up feeling about themselves?'”

The report recommends that content creators do not need to address disability as a storyline or theme, but include a character who is well-rounded and not defined by their disability, so that kids and a broader audience are not just seeing characters with a disability negatively. The study highlights a number of children’s series that feature differently-abled characters in a positive light, including CBeebies long-running (11 seasons) live-action series Something Special, which features only kids with disabilities and a host who presents using gestures from British Sign Language; Welsh prodco S4C’s animated series Fireman Sam, which aired on British Welsh channel S4C and later CBeebies; Netflix’s Chip & Potato and BBC Studios’ Hey Duggee.

Meanwhile, stereotypes are still common in kids programming, with female characters often being objectified, defined by the color pink and designed with a stereotypical female look (long thick hair and over-sized eyes). While positive strides have been made to address gender imbalance, a full third of series had overt stereotypes, highlighting the “powerfullness” and importance of being a boy, who get assigned roles like doctors and policemen, while female characters are often depicted as in need of protecting or assigned the role of cleaning up.

The study also identified a lack of representation for LGBT+ characters, noting that just 7% of the episodes involved in the study featured an LGBT+ character, and even then the representation was usually brief. Also, the majority of shows included in the report don’t represent a balance of real-world of society and take place in castles, mansions and among privileged families, with just 9% of series depicting homes lower on the socio-economic ladder, despite the fact that 50% of the UK population would be considered “working class.”

The hope is that this research will start conversations among content creators in terms of what stories they’re telling and how they’re telling them, says Walters. Going forward Hopster plans to acquire and create content that addresses these issues, he adds.

“Digital platforms have a serious responsibility to address these issues because we aren’t regulated in the way linear channels are,” says Walters. “On a platform like YouTube, there is no editorial control and we saw series like Webs and Tiaras that weren’t representative and had problematic gender stereotyping. Parents have so much choice for where they can go for content and its incumbent for digital brands, if we want to maintain parental trust, that we think about these issues or risk losing viewers.” ( Webs and Tiaras was a live-action YouTube show that featured actors who would dress up as characters from popular kids IPs, such as Spider-Man and Frozen, and perform bizarre stunts. The series is no longer available on YouTube, but at one point had nearly a million subscribers and 179 million views, according to Hopster and Dubit.)

To compile the study, the paper looked at the 50 most popular shows on both linear and SVOD platforms (including Netflix, Amazon and NOW TV) among three- to four-year-olds. The full list of shows and the report can be read here.

About The Author
News editor for Kidscreen. Ryan covers tech, talent and general kids entertainment news, with a passion for kids rap content and video games. Have a story that's of interest to Kidscreen readers? Contact Ryan at rtuchow@brunico.com



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