By: Makeda Mays Green, Andrea Strauss & Colleen Russo Johnson
Media content has the power to shape children’s perceptions of themselves and others. But if it acts as both a mirror and a window, then what exactly are kids seeing reflected in the shows they watch?
One way to find out what they’re internalizing is to ask them. In Nickelodeon’s “Shades of Us” study that was conducted between 2019 and 2020, kids ages nine to 12 were asked to reflect on the shows they watch and identify the roles they think characters of various gender and racial/ethnic groups are most likely to play.
In other words, if you hired a kid to cast your next show based on what they’re used to seeing, what would you get? The results are a reality check on the pervasiveness of character tropes based on race, ethnicity, and gender that children have been indirectly taught over the years.
When it comes to casting the “hero,” the clear choice is the white boy (selected by 52% of all kids), compared to just 19% who cast a Black boy in the role. Hispanic and Asian boys fared worse, with just 12% of kids picking them as the hero. Girls are likely to land roles as the dancer, the crush or the cheerleader, but very clearly not the hero. Just 34% of kids cast girls in that role.
Black children are more than twice as likely to be cast as poor compared to white kids. Meanwhile, white children are significantly more likely to be viewed as smart (59%, compared to 38% of Black kids) and nearly twice as likely to be cast as a crush/love interest (64%, compared to 33% of Black children).
Asian youth are strongly typecast as the smart kid or the nerd, with those roles coming in as the top two archetypes for both Asian girls and boys. Overall, Asian children are least likely to be cast as the crush/love interest (23% of Asian children, compared to 64% of white kids), and Asian boys are almost never cast as the jock (6%, compared to 59% of white boys).
The only group that received an “I don’t know” as one of the top four responses for how they would be cast is Hispanic kids, indicating a severe underrepresentation of Hispanic/Latinx characters on screen. Hispanic kids are also the least likely to be cast as the smart character.
When it came to casting their own race, ethnicity and gender, the same tropes appeared. For instance, just 16% of Black kids cast Black boys as the hero, and 8% of Black kids cast Black girls as the hero.
In Nickelodeon/OK Play’s qualitative racial justice project (an extension of the “Shades of Us” study), a five-year-old Black girl explained that she thought—based on what she had seen on TV—all robbers were Black, and white people never committed robberies. Her perspective represents the detrimental impact of stereotypes perpetuated by media.
But kids want and need to see themselves represented in media content. According to “Shades of Us,” about half of Hispanic and Asian kids and nearly three-quarters of Black kids think it’s important to see their own race/ethnicity on screen. (Just one-third of white children feel it is important.) Additionally, kids of color do not feel they are well portrayed—40% of Asian kids, 45% of Hispanic kids and 55% of Black kids disagree with how they’re shown on screen (compared to 30% of white kids).
So, let’s evaluate what it truly means to be “seen.” Within each race/ethnicity group, there are nuances in treatment and discrimination based on physical appearance. The color of your skin, your hairstyle and your “look” all have a unique place in race discrimination and privilege. Light-skin privilege is particularly evident in media—where even culturally diverse shows and movies tend to cast light-skinned actors.
To truly reflect underserved audiences, it is imperative to authentically depict diverse characters. Representation is not simply defined by casting a specific race/ethnicity and “checking the box.” True representation comes from a diverse range of skin tones, hair textures, body types, interests, family structures and genders across and within racial and ethnic groups. Additionally, the integration of those characters must be accompanied by culturally fluent storylines.
The most common place other than school where kids learn about stereotypes is in movies and on TV, indicating the responsibility the media bears. But the current portrayals that do exist of children of color too often reinforce stereotypes that kids then internalize about themselves and others.
So, what’s next? Media companies have launched a wide range of initiatives and programming to drive positive change in racial and gender representation, including Nickelodeon’s Town Hall—Kids, Race and Unity: A Nick News Special. This type of programming underscores the importance of conversations that involve kids from diverse backgrounds.
To accelerate this progress, however, we recommend the following additional steps:
First, every media company should establish a DEI strategy to focus on three areas— content, talent and audience. If the creators do not represent the children they aim to serve, the content will not promote healthy social identity—especially among girls and people of color. Every media creator must embrace the imperative to expand their audiences to reach the growing minority of kids who will, in actuality, soon be the majority audience in the near future.
Second, truly placing kids in the casting chair begins with dialogue with the kids themselves! At Nick and OK Play, we are re- doubling our efforts to do formative research and mentoring programs that engage the real voices of the next generation of leaders. We need their voices in the room.
Third, our team will meet with academics and others to turn research into programming that fosters broader racial and gender representation. We hope to catalyze current actions into a sustainable movement towards broader racial and gender representation work within media firms—large and small. We encourage other media companies to do the same.
It is time to look with fresh eyes outside our windows. There is a beautiful tapestry of diverse young people who deserve a simple promise—tell all of their stories, their truth, with authenticity and care so that they know they can be the hero of their own stories, too.
At Nickelodeon, Makeda Mays Green is VP of digital consumer insights, and Andrea Strauss is VP of brand and consumer insights. Colleen Russo Johnson, PhD, is chief scientist and co-founder at interactive storytelling app maker OK Play. Insights were supported by Michael Levine, PhD, SVP of learning and impact at Noggin, and Ron Geraci, EVP, Nickelodeon Research.