“There are lots of moral panics around the innocence of children,” says Dr Joanna McIntyre, a lecturer in media studies at Swinburne University.
McIntyre is part of the Swinburne research team working with the Australian Children’s Television Foundation on a four-year research project into Australian children’s television.
“In Western culture, children are understood to be asexual and must be kept away from certain things – the framing of childhood is seen as a time of innocence and this in lots of ways can kind of rob children of their agency and their individualism,” she says.
“But it is very important for young children to have representations of diverse peoples from when they’re young.”
“[Television and media] have such a huge influence on how children understand the world and what they understand about people and lives. Up until recently, there has been a pretty limited scope in the types of people who are represented.”
The Australian Children’s Television Cultures (ACTC) project, announced in August, is working to understand how local children’s TV shows have an impact on our lives, in an effort to “help shape the next generation of hit shows and online content”.
The study also aims to understand if local content aimed at young audiences reflects the changing face of Australia as values continue to evolve with each generation.
Screen Australia’s 2016 report Seeing Ourselves: Reflections of Diversity in Australian TV Drama found that children’s programs and adult comedies tended to show a higher level of diversity than adult drama.
With new additions to old shows, such as the increasingly diverse Wiggles cast that was announced in August, and animated shows like Doc McStuffins, which centers on a young Black girl aspiring to be a doctor, children are seeing all kinds of people on their screens more now, than ever before.
Catherine Antonio, a mother to boys aged two, six and nine, says she and her kids love Doc McStuffins.
“It’s good because there is always a lesson behind it – she takes care of animals and toys like her mum takes care of people as a doctor, and her family life is always shown. I think it’s really inspiring for kids when they start dreaming about what they want to be when they grow up.”
Antonio says that when she was younger, TV shows had gender bias, whereas nowadays her kids can watch whatever types of shows they’d like without feeling like they shouldn’t be.
“Sometimes I question it because it’s not what I’m used to. My eldest boy likes trucks, and my middle boy likes My Little Pony.”
McIntyre says change is “generational”.
“Especially when it comes to inclusion and diversity – if we give kids a more inclusive and diverse understanding of the world that will flow on and hopefully when they become adults, the world will be more inclusive.”
Danielle Storey, 21, says she didn’t see people with a disability or people of colour on TV when she was a kid.
“When I went to school those were the [people] getting picked on because they weren’t seen as ‘normal’, whereas these days kids see all types of people on screen.”
Storey says that the current generation of particularly able-bodied, white, cis-gendered children are being shown that individuals with disabilities, people of colour, queer people and other diverse humans are on television because it is perfectly okay to be different – while also validating people who experience life as a minority.
“Julia from Sesame Street, who has ASD [autism spectrum disorder], is widely shown and discussed on the show, is encouraging kids not to be scared or apprehensive of kids who are different to them.”
Globally, TV shows aimed at children and teens have seen a large increase in particularly queer diversity, with shows like The Owl House, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Adventure Time all exploring diverse sexualities and genders through main and side characters.
Piper Seaman, 19, says Disney major motion pictures are lagging behind in this area.
“Disney is really far behind for a … franchise as big as it is. I think they have been great in showing cultural diversity and exiting the ‘damsel in distress’ trope, but they’re holding back on showing queer relationships,” she says.
“Disney has hinted at queer characters, but have never been brave enough to display it openly. They have missed so many opportunities and it’s like they’re walking on eggshells trying to ‘protect children’ from something that is completely normal and valid.”
Piper says that as a queer person, it would have been easier if they saw queerness in childhood. “If Snow White had a princess kiss her at the end of the movie, I think I would have accepted myself and come out a lot earlier.”
In June 2020, for Pride Month, Nickelodeon included SpongeBob in a tweet spotlighting queer characters and actors.
This gained a wide amount of mostly millennial media coverage and sparked conversations with those who grew up watching the series.
McIntyre says that in media studies, reading through a queer lens – consciously or unconsciously – can lead to people concluding that certain characters fit certain labels.
“Like with SpongeBob and Patrick, and Bert and Ernie, people have always assumed they’re in a queer relationship.”
Once media has entered the hands of its audience, interpretation becomes up to the audience entirely and conclusions are drawn, whether it was initially intended or not.
McIntyre believes there are “nuances of who is shown” when it comes to queer characters – some types of queer characters are deemed “acceptable” and are portrayed and others are deemed “unacceptable” and are in the shadows.
“Just because there are certain types of queer characters, it doesn’t mean the battle is won – there is more work for creators to do,” she says.
“There are queer adults and queer kids and children who will discover themselves to be queer and so having those representations from an early age helps to validate the place of queer people in society.”
“I don’t think that we are at a perfect point in any way,” McIntyre says.
“The fight has been happening for decades. The fact we are not there yet shows how important the fight really is.”
Diversity on Sesame Street and The Wiggles
Introduced in 2014, Julia was a new addition to Sesame Street. Since her introduction, her ASD diagnosis has been displayed and discussed in a way that teaches children rather than stigmatising it. The show has been known for displaying diverse Muppets and people, including Jason who has Down syndrome, Tarah who uses a wheelchair, Zari who wears a religious headscarf, Alex whose father is in jail, and Susan and Gordon, who adopted their son Miles.
The Wiggles, which began as an all-male group in 1991, announced four new diverse additions to the cast in August. Emma Watkins, the first female Wiggle, officially joined in 2012, but announced her departure at the end of this year.
Joining the new roster of the highly popular childrens’ TV show are Tsehay Hawkins, Evie Ferris, Kelly Hamilton and John Pearce. All four new members are from diverse backgrounds, with Evie Ferris the first Indigenous Wiggle to be a part of the three-decade long group. In January 2021, prior to the announcement, the group released a song for their upcoming 30 year anniversary titled We’re All Fruit Salad to celebrate diversity and unity.
- Additional reporting by Emily Spindler.