An Analysis of the Psychological Impact
that Children’s Television Programming Has
on the Self-Development of Black Children
How does the lack of equal and unbiased representation in television marketed for children affect their sense of self and self-worth? This is the primary question I’m exploring in analyzing the spaces that Black children occupy in animated children’s television programs. Much of the literature on the topic acknowledges how heavily children, especially Black children, rely on television for constructing an image of the world and themselves and that Black children come to associate more positive connotations with lighter skin tones, a predictable finding considering that White main characters and protagonists dominate on the television screen. For data, I examine animated children’s shows that feature all-Black casts and main characters and compare them to shows that only feature Black children as sidekick characters or functions of the plot. My findings reveal that self-empowerment and the ability to “save your own day” are defining features of the main characters in shows with Black main characters. This contrasts with shows where the Black characters are either saving someone else’s day or fulfilling an antihero role. These findings provide evidence of the subordinate depictions Black children are often subjected to on television and emphasize the need for the entertainment industry to provide children fuller and more colorful representations of themselves to avoid the harmful consequences on self-esteem and self-worth.
When we think of childhood, we generally think of a time in our lives that was carefree and full of wonder; pure and innocent. And while this understanding generally rings true, it is hard to ignore and important not to ignore how the experience of childhood differs for Black children due to their race. If a Black child is able to experience the unfettered joy of childhood, it, unfortunately, is not long until this experience becomes muddied as they start becoming hyper-conscious of their race. From White children on the playground asking them why their hair is so “fluffy” to not seeing Black children who look like them in their favorite books and television programs, Black children are forced to question themselves and how they fit into the world around them at an age when they should only be asking themselves, “What is five plus five?”
The media we consume can often influence our beliefs, values, and perceptions of the world, others, and ourselves. So children, with their impressionable young minds, are particularly susceptible to their identities and social understandings being molded by what they see on television. For this reason, and the additional fact that the television landscape has historically been infused with images of White superiority and White idolization, it is important to seriously evaluate how Black children are represented in television and the implications of these representations for Black children watch these programs during the most fertile periods of their learning and development. How does the lack of equal and unbiased representation in television marketed for children affect their sense of self and self-worth? In this paper, I address this question through looking at a series of scholarly articles, novels, and studies,as well as through original analysis of animated television shows from the late 1990s and early 2000s. My findings reveal the disproportionately low self-esteem that Black children are subjected to on mainstream children’s television shows and how variances in representation reside at the core of this issue.
Many scholars have engaged with my study’s key themes of representation, race, and self-identification. Beginning broadly, author Ann Morning asks us to consider what race is in her 2005 article “Keyword: Race.” Morning discusses different concepts of race, from the biological to the social and performative. She writes that despite a social attitude that an individual can “act White” or “act Black,” a shared set of behaviors, ideas, or values don’t really work to determine a person’s race—there’s an inevitable inheritance of biological physical characteristics that define an individual’s race.1 However we may conceive of race, its function in society becomes a notable factor in one’s perception of self, as authors Morris Rosenberg and Roberta G. Simmons elucidate in their 1971 study Black and White Self-Esteem: The Urban School Child. Rosenberg and Simmons investigate how Black children conceive of and come to measure their self-worth through a series of interviews with a sample of children from an urban public school system. The pair found that the Black children in their studies associated more positive connotations to lighter skin tones than they did with darker skin tones, to which they attributed more negative connotations.2 Their study delves into a very rich and complex component of my case study: Black children’s budding perception of self, as informed by the images they see in media and how they feel they do or do not relate to them.
Rosenberg and Simmons’s study opens itself up to the issue of colorism, which American novelist Wallace Thurman directly takes up in his 1929 novel The Blacker the Berry. The novel centers around the character of Emma Lou, a young black girl who feels that her “blue-black” dark skin is a liability, a curse. From this early age, the White people in her Idaho town tease and look down at her, but most poignantly, her own family members cast shame upon her, rejecting her for her variation in skin tone. The rejection from those close and distant to her lead into a years-long pursuit of something to fill the void of her shame and insecurities over her skin tone.3 Maxine Thompson and Verna Keith discuss Emma Lou’s character and her unfortunate struggle with the effect of colorism on her self-esteem in their study “The Blacker the Berry: Gender, Skin Tone, Self Esteem, and Self-Efficacy.” The study examines how colorism affects perceptions of self for men and women, and the authors found that gender does play a role in socially constructing the importance of how an individual perceives their skin tone. They found that skin color is more directly correlated with self-esteem for Black women than Black men, and further, that the impact of skin tone on self-esteem for Black women of higher socioeconomic classes were weaker than women of lower socioeconomic classes.4
We can put these works of literature in conversation with literature written specifically about Black children’s experiences in and with television. In the 2004 article “Through the Eyes of a Child: Representations of Blackness in Children’s Television Programming,” author Ebony M. Roberts examines how young viewers understand and interpret what they watch on television and analyzes the potential influence that television portrayals can have on the self-concepts of Black children. She found that although young children have not yet developed the cognitive ability to fully understand television content, they rely heavily on television to be a true representation of the world, making television an integral role in their development.5 This directly points to why I chose to analyze portrayals of Black children in television: Children trust that the images adults create for them to be true and real. Roberts makes it clear that television has a substantial effect on children’s perception and what they take to be true about the world and themselves.
That’s a lot at stake for any child, but the stakes are even higher for Black children. Carolyn A. Stroman, Carolyn tells us why in her 1984 article “The Socialization Influence of Television on Black Children.” In her review, she compares Black children’s experience with watching television to the experience White children have while watching television. Stroman reviews several studies pertaining to the state of knowledge about television’s socializing impact on Black children in order to draw her own conclusions about the disparities between how often in a day Black and White children watch television, the resulting social and developmental effects, and the differences in the kinds of shows Black and White children prefer. She found that not only do Black children watch more television than White children, but they also prefer shows that regularly feature Black characters.6
Method & Data
The bright, fantastical visual nature of animated shows, from their color schemes to their quirky and offbeat depictions of people, animals, and other made-up creatures, capture children’s imaginations and make them much more exciting shows for children to watch and find entertaining. Therefore, in this paper, I will be conducting a case study on the representation of Black children in animated children’s television programs. For data, I will be conducting a content analysis of animated shows that feature all-Black casts and main characters such as Little Bill (1999-2004), where Little Bill is the main character, and The Proud Family (2001-2005), where Penny Proud is the main character. I will compare them to shows that only feature Black children as sidekick characters or functions of the plot, such as Hey Arnold! (1996-2004), where Gerald serves as the best friend of main character Arnold, and Rugrats (1991-2004), where Susie Carmichael moves into the babies’ neighborhood to challenge Angelica, the show’s antagonist. With Rugrats as the exception (since Susie, the show’s Black main character, isn’t introduced until the second season), I will focus on the pilot episodes of each show for the purpose of observing how these characters are initially introduced to its audience—first impressions are always significant. In each pilot, I will analyze each character’s connection to the plot, their personal motivations, and how they are treated by other characters in the show. My central aim is to analyze the spaces that Black children occupy in these television programs that can be used to draw insights about the social and psychological effects that children’s media featuring White main characters have on Black children’s self-perception and self-esteem. Conversely, I will additionally seek to gather insight into how Black children’s self-perception might develop whenever they see themselves in the starring role.
In the pilot episode of Little Bill called “The Treasure Hunt,” five year old Little Bill is on the hunt to find his “thing” which becomes another word for what is essentially his hobby or, what his great grandmother Alice the Great describes as that “thing” everything has which makes them feel like they’ve found a treasure. For Little Bill’s great grandmother, it’s knitting; for his father, it’s listening to jazz records; for his mother, it’s photography, and for his brother and sister, it’s playing chess. He visits each of them in varying rooms in their Brooklyn brownstone, in between each visit singing: “I’m gonna find my thing, I’m gonna find my thing!”7 Carefree and playful, all Little Bill cares about is his treasure; though happy to talk about their own treasures and why the like them, his family doesn’t dismiss nor even, conversely, try to solve his dilemma. Rather, it’s Little Bill who says he doesn’t really like whatever hobby he’s watching others engage in and proclaims for himself that he’s ready to find his own. By the end of the episode, when Alice the Great asks Little Bill to tell her what he’d been up to all day, he winds up finding his “thing” by realizing a special talent he already had inside of himself: telling stories. Little Bill empowers himself by solving his problem and finally finding his own treasure.
This line of self-empowerment is mirrored in the pilot episode of The Proud Family titled “Bring it On.” The episode opens with Penny Proud, the show’s protagonist, on her middle school’s football field trying out for the cheer team. Penny feels like her spot on the team is guaranteed since her best friend Dijonay is the team captain, but she’s challenged when LaCienega, Dijonay’s childhood friend, moves back into town and threatens her spot on the team. Feeling upset that LaCienega may take her spot and her best friend and annoyed that LaCienega presents a sweet face to her friends and family but is catty toward her in private, Penny makes a wish for LaCienega to get out of the picture, which is overheard by the school bullies who concoct a spiteful plan to do just that. Driven by her conscience to do what’s right, for someone she doesn’t even like, Penny rushes to the football field to protect LaCienega from harm’s way and, in the process, chooses to take the brunt of the bullies’s scheme to build a secret contraption meant to send LaCienega flying whenever it’s her turn to come on stage for cheer tryouts. The episode ends with Dijonay realizing how fake LaCienega is and with Dijonay and Penny’s reconciliation.8 Penny solves her own problem just by being honest with Dijonay, for it’s shown that all Penny cares about is securing and maintaining her friendship with her best friend, a message that emphasizes the virtuous nature of Penny’s character.
Having just analyzed two shows where the Black characters take center stage, I will now move to two shows that represent a more common dynamic in television programs where the Black characters play a secondary character to the main White characters. In 1996, Hey Arnold! premiered its first episode “Downtown as Fruits,” where the plot centers on the dread that Arnold and his Black best friend Gerald share over being in their school play. Early on, we see how Gerald provides comic relief when he teases Helga, their annoying neighbor and classmate who’s directing the play, when she’s not looking and later scratches his butt because, as he puts it, the polyester of his costume makes him chafe.9 On the night of the play, the boys come out onto their stoops dressed in costume, grumbling on their way to the bus. Almost at school, Gerald devises a plan to skip the play by purposely missing their bus stop. Arnold initially protests, feeling bad over the idea of ruining the play, but Gerald is able to persuade him. This sets Gerald up as a mischievous character who isn’t concerned with morality. Back at school, Helga realizes that both of the boys are missing, but only yells Arnold’s name in despair, thus suggesting that Gerald is of lesser importance. What follows, for the boys, is a series of exploits that lands them in trouble, so at the decision of Arnold, they decide to rush back to the play. They make a pit stop on the way back to help a family on the street in need, but only Arnold is shown helping the family, further characterizing Gerald as a selfish, amoral character. It becomes clear that Gerald’s function in the plot is to provide comic relief and to also show, by contrast, the good and righteous Arnold, who ends up saving the day and the play.
Rugrats’s portrayal of Susie Carmichael, the oldest of the babies, similarly places her in a functional role. Viewers aren’t introduced to Susie’s character until season 2, in the episode “Meet the Carmichaels” where we meet Susie and her family who have just moved into the neighborhood. Susie is shown hysterically crying, and her mother points out that it’s only to get whatever she wants.10 While Susie is characterized as a brat, Susie, unlike Gerald, is actually shown throughout the episode as being of high moral standing and always standing up for what’s right. She saves the day for the babies by standing up to Angelica, the older cousin of Tommy and Dil, who bullies the babies. However, this saving of the day isn’t exactly empowering. Susie’s bold and outspoken personality can be seen as inspiring, but it still remains that viewers come to understand Susie in relation to what help she can give to the babies, help and encouragement that isn’t often displayed back to her. This reaffirms the secondary nature of Susie’s character, as someone who isn’t shown to have their own motives or problems worth solving—in fact, the emphasis on Susie’s frequent crying as “bratty” or spoiled can be seen as a way of minimizing her character further.
Self-empowerment and the ability to claim agency over one’s resolution is a major feature for the main characters in Little Bill and The Proud Family. This contrasts with Rugrats and Hey Arnold! where the Black characters are either saving someone else’s day or fulfilling an antihero role. This key difference can offer a strong explanation for Stroman’s finding that Black children tend to prefer television shows that regularly feature Black characters.11
Another finding worth noting is that in both Hey Arnold! and Rugrats, both Susie and Gerald are the darkest characters on their respective shows, an observation that we can rightfully associate with long standing traditions in media and culture to associate darker things with things that are impure or subordinate. Both Susie and Gerald also have loud, raspy voices and are rebellious in nature, which further others them—the rest of the babies in Rugrats have light, high-pitched voices, and most of the main characters characters in Hey Arnold! speak without a detectable accent, unlike Gerald, who additionally has a noticeable urban accent.
In The Proud Family, Penny is very fair skinned, and she also so happens to be the smartest in her class, well-liked by her peers, involved in numerous school activities, and isn’t short on male admirers. Though Penny’s character is important for exemplifying a Black character who can have a leading role and a wide-ranging gamut of experiences, it’s important to note how her designated qualities considered with her complexion in mind perpetuates ideals around lighter skin being desirable and aspirational, which can have an adverse effect on Black children viewers with darker complexions—the characters in the show who are of darker complexions such as her father Oscar Proud, her grandmother Suga Mama, her best friend Dijonay Jones, and her longtime admirer Sticky Jones are distinctively brash in speech and are characterized by either their inability to achieve success or lack of confidence. But this is precisely what makes a character like Little Bill, for instance, so fascinating because Little Bill’s complexion is neither dark nor light, and his character elicits viewers’ healthy and positive associations. Little Bill is able to transcend issues of colorism in this way, as well as the primary issue of being an isolated character, in that he is mainly shown interacting with his Black family and neighborhood.
My study of the representation of Black children in animated children’s television programming contributes evidence of the subordinate depictions Black children are often subjected to in television. The selected shows of study are representative of the popular children’s television programming during the late nineties and early 2000s, the period of time in which I was a youth being introduced to the world of television for the first time. My study emphasizes the need for the entertainment industry to provide children fuller and more colorful representations of themselves to avoid the harmful impacts on their self-esteem and self-worth. Thankfully, this is a call that is slowly but visibly being answered in the current television industry with programs such as Lab Rats (2012), Nella and The Princess Knight (2017), Blaze and The Monster Machines (2014), and Motown Magic (2018) that not only feature Black children of varying complexions in leading roles but also allow Black characters to have experiences that aren’t explicitly tied to their race or to what they can provide for other characters. The work that has been accomplished here in my study can be built upon in the future with studies that ask Black children to identify what contemporary children’s shows they prefer and conduct closer analysis based off these responses to draw deeper conclusions about how current programs may or may not be fostering healthier social conditionings and processes of self-identification for young Black children.
- Ann Morning, “Keyword: Race,” Contexts 4(4): 44-46.
- Morris Rosenberg and Roberta G. Simmons, Black and White Self-Esteem: The Urban School Child (American Sociological Association, 1971).
- Wallace Thurman, “Part I: Emma Lou,” The Blacker the Berry, (Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1996), 19–57.
- Maxine Thompson and Verna Keith, ““The Blacker the Berry: Gender, Skin Tone, Self Esteem, and Self-Efficacy,” Gender & Society, 15(3): 336-357.
- Ebony M. Roberts, “Through the Eyes of a Child: Representations of Blackness in Children’s Television Programming,” Race, Gender & Class, 11(2), 130-139.
- Carolyn A. Stroman, “The Socialization Influence of Television on Black Children,” Journal of Black Studies, 15(1): 79-100.
- Little Bill, episode 1, “The Treasure Hunt,” directed by Robert Scull, written by Fracaswell Hyman, aired November 28, 1999, on Nick Jr.
- The Proud Family, “Bring It On,” directed by Mucci Fasset, written by Doreen Spicer, aired September 15, 2001, on Disney Channel.
- Hey Arnold, “Downtown as Fruits,” directed by Tuck Tucker and Larry Leichliter, written by Craig Bartlett, Joe Ansolabehere, and Steve Viksten, aired on October 7, 1996, on Nickelodeon.
- Rugrats, season 2, episode 18, “Meet the Carmichaels,” directed by Dan Thompson and Steven Dean Moore, written by Joe Ansolabehere and Steve Viksten, aired February 7, 1993, on Nickelodeon.
- Stroman, “The Socialization Influence of Television on Black Children.”