Has anyone else noticed how the dark-skinned characters that appear on kids’ TV shows are almost never boys? It’s like, if there’s one non-white character on a show, it’s a girl.
Leaving aside for now those shows with mostly all animal or vehicle characters (despite the fact that those characters are also racialized, because speech is racialized), here’s a sample of some of the shows that are part of my family’s daily life, for better or worse:
White main character(s) + Black female friend
First up is Charlie and Lola, based on the books by Lauren Child from the early 2000s:
Charlie and Lola are the two main characters, a brother and sister, who are seen here in red and green shirts. The boy in blue is Charlie’s friend, Marv, and the girl with the adorable afro is Lola’s friend, Lotta.
Next there’s Topsy and Tim, based on books that were initially written by Jean Adamson and Gareth Adamson in the early 1960s, relaunched in the early 2000s, and with this TV show:
Topsy and Tim are twin brother and sister, seen here in the red and blue shirts. The boy in green is their friend Tony, and the cheery girl in front is their friend, Kerry.
Oddly similar, no??
Then there’s Caillou, a show based on the books in Canadian French and English by Hélène Desputeaux from the mid-1960s, made into a TV show in the late 1990s:
Caillou is the bald boy in yellow. The boy next to him is his friend Leo, and behind Leo is Caillou’s sister, Rosie. He as other friends who are boys, who are also white, and his two friends who are girls are seen here: Clementine (who’s Black) and Sarah (who’s Chinese).
On a totally different note is the show Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. (I probably shouldn’t admit this but I actually find this show really amusing.)
Y’all know how Barbie is. She’s accompanied by just two male characters (Ken and that other guy, ‘Ryan’) and both are white. Ken is blond and Ryan has brown hair, which raises the point that hair color is apparently the go-to way that physical diversity is represented for male characters (see, e.g., all the examples above, and like, every show, ever). Of Barbie’s female friends, there is one Black doll, and the others are basically differentiated by hair color (or age). (See also Lego Friends.)
My last example doesn’t have an explicitly white main character, but it’s relevant nonetheless:
Here we have one tiger (Daniel Tiger) and his four friends: a white boy, a Black girl, a cat, and an owl. Yep.
Several shows do have a Brown-or-Black female main character (Dora the Explorer, Ni Hao Kai-lan, Doc McStuffins), and this genre of show is somewhat more likely to then have an occasional male character who’s in the main character’s family, like Diego, Dora’s cousin.
Interestingly Go Diego Go, the Dora spin-off, might be an exception to the rule of there never being a major speaking character who’s both male and brown-skinned. I haven’t ever watched the show, but at a glance, it looks to me like his skin color is actually lighter on his show than it was in Dora:
I’d wager that there was some attempt made to make him as racially ambiguous as possible.
What about all the other shows?
Of the remaining shows that we’ve watched in my family, either the (relevant, speaking, reoccurring) characters are all white (Ben and Holly, The Wiggles) or are all animals (Peppa Pig, Octonauts, Peter Rabbit, My Little Pony, The Hive) or are a mixture of the two (Team Umizoomi, Pocoyo).
Even with animals, the Octonauts cast arguably still fits the general pattern:
(I mean, how much more white can you get, really?)
Meanwhile, Peter Rabbit might actually be the exception to the rule…
…but then again, they are rabbits. (See also Max and Ruby.)
Where are the Black Boys?
There is a very simple theory about why the brown-skinned character is always a girl. People know they ought to, or want to, or have to ‘care’ about racial diversity, but can’t be bothered to do so for more than one character, so they double-dip by checking ‘female’ and ‘not-white’ off the list at the same time. Maybe the logic is also that this is better for ratings, because while we are all socialized to identify with white male protagonists, we are not socialized to identify with either females or people of color unless we actually are females or people of color. So perhaps people think that avoiding Black male characters means that more of the audience will be able to relate to the characters. And if so, then what that means for little Black boys who watch TV is really, really sad. (But you knew that already.)
Of course there are probably more depressing reasons for the lack of brown-skinned boys. Like actual bias against Black boys. Like the fact that people see Black boys as more threatening than Black girls.
I mean, this is 2016, after all.
In praise of Goby
There are two shows I haven’t mentioned yet. Both have white male leads, of course. Both have majority white side characters, of course. But both also actually also have one (just one, of course) Black male character.
Horrid Henry is another show based on a book series, this one by Francesca Simon from the mid-1990s:
This show gets a sort of honorable mention, because I’ve watched it more times than I can count and yet I don’t remember actually ever seeing that little Black boy in the yellow V-neck. But I believe them that he appears sometimes and says things.
Bubble Guppies is a show with a soft spot in my heart because it was the first show my daughter started watching (her foster family showed it to her occasionally in the days before she came home to us). The show itself is objectively ridiculous (e.g., the characters are all mermaids who live underwater and yet there’s an episode dedicated to fire fighting). The cast, in addition to a light-brown-skinned pink-haired female sharing the main character slot with the blue-haired white boy, includes Goby:
Goby’s the one in the lower left corner. Goby actually gets to say stuff! Goby actually gets to do stuff! Goby is actually treated just like the rest of them! (Okay, so they are demonstrably fewer lines and fewer things for him to say and do than any of the other characters… but at this point, as far as I can tell, that is apparently the best that we can do.)
Of course, this all just brings us back to the awesomeness of Sesame Street, which is the only kids’ show that reliably represents real demographic diversity, including actual real little Black boys. I mean, is there anything better than John John? I don’t think so. (You’re welcome.)
P.S. A final shout-out to Reading Rainbow. LeVar, we love you.