Study suggests kids’ television in Canada lacks female representation

TORONTO — A new study suggests female representation is low in Canadian children’s television, both onscreen and off.

The report from the non-profit Center for Scholars and Storytellers looked at a variety of areas of the children’s TV landscape in Canada and the U.S., using data from a sample of programs targeting children up to age 12 in November 2017.

It found men dominate the professions behind the scenes, from directing to content creation and writing.

Researchers say the male presence is also dominant onscreen, particularly when it comes to non-human characters.

The findings from a research lab led by Ryerson University’s Faculty Of Communication & Design and UCLA compared data with the results of a 2007 study on children’s TV.

Prof. Colleen Russo Johnson, Toronto-based co-author of the new study, says not a lot changed in the decade between the studies.

“In Canada we have not seen any change in the percentage of female representation seen onscreen,” Russo Johnson, co-director of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers, said in a phone interview.

“We were at 35 per cent in 2007, and in 2017 we see that we were still at 35 per cent. That’s really disappointing to see.”

In Canada, the study culled information from 595 programs and 154 hours of recording on seven television broadcasters.

It found 62 per cent of children’s shows in Canada are created by men, 63 per cent of episodes are written by men, and 82 per cent are directed by men.

“If we don’t get the representation behind the scenes, then it makes sense that we’re not going to see it reflected onscreen, because people often write to what they know,” said Russo Johnson, who led the Canadian data collection for the study.

“It’s also really important that people are telling authentic stories. So if we want stories about diverse girls, they should be written by diverse girls.”

When it comes to onscreen gender disparity, researchers found no difference in U.S. and Canadian public vs. commercial TV. Disney channel had the highest percentage of female characters of all channels with 51 per cent.

The gender gap was greatest in non-human characters, particularly with robots/machines, of which only 15 per cent were female in Canada.

Human characters in general are on the decline, said Russo Johnson, “which is unfortunate because there is some research that suggests that children actually learn better, especially prosocial lessons better, from human characters rather than anthropomorphic characters such as talking animals.”

Non-fiction children’s programming is also on the decline, says the study, which found the majority of the content was fictional, and over three quarters of that was animated.

The study found the majority of human characters on children’s TV are Caucasian — 65 per cent in the U.S., and 74 per cent in Canada. Other key findings from the report include a virtual absence of main kids’ characters with disabilities.

Prof. Dafna Lemish of Rutgers University led the U.S. data collection and co-wrote the report with Russo Johnson, while Prof. Maya Gotz led the international study as a whole.

They plan to publish the findings online and discuss it at events targeting students and content creators, especially those in animation, in Toronto and possibly New York and Los Angeles.

“I am very assured that the future of kids’ TV is bright,” said Russo Johnson.

“The producers and creators and writers I’ve already spoken to about this, they are just shocked about some of these findings. They’re like, ‘Well now that I know, I will be mindful and I can make changes.”’

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