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  • Rucha Kadam

The Children’s Television Project

Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb, Jafar from Aladdin, and Scar from the Lion King have more in common than their notoriously diabolical nature - their foreign accents. Two decades ago, Professor Julie Dobrow and Chip Gidney created the Children's Television Project (CTV) after seeing the original Lion King movie. After bumping into each other in the hallways of Elliot-Pearson, the Child Studies and Human Development Department Headquarters at Tufts, the pair came to a realization - all of the evil characters in the film had British or distinctly ethnic accents. This launched a discussion, and eventually a study, about the different representations of gender, race, ethnicity, and age that children are exposed to through TV and movies, and how those may unconsciously affect their perspective and biases growing up.

The project has completed analysis on over 200 different children's TV shows, including shows created by Disney Channel, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and PBS. Other than traditionally children's animation, the study also includes shows such as the Simpsons, Bob's Burgers, or Family Guy. While children are not the target audience for shows such as these, they are commonly watched by children because of the nature of their animation.

The CTV project has 4 main branches. The main area of focus is content and sociolinguistic analysis, which focuses mainly on tracking and documenting trends regarding race, ethnicity, gender and age in TV. The study has found “disparities between the racial, ethnic, and gender demographics in the world of children’s television compared to the racial, ethnic, and gender demographics in our actual population.... a vast underrepresentation of characters of color and female characters, but also significant differences in the roles they play and in their portrayal.” Beyond that aspect, CTV also addresses how children consume media and the effects of that media on their perception and the role of parents in children's media consumption. Dubrow and Gidney had piloted a “quasi experimental method” at the Elliot Perarson Children's school to study these specific effects, which will resume after the school reopens.

After the TV analysis, some members of the research team follow up with an examination of content production through interviews from the writers, producers, directors, vocal casting directors and voice actors that create the shows. This past summer, members of the research team interviewed different content creators at major organizations such as Cablevision in New York, Nickelodeon, Sesame Workshop, 9 story, Disney, and Dreamworks Studios, with the goal of better understanding why certain type casting decisions are made. The interviews focus on the reasoning behind character decisions, awareness regarding racial and gender stereotypes, and sometimes include guidelines for future improvement. Regarding her interview experiences this past summer, Professor Dubrow noted “Of course, it was a fascinating time to be talking to people about this while all of the protests were going on over the summer with Black Lives Matter. And issues of diversity and inclusion were very much in the forefront of people's minds”. She stated that the interview and discussion process was affirming, “just to hear from the people who are responsible for making so much of this content, how important they think these issues are, and how interested they were in our work, and how, how invested, they were...all of them wanted to find out what we had found in our research, that made me feel really great, it made me feel like this was an important topic that we're working on, and that our results are becoming valuable to some of the people who are actually making the content that children see”. As the study has continued to grow, Professor Dubrow stated that her research has found its way into the production of children's media all over the world, stating that she's been contacted by a number of different content creators around the world who are interested in creating diverse children's media and using the best practices.

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