Racism, gender essentialism, transphobia, and anti-science attitudes are rampant in tween media

I didn’t watch the Olympics. Part of it is simply that I’m not much of a sports fan, and even less of a fan of the kind of hyper-commercialized, industrialized sports that the Olympics represent. The other part was that I didn’t want anything to do with them given the political situation in Russia. The upshot of all that is that I needed something else to provide my working background noise. Normally I would keep a 24-hour news channel on, but that would surely just end up flooding me with Olympics crap. So instead I opted to try something really different… I turned on the kids’ network: YTV.

First, let me give you a little background about myself for the sake of full disclosure. I wasn’t raised by TV. Quite the opposite. I did most of my growing up in Barbados at a time when there was only a single channel – channel 8, CBC TV… that’s the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation, not the Canadian CBC; the two are totally unconnected. For most of my childhood, CBC was off the air for most of the day on weekdays, only coming online at to air Sesame Street, then an hour of children’s/educational programming from (Fraggle Rock, He-Man, Macron 1, Bravestarr, G-Force, Thundercats, Albert & Syndey, Terrahawks, etc.), after which Days of Our Lives would start, signalling that it was now adult TV time. At around , after the news, they’d air sitcoms like Perfect Strangers and ’Allo ’Allo!, and action shows like MacGyver for an hour or two, which I would watch when I was older. And that was just about it for television in my youth, other than the odd VHS tape we’d get sent down from Canada with a few hours of the USA Network‘s Cartoon Express.

In other words, I didn’t grow up in a cave, but on the other hand I didn’t exactly have the same TV experience most Canadians would have had growing up. Also, being happily child-free, I have had pretty much no contact with youth programming since the early ’90s – I essentially missed the whole Mighty Morpin Power Rangers and Pokémon crazes (and I have no idea what came after). I also had absolutely no exposure to kids’ live-action television – never saw an after-school special, or a show like Lizzie McGuire or Hannah Montana (and, in fact, just had to Google the names of those shows starting only from the vaguely-remembered clue “there was a major kids’ show starring the daughter of the dude that sang “Achy Breaky Heart“”).

The logo of the television station YTV.

YTV

So I was like John the Savage coming to 632 AF London as I turned the channel to YTV – attracted by a showing of Megamind, which I had never seen (but enjoyed). YTV‘s target demographic is the “tween” demographic, starting at 10 years’ old, and ranging into the early teens (anywhere from 12 to 16 years’ old) – a key formative period in the development of people’s social identities. At first I was completely dazzled by the brightly coloured, frenetic presentation, and the gratuitous crudeness. One commercial has a trio of anthropomorphic fruit in line at a buffet, selecting foods, when one of them sneezes explosively, launching zeself backward across the room and coating the sneeze-guard with an obscene amount of purple snot… which prompts zes two partners to gleefully dump the contents of their trays and start licking the goo off the glass. This was actually an ad for candy, believe it or not. There’s also a show called Zoink’d where people perform for a panel of kid judges, who then vote on how entertaining the act was… basically Canadian Idol, but with a twist: if the kids are not impressed quickly enough, they pull levers that dump gallons of slime and confetti on the hapless performers (to my amusement, the clean-up crew that mops up the slime is actually featured as part of the show).

But what shocked me most was not the messiness, but rather the amazing backwardness of the programming.

I assumed – based on the recent shows I’ve seen, which are all targeted at more adult viewers – that there is a conscious effort afoot in modern television writing to defy racial and gender stereotypes. I grant that they don’t always do a great job of it, but it certainly does look like they’re trying to avoid them. (I’m speaking, of course, specifically of explicitly scripted television – not “reality” television that is designed to wallow in the muck of the basest standards possible.)

Apparently, though, that isn’t the case with kids’ programming, which appears to be stuck in the 1980s.

You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I didn’t even go to high school (more or less) but I am familiar enough with the tropes from a long list of shows and movies, and still there is nothing new or unfamiliar to me about any of the home, school, or social lives depicted on any of the YTV shows. (With the one notable exception being iCarly‘s central conceit of a teenager being the star of her own wildly popular web show. Incidentally, iCarly was the show I found most interesting and entertaining out of all the live-action shows.) You can count off the tropes like you’re reading them from a clipboard: School bully that torments “nerds”, gives wedgies, and generally shoves people around? Check (“Slab” is one of the main characters on the Canadian-made Mr. Young, and expect bully characters to show up from time to time in just about any other show). Blonde fashionista “Queen Bee” who leads the “popular girls”, is probably a cheerleader, and torments the less “popular”? Check (“Kaylee” in Life with Boys, lesser variants abound elsewhere). “AV Club nerd” who has the hots for a main character, but is a social outcast, and mercilessly mocked and picked on? Check (“Freddie” in iCarly, many others). And it’s not just the characters. Expect to see things like: an awkward girl ineptly trying to attract the attention of a cute jock by “changing her image” (such as dressing up as a fashion model) only to find out later that he preferred her “normal” style (genders may be reversed, of course), a kid who has been forbidden from something (going to a party, getting earrings, whatever) but goes and does it anyway and is haunted by guilt until they finally fess up, a main character who is being victimized by bullies who fill the main character’s locker with something so that it all tumbles out the moment ze opens it, a parent or older sibling monopolizes a younger kid’s science fair project or performance of some kind to recapture past glory only to learn at the last minute to step aside and let the kid do it, etc., etc..

Granted, that’s all just lazy writing, and not actually offensive other than to one’s intelligence or aesthetic sense. But that’s just the tip of the racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic iceberg. It’s not so much the animated programming that is bad – in fact, I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed SpongeBob SquarePants, The Fairly Oddparents, and even one I’d never heard of before called Kid vs. Kat which features a boy facing off against a villainous alien creature that is impersonating his sister’s cat. (There was also a show with an amusing premise called Captain Flamingo. It features a very young kid who decides that he’s going to become a superhero who helps other little kids with their problems – such as helping someone playing hide-and-seek find the other players or retrieving a bathing suit that fell off in a pool and is now in the deep end. To save the day the boy becomes “Captain Flamingo”, and uses his – I swear I’m not making this up – “Bird Brain” to solve these problems.) It’s the live-action programming that is horrifying, and not just for it’s (lack of) quality.

Take racist stereotyping, for example. From what I can tell, there were (during the month I watched) nine scripted live-action shows on the channel. Of the nine, the only ones with non-white main characters are The Haunted Hathaways – where the titular white, all-female Hathaway family shares a home with the black, all-make ghost family, the Prestons – and the brand new, painfully stupid, Canadian turd Some Assembly Required – the star is the only non-white character in the cast. There are one or two other non-white characters in the supporting cast of a couple shows, if you can spot them.

And if you do spot a visible minority, be prepared to see just about every tired stereotype relating to their ethnicity played straight. For example, Mr. Young has “Dang”, the Vietnamese (I think) custodian of the school… who speaks in broken English and is apparently a ninja, or at least some kind of martial arts master. (For reference, the actor who portrays “Dang” is a Montréal-born UBC graduate and Shakespearean actor who teaches at a college in Vancouver.)

(Curiously, I noticed a recurring trend in the animated shows, which were usually much better about avoiding stereotypes. It seems that whenever there is an East Asian girl in the main cast, she will almost always be completely infatuated with the main character (who is white), while the main character will either completely ignore or be oblivious to her interest. This was the case with “Kitty” in Sidekick, “Lizbeth” in Captain Flamingo, and others. Generally, though, the animated shows were much better about having diverse casts.)

If the racial stereotyping is bad, the gender stereotyping is worse. Out of the nine shows, try to find a single female character whose major interests aren’t boys, clothes, and shopping. And if you do find one of the two or three who aren’t into these things, they’ll be the “strange” girls – the ones that everyone else doesn’t take seriously as a girl (for example, “Sam” in iCarly and the spinoff Sam & Cat, or “Piper” from Some Assembly Required – though even in her case, her primary character motivation seems to be that she is lusting after the main character). The boys will have more diverse interests, of course, but if they show any interest in “girly” things – like “Slab”‘s interest in ballet – it will be played for laughs.

It’s not just laughs, either – any deviation from gender norms is cruelly treated. I just watched an episode of iCarly where “Carly” dumps her boyfriend… because he collects (the show’s version of) Beanie Babies. Yes, literally for that reason. In fact, the guy walks in on her and “Sam” mocking his hobby, and is (understandably) hurt and angry… but not only does Carly not really apologize for mocking him behind his back, she actually tries to justify it before finally dumping him. Then there was an episode of the Canadian-made Life with Boys which has star “Tess” regretting a decision to join the wrestling team despite being quite talented… specifically because it makes her less feminine. She even refers to herself – and I swear I am not making these up – as a man-girl freak, and a mutant. Just for being a girl wrestler.

It’s also pretty clear when the ads start whether they’re targeting girls or the default “everyone”. If you’re suddenly visually assaulted with pink and lavender and magical sparkles, it’s for girls. (Interestingly, though, I did see a Nerf bow and arrow that seemed to be targeted at girls, under the name “Rebelle”.)

But what bothered me even more than the dated racist and gendered caricatures was the anti-intellectual streak underlying it all.

Look, I get it, I was tuned into YTV, not an educational channel. I mean, it wasn’t the Discovery Channel or the History Channel – so no pawn shop bikers or Nazi UFOs. It was a channel featuring SpongeBob SquarePants and the aforementioned Zoink’d. It wasn’t like I wasn’t expecting Cosmos or Nova or Horizon or The Nature of Things.

What I wasn’t expecting, though, was for anything remotely related to intelligence, reason, science, and technology to be treated with such contempt. And let me be clear: I don’t mean apathy. I don’t mean disdain. I mean outright, unrestrained contempt.

I’ll use Mr. Young as an example. The conceit of Mr. Young is that the titular character, “Adam Young”, was a boy genius who graduated from college at 14. Somehow (I haven’t seen the first episode) he ends up working as a high school teacher in the same school that his older sister and childhood friends (including his long-time crush) attend, teaching science. This could be the foundation for a nice comedy, but Doogie Howser, M.D. meets Saved by the Bell this is most certainly not. But let’s stay focused on the way science is treated.

Right in the opening credits, science teacher Adam Young is introduced mixing chemicals in beakers in front of the chalkboard with Erlenmeyer flasks on the table (and an apple, of course)… using a book titled “Love Potions”. Yes. Seriously. (He then slides the concoction over to his love interest “Echo”, who doesn’t get a chance to drink it before it starts belching smoke and whites out the screen.)

The title card from the television show "Mr. Young", displaying star Brenan Meyer in character as "Mr. Young", in front of a chalkboard with his name on it, and behind a desk with Erlenmeyer flasks on it, and a book titled "Love Potions".

Mr. Young, boy scientist… and apparently alchemist, who mixes “love potions”.

We’re already not off to a great start, but it actually gets worse in the show itself. The episode I will consider here involves the host of a long-running science show for kids retiring and looking to Mr. Young to replace him. The name of this show-within-the-show? “Science Schmience”. Yes. Seriously.

You can watch the show’s opening here, which features Echo blithely pointing out that she doesn’t even bother to hide the fact that she’s reading comics rather than paying attention in science class, followed by Derby revealing that he’s actually watching television (hiding a big-screen TV behind his monstrously oversized textbook).

Anyway, Mr. Young takes over as host of the show “Science Schmience”. In the first episode, he enthusiastically announces that he’s going to use a lemon to power a coffee maker (which prompts Derby to disbelievingly cry, “science is magic!”)… then abruptly stops and says that he won’t actually do it until he explains the theory (because, apparently, science can’t just be fun without having to be dry and academic first). He starts to explain how using the right electrodes converts chemical energy into electrical energy… when he’s cut off by the show’s former host, who says: “Less science. More schmience!” The experiment works out fine, but then Derby steps in with a watermelon, figuring that if a tiny lemon could power a coffeemaker, a huge watermelon would have far more power. The watermelon promptly explodes. Mr. Young starts to chastise Derby for being irresponsible and dangerous (because he’s a scientist, and they’re not about fun, you see (seriously, have the writers of this show never fucking seen Mythbusters?))… and is immediately fired… with Derby becoming the new host. Young points out that Derby knows nothing about science, but Derby simply shrugs it off: “Science, schmience!”

So now the show restarts with Derby as the host, but because they need someone with some knowledge of science, Young is assigned as his “sidekick”. He is dressed in a monkey costume, and repeatedly told to say nothing but: “Ooo ooo. Eee eee”. (Literally. He is even shown cue cards to that effect.) Even when Derby claims the phenomenon he is presenting is “mysterious” – which Young tries to correct by explaining what causes it – and encourages kids to try the dangerous experiment at home because it’s “cool”, Young’s objections and corrections are ignobly silenced, and he is forced to make monkey noises (take that, science boy!).

After more hijinks, Young leaves the show, and is replaced by Principal Tater (in the monkey suit). When he points out that now there’s nobody on the show that knows science now, everyone simply shrugs it off and they rename the show to “Schmience Schmience”.

And believe it or not, that was one of the more positive depictions of science I saw – at least there was a popular science show mentioned, and the students generally seemed to be quite into it (at one point Young is swarmed by groupies for being on the show). Elsewhere, anytime anything relating to science, technology, engineering, or math came up, it was loudly, repeatedly, and explicitly derided as “lame”. For example, I just watched an episode of iCarly (“iEnrage Gibby”), which, within 30 seconds at the start, piles scorn on a character who is trying to share his knowledge about nuts (after they had invited him to do so) then has the main characters say, “Now, you may be asking yourself, do Carly and Sam care about science?”, before shouting – complete with a buzzer and a graphic – “NO!”.

I follow a lot of atheist, skeptic, and freethinker blogs, and several of them often criticize media for perpetuating (or manufacturing) racist, sexist, and homophobic stereotypes, and celebrating ignorance and anti-science attitudes. While that kind of criticism is surely necessary, and usually spot on, it is usually focused on either adult television – particular on currently popular shows like Mad Men – or on decades-old children’s entertainment – like She-Ra: Princess of Power. Understandable; this is what the bloggers are actually watching, or grew up watching. But what about the shows being watched by the kids in that age group where they are just beginning to develop their social sense of what’s “cool” and what’s not? This is a key formative period – the “tweens” – and kids in this age groups are especially interested in seeking out information from media that will help them define themselves. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen much interest in looking into the kind of things they are watching.

Yet, if my admittedly brief and narrow experience with “tween” entertainment is any indication, these kids are being pummelled with racist caricatures, dated sexism, and offensive and ignorant gender essentialism and transphobia. And they are being taught that science is dull, uncool, and that even if you somehow manage to find it interesting despite that, showing any enthusiasm for it is tantamount to social suicide (it was literally described that way in one show I saw).

Perhaps we – atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers – should pay more attention to the media targeted at the tween demographic. It seems a little disingenuous to simply let them be poisoned on science and rationality then try to repair the damage done after the fact, in their teenage (and later) years. Perhaps we should focus on initiatives to change the tone – to put effort into finally extinguishing all those tired stereotypes and offensive tropes, and to foster positive representation for science, reason, and intelligence in general.

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Racism, gender essentialism, transphobia, and anti-science attitudes are rampant in tween media by Indi in the Wired is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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