When it comes to presenting diverse characters in children’s programming, the latest buzz surrounds “Sesame Street,” which for the first time in its 47-year history features a character with autism. But a closer look reveals that children’s animated shows have been leaders in addressing issues related to race, gender and disabilities. The GLAAD Media Awards this year even recognized two animated programs with nominations: Nickelodeon’s “The Loud House” and Cartoon Networks’ “Steven Universe.”
“To honor kids’ programming was a big deal,” says “The Loud House” creator Chris Savino, whose show includes an African-American boy with two dads. “We’re making headway. Hopefully in the future this will be something that doesn’t need an award.”
Nickelodeon Group president Cyma Zarghami points to the channel’s history, which long ago featured Mexican-American adventuress Dora the Explorer.
“Inclusivity and diversity have been our DNA since day one. The best way to be relevant is to mirror what kids see in their everyday lives.”
This season, “The Loud House” is introducing a character with Down syndrome, while Nick’s new series “Pinky Malinky” stars a girl whose African-American mother owns her own business and Caucasian dad is “mister mom.” And Nick Jr.’s “Nella the Princess Knight” stars a bi-racial character.
It’s a sign of the times, given that demographers expect school-age cartoon viewers to be majority non-white by 2020.
Cartoon Network president Christina Miller says the increasing diversity in programming owes a lot to the growing influence of female creatives. Of “Steven Universe” creator Rebecca Sugar, Miller notes: “Rebecca is the first female doing what she’s doing leading this show. Steven is being raised by three female role models. It’s not a traditional family. Along with gender fluidity, the show is about body positivity. It is coming of age with our audience.”
Today’s programs are also bucking the conventional wisdom that characters should appeal primarily to boys or girls. Zarghami recalls, “Back in the ’80s, with ‘Clarissa Explains It All,’ the norm was that boys wouldn’t watch a show with a girl in the lead. Yet ‘Clarissa’ was a runaway hit.”
That’s certainly the case with Disney Junior’s “Doc McStuffins,” about a 6-year-old African-American girl.
“I knew from the beginning that I wanted the character to be a girl,” says creator Chris Nee. “It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t watch it because Doc was a girl.”
Over five seasons, “Doc McStuffins” became a phenomenon, earning a Peabody Award among scores of honors.
Former first lady Michelle Obama guested on the show; visitors to Disney Parks can meet the Doc character in person; and toy sales are soaring. Female physicians even formed a We Are Doc McStuffins association to support African-American medical students. As Nee marvels, “You don’t imagine that would happen because you work in cartoons!”
Her next Disney Junior series, “Vampirina,” follows a “very different” family relocating from Transylvania to Pennsylvania. While she started it before immigration issues became so newsworthy, Nee says, “We have to keep chipping away at issues any way we can.”
Which is not to say it’s always easy.
At a time when social media triggers nonstop audience responses, Savino says “The Loud House” has received thanks from bi-racial and LGBTQ kids, and parents of autistic kids who relate to the show. “But one gentleman also wrote and said he was not going to let his daughter watch it. It’s his right as a parent to do that. But I felt it was a shame that she wouldn’t be exposed to a show that has a good heart. I’m hoping that she’s sneaking out to watch it!”