Article by Ogova Ondego
Published June 9, 2008
The cover of the report on the role of gender in children’s TV programming
Since 1964 when it was founded, the Prix Jeunesse festival has sought to promote “excellence in children’s TV”. And the 2008 edition (May 30-June 4) was no different. Though it presented cutting-edge audiovisual productions, provocative information on gender-sensitivity in children’s television programming, earth-shaking international projects and attracted 400 registered delegates from 62 nations, not a single French national turned up in Munich. OGOVA ONDEGO reports from the Free State of Bavaria in the Federal Republic of Germany.
During the festival the Internationales Zentralinstitut fur das Jugend-und Bidungsfernsehen (International Central Institute for Youth Educational Television, better known by its German acronyms IZI), released findings on gender representation in 19,664 programmes from 24 countries in what was referred to as “the world’s largest quantitative media analysis of children’s television so far”.
The survey shows that there is gender imbalance in favour of male characters in television programming for children in public and private television, in international and domestic programmes, in animated and real life formats and that this is the trend all over the world. What is even more disturbing is the fact that public and state broadcasters have a worse gender imbalance ratio (31%:67%) than their private counterparts who stand at 33%:67%.
“This is a remarkable result, since public broadcasters ‘with the public mandate’ have the responsibility for representing the reality in a balanced way. The reality of human life is 51% female to 49% male, which could not be found in children’s TV anywhere,” the survey report says.
With the goal of any quality children’s television being to support both boys and girls in becoming active members of society, the international researchers, led by Dr Maya Gotz, the head of IZI and Prix Jeunesse, lament that “television portrays a biased representation of the social world.” What is clear is that TV presents a very male world despite the fact that some 196 nations have declared equality of men and women.
And how is this?
Many of the creators of children’s TV, the report says, are white men who tend to present their fictional characters as ‘pale males’. But this may appear like a sweeping statement as more women than men are the producers of children’s programmes around the world.
In casting, girls and women account only for 32% of lead characters compared to a whopping 68% for boys and men in all the 24 countries surveyed. In some series girls and women are almost absent. Animation programmes have 87% male characters as compared to 13% female.
The researchers conclude that “The reality of children’s television proves that today gender equality is still a long way off.”
Another disturbing trend in children’s TV is that 72% of all main characters are Caucasian, with some of the “whitest children’s television” being found in South Africa where 81% of all significant characters are white in a country in which only 9% of the population is white. In Kenya, television has more Asian girls (16%) than black ones (11%).
While women and girls are portrayed as beautiful, underweight, sexualized, modest, tidy and moral beings who are motivated by a romantic interest and are dependent on males who, in their turn, are leaders, overweight and heterosexual Caucasians who are interested in but look down on women!
The researchers- who included Dr Dafna Lemish, Dr Jean Prinsloo, Dr Divya McMillin, Dr Norma Pecora, Dr Sofie Van Bauwl, Dr Cindy Carter, Dr JoEllen Fisherkeller, Dr Micheline Frenette, Dr Rebecca Hains, Dr Hongxia Zhang, Dr Ka Chan, Dr Stacy Smith, Dr Charu Uppal, and Dr Angharad Valdivia among others- recommend gender sensitivity as the way forward in effective TV programming for children.
In their six-point recommendation, they say TV programmers must acknowledge the under-representation of females and advocate a more equal, realistic gender ratio in casting characters; overcome one-dimensional, traditional constructs of masculinity and femininity; question one’s own prejudices and society’s assumptions on gender; take seriously and broaden the topics and concerns of both boys and girls; understand and integrate the diversity of boys and girls with regard to looks, physical appearance, and ethnicity; and broaden the cultural concepts of what it means to be a girl or a boy while taking into account cultural sensitivity and idiosyncrasies.
Well said but a danger lies in ‘cultural sensitivity and idiosyncrasies’. Also, this survey may be faulted on the manner in which the sampling was done. A very clear example is when the study claims that more Kenyan TV programming has more Asian than African girls. Another problem could be seen in the composition of these mainly female researchers. Why is there almost no male in the research team save for a handful?
Some other danger in this study is that the surveyors appear to have set out to fulfill a certain agenda.
As often posed, are the media a flashlight or a mirror of society? If they are the latter, then children’s TV programming is in tandem with social reality.
The theme of this French-sounding Prix Jeunesse 2008 festival was ‘Girls and Boys and Television: The Role of Gender”. And this gave festivaliers food for thought.
And Prix Jeunesse 2008 was not just about mind-boggling research, debate and boycotts. The centerpiece of the event was film screening that culminated in the awarding of excellence on the sixth night.
Right to left: Salwa Saab of Lebanon, Elahe Kasmaei of Iran, Ricardo Yanez of Argentina and Ogova Ondego
The biggest winner was no doubt Whiz Kids Workshop of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia whose production, TSEHAI LOVES LEARNING ran away with the Next Generation special prize that goes with 6000 Euro cash award and a one year mentorship programme under the tutelage of big brothers BBC, Australian Children’s Television Foundation, Disney Channel, KRO, Nickelodeon and ZDF.
This special prize that is given out by the sponsors, is meant “to promote auspicious talent and to honour a programme that is inspirational and innovative although produced under difficult production circumstances.”
The special jury made up of the broadcasters “were hugely impressed by the prgramme’s ability to talk to children, to be creative as well as communicative, on an extremely limited budget.”
Another African winner was the South African Asi Mathaba’s BUDDYZ ON THE MOVE that received the Special Prize in the Name of UNICEF. This reality TV series that features children volunteering to improve their communities through clubs was described as embodying “the UNICEF Prize not only in its presentation of children’s rights but also in its treatment and involvement of young people and media process. The show, the citation went on, treats HIV in a very responsible way, showing the difficulties of the disease without any stigma.”
The third special prize, given in the name of UNESCO, went to GENJI, a 4-minute film directed by Diederik van Rovijen of The Netherlands. Describing its plot as simple and dramatic and that “touches our emotions and makes us suffer and hope for Bo”, the jury said “This film of multicultural background conveys the lesson that if you want to change the world you have to begin with yourself, and it shows how you can overcome your fears and become self-confident.”
GENJI, targeting 6-9-year-olds, stars a little 8-year-old girl who, tormented by an overweight bully boy, learns martial arts and overcomes both her own fear and the bully in a fight.
A SUNNY DAY, a 14-minute film directed by Gil Alkabetz of Germany, won the prize for the Up to 6 Year Old Fiction category with 8.51 points. The film revolves around the sun that takes its rising every morning for granted till it discovers that it is no longer as welcome as it hoped to.
Swedish Linus Torell’s NUMBERS AND BEARDS, with 7.35 points aggregate, made away with the prize for Up to 6 Year Old Non Fiction. In an easy to follow fashion this visually descriptive 14-minute film on daily life teaches the viewer about numbers: What is a number? How many are three?
THE MAGIC TREE: DEVOURERS OF BOOKS of Polish Andrzej Maleszka, perhaps living up to its magic earned the highest points ‘8.89’ and grabbed the Fiction prize for the 7-11 year-old category. The sixth of seven episodes, this well directed 28-minute film tells the story of a magic tree that is cut down and its wood used to make various items, each of which retains some of the magic power and wreaks havoc the day they are sent in stores. Episode six is on the cupboard that eats up books!
THE WRONG TRAINERS, tackling difficult subjects for six poverty-stricken children ‘;through animation’ won the 7-11-Year-Old Non-Fiction prize. This 14-minute film was directed by British Kez Margrie in 2006.
For unclear reasons the Prix Jeunesse did not differentiate Fiction from Non-Fiction for 12-15 year old category. The prize went to SEXTEENS, a five-minute animated episode dealing with the relationship between women and HIV. This Brazilian film is directed by Juan Pablo Zaramella and has no dialogue but the viewer is still able to follow the action on he screen.
The film that won the festival ‘Theme Prize’ was Australian MORTIFIED. In this Pino Amenta-directed 23-minute film, the lead character gets a crush on an adolescent martial arts instructor and signs up for some classes. But her shift from childhood to teenage is noticed by her parents who decide it is time to give her the dreaded talk. She is mortified and desperately tries to avoid them but wherever she goes, it seems, babies and pregnant women appear to be stalking her!
MATHEMATICA, directed by Japanese Hiroyoshi Isono on the famous formula of calculating the area of a circle in an easy to follow manner for 10-12-year-olds, won the 7-11-year-old Non Fiction prize.
A few reminders for more gender sensitivity in children’s TV
Other awardees were Paul Wroblewski’s DESPERADOS (7-11 Fiction), German Bukes Alakus’s UNDER PRESSURE (12-15-year-old Fiction and Non Fiction Prize of the International Youth Jury), Irish Cuan MacConghail’s ON THE BLOCK (Heart Prize), Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s OLINE (Pre-School interactivity prize), and CBBC/BBC’s CBBC ME AND MY MOVIE (School Age Interactivity prize).
And with the above developments the curtain came down on this world’s leading bi-annual children’s TV programming festival on June 4, 2008 at 10pm with a night-long partying.
Oh, lest we forget. The children who enlivened this festival for professionals in the field of television for children were Shruti and Raghu Rai of India and, yes, the baby of Swedish executive producer Ulrika Ostmann.