Posted on June 17, 2013

Children’s Media Use Cuddly Animals to Reinforce ‘Racist’ and ‘Socially Dominant Norms,’ Researcher Says

Sarah Boesveld, National Post, June 6, 2013

More than 7,000 academics are gathered in Victoria, B.C., this week for the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, presenting papers on everything from the errant lessons of Grey’s Anatomy to Justin Trudeau’s political brand power. In this week-long series, the National Post showcases some of the most interesting research.

Parents who read their kids stories about happy, human-like animals like Franklin the Turtle or Arthur at bedtime are exposing their kids to racism, materialism, homophobia and patriarchal norms, according to a paper presented at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Most animals portrayed in children’s books, songs and on clothing send a bad message, according to academics Nora Timmerman and  Julia Ostertag: That animals only exist for human use, that humans are better than animals, that animals don’t have their own stories to tell, that it’s fine to “demean” them by cooing over their cuteness. Perhaps worst of all, they say, animals are anthropomorphized to reinforce “socially dominant norms” like nuclear families and gender stereotypes.

“[M]uch of young children’s media reproduces and confirms racist, colonial, consumerist, heteronormative, and patriarchal norms,” Timmerman and Ostertag write in their paper ‘Too Many Monkeys Jumping in Their Heads: Animal Lessons within Young Children’s Media,’ presented at Congress Wednesday.

Ms. Timmerman — a University of British Columbia PhD candidate in educational studies focusing on environmentalism — admits she’s no child psychologist, and admits there are probably extremely thin ranks of those fretting about “subliminal” messages in Goodnight Moon or Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed. “I do. But I don’t think most people do,” she said.

Her argument is that books and media are often the first exposure children under 4 get to society — and it’s a society in which tigers don’t talk, bears aren’t cuddly and rhinoceroses are creatures they may never see in their lifetimes.

“If they don’t see what it is that they experience reflected within that media, then they don’t come to value that experience as much or think it’s worthwhile,” she said in an interview at Congress this week.

In their paper, she and Ms. Ostertag recommend children age 0-4 should be primarily exposed to the creatures in their daily lives in their “full richness and ambiguity,” not zebras and elephants and tropical fish and toucans (that, apparently, can come later).

And then there’s the anthropomorphism — animals like Franklin and Arthur the aardvark and The Berenstain Bears wearing clothes and talking to each other and living in nuclear families.

“What I’ve noticed in particular about animals is the cultural stereotypes that we have in our society, and in the culture of prejudices we have often are more hidden when they’re inserted into a story about animals or animal form.”

It’s just problematic when it’s the only way children see animals portrayed in the media and “when we don’t realize that an animal also has its own complex embedded ambiguous life and it exists outside of our own use or interpretation,” she said.

Authors are often trying to convey good social values in children’s books with animal characters, whether it be acceptance or generosity or inclusivity. But Ms. Timmerman wishes these authors would acknowledge that “animals themselves may have lessons to teach us.” For example, bees buzzing around a hive or ants in an ant farm can teach the importance of community and teamwork without having to be anthropomorphized, she said.

“Billy the Bee doesn’t necessarily project any kind of cultural bias unless we ignore, for example, that worker ants are mostly females and we call them male because we tend to think of workers as male,” she said.