Representation in Canadian Children’s Animated Television, Report

Ryerson University’s Children’s Media Lab’s second research report titled Examining Children’s Animated Television in Canada provides an overview of animated shows from recent years. The report is a follow-up to their first, Landscape of Children’s Television in Canada and the US covering years up to 2017. The recent report focuses on animated shows that aired in Canada in 2018 and 2019. Their goal was to inspire future animators and creators and provide awareness when thinking about the target audience. Five major broadcasters: CBC Kids, TVOKids, Family Jr., Teletoon, Treehouse and YTV, were contacted and provided a list of television shows that met specific criteria (fully animated, target audience up to age 12, produced in Canada, etc.). Two episodes of each show were examined and the main ensembles’ characteristics noted.

The majority of main characters were male, and it was evident that there was a gender imbalance in the non-human characters. Among human characters, 57 per cent were male; within the non-human characters, 70 per cent were male. The research prompts creators to examine who they are portraying on screen. “If [children] see themselves represented as characters on screen, even as non-human characters, they are more likely to think they can be just like these characters, and do what these characters can do!” (pg 7*). Creators are urged to think about gender as a fluid construct rather than just male and female and provide multi-dimensional and complex storylines rather than stereotypical gender roles. Diversifying the writers’ room will aid in the development and uniqueness of future animated characterization.

In the breakdown by race, the percentage of Caucasians and People of Color was almost equal (51 per cent and 49 per cent, respectively). Impressively, when breaking down gender among White and POC characters, the split was about equal; there were slightly more male POC (51 per cent) than female POC (46 per cent), compared to the group’s first report, where 74 per cent of main characters were White and girls were more likely to be portrayed as POC. It is exciting that Canada continues to explore and portray diversity on the animated screen.

It is important to note, however, that after Caucasians, the most represented races were Black, Latinx/Hispanic and East Asian, whereas Middle Eastern, South Asian and Indigenous characters continue to be largely underrepresented. Hopefully, this research will inspire change in filling up shows with a myriad of different cultures, races and ethnicities. As mentioned in the report, creators tend to write and express ideas based on their own experiences and upbringing. To see a change in the medium, we have to start with the diversification of creators and writers to influence unique and personal storytelling.

The study moves on to examine the portrayal of female characters and how they are dressed, with half the characters wearing pants (48 per cent) and over a third wearing skirts or dresses (36 per cent). Body shape should also be considered when creating designs for female characters. As the report notes, 16 per cent of males were portrayed as overweight while females were divided between a normal body range or very thin. Future creators are encouraged to portray their characters in all body shapes, sizes and types and wearing all sorts of outfits. Many of the female characters studied had eyelashes drawn on them, while male characters had relatively none. “This design is a reference to mascara and make-up […] and sends a subtle message about beauty and femininity to young girls.” (page 12) Creators have the power to inspire young people; it is important to go beyond traditional stereotypes.

Disabilities were also studied, and the research showed that nine per cent of characters were found to be wearing glasses, while physical disabilities and chronic illness were absent. Mental illness and neurodiversity (such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD) are becoming more prevalent among young people and portraying them on screen would aid in normalizing these disabilities and conditions. “The development of implicit biases starts at an early age, and an absence of these characters can largely influence how children feel and act toward these individuals in real life.” (pg 13)

With this detailed report, it is clear that Canada has made significant changes when working toward inclusive representation on screen and moving away from gender stereotypes. However, there is room for improvement. Hopefully, there is a continued increase in showcasing Canada’s rich diversity and presenting more fluid gender constructs.

The Ryerson study was presented in a joint Zoom session for the Voice Committee and The Women’s Committee (TAWC) of ACTRA Toronto on March 3, 2021.

* Full report here.​

Ana Sani has provided her voice to several animated shows, audiobooks and video games. Some notable roles include Cleo in Ollie’s Pack, Piper in Mysticons and Emily in Bakugan Battle Planet. On the live-action side, she plays Anika in The Boys and can be seen in the web series Blackout as Aliya.

Editor’s Note: Following the release of the study, ACTRA Toronto President David Gale reached out to animation production companies asking what changes they have made or are planning to make to ensure there is positive representation of girls and women in animation productions. You can read the President’s letter here. Positive responses were received from Corus Entertainment, Switch Entertainment and TVOKids by the date of this post. ACTRA Toronto continues to follow up.