Chris Nee, creator of "Doc McStuffins," feels she stayed silent about LGBTQ stories onscreen – for too long. And she wasn't the only children's show creator discontented with the lack of inclusion in their programming. A group of them routinely grumbled over pizza about the battles of trying to wedge in atypical storylines.
Nee made headway on "Doc McStuffins" with a 2017 episode that featured a biracial, two-mom household. And she’s taking another leap now with the new Netflix animated series “Ridley Jones” (streaming July 13). The 6-year old protagonist Ridley is an action-adventure hero who lives in a treehouse inside a museum, where animals and artifacts come alive. Think "Night at the Museum" but for preschoolers. One such character is a non-binary bison named Fred.
Now, Nee and her fellow children's TV creators meet regularly with GLAAD – and griping isn't on the agenda. "We get halfway through a meeting with GLAAD and all we're doing is talking about what's coming out next, we're just going through the list," she said. "It's a beautiful thing to see. It does feel like all of the executives and outlets have just changed."
Still, overall diversity and inclusion in children’s TV isn’t all rosy. But industry veterans and academics are hopeful for the future and stress the importance of inclusivity to better educate the next generation.
From ‘Sesame Street’ to ‘Molly of Denali’
Nothing replicates the magic of seeing yourself onscreen. Like someone sprinkling you with empowering pixie dust.
Kids can start to internalize race and gender stereotypes as early as 4 years old, according to Dr. Christia Brown, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky. Some research shows, however, positive and negative associations could begin in infancy.
Experts say "Sesame Street" set the standard for educational, inclusive children's television.
"'Sesame Street' (premiered) in '69, the year of both Woodstock and the moon landing, and carried on the optimism of the '60s," Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media, previously told USA TODAY. "It was certainly an offshoot of the civil rights movement, and brought together a multicultural cast and creative team."
However, "more commercial programming was not as inclusive, and programming beyond preschool when parents no longer controlled the dial is also less inclusive," said Yalda T. Uhls, founder of the Center for Scholars & Storytellers at UCLA.
Multiple methods exist for teaching children directly about inclusion: Do you simply serve kids a series with a more diverse slate of characters, or explicitly explain race and LGBTQ issues? Each provides unique options for storytellers.
Still, bear in mind that "children need help to understand the messages and to connect with the real world and with what they see in the real world," Uhls said. "You can't assume children get the message in the way that an adult intended, particularly a small child."
Implicit bias – that is, unintentional favoritism – exists in all media and entertainment, according to Polly Conway, senior TV editor at children's education and advocacy non-profit Common Sense Media. Straight, white creators, for example, may not think as deeply about showing only white, heterosexual parents of young children.
Conway recommends asking crucial questions to evade biases: Who is the main character? Who are their friends? Are the only people of color in the background?
Researchers hail "Molly of Denali" as another example of a markedly inclusive show. The Alaskan Native animated series on PBS Kids premiered in 2019. Chip Gidney, an associate professor at Tufts University who researchers diversity in television, said there was a conscious effort behind-the-scenes to involve Native people.
"From the perspective of myself and my colleagues, it's something of a gold standard for doing things right and sensitively," Gidney said.
Another recent win is Nickelodeon's "The Casagrandes."
"It showcases a (friendship) between a Mexican-American girl and a Chinese-American girl. Where have you seen that?" remarked Ramsey Naito, president of animation at Nickelodeon.
A full list of inclusive shows, broken down by age group, from Common Sense Media can be found here.
‘Ridley Jones’ and the importance of inclusion
Nee says Netflix welcomed the idea of non-binary bison Fred, voiced by Ezra Menas, with open arms – err, hooves. "I just got no pushback," Nee says. "And I think of that both as kudos to Netflix, but also, the world has changed quite a bit."
In the first episode, Ridley asks Peaches the monkey if Fred is "a she or a he."
"I don’t know. They’re just a Fred," replies Peaches. "Cool," says Ridley, and the action resumes.
Nee advocated for authenticity in this storytelling, which included employing a non-binary person in the writers' room.
"I'm very aware that kids who are coming out as trans and non-binary right now feel like they're in a similar space to what I was in coming out as gay in 1987," Nee said. "It's this moment where you're finding yourself, which is a really joyful space, at the same time that you are watching a conversation in the news that shows you that people are actually feeling active hatred towards you." Writing a non-binary character felt of the moment.
"Children need to see themselves reflected, and they internalize the implicit messages about themselves and others," Uhls said. "A study that looked at how much television kids watched over a year found that only white boys felt more self esteem after watching more TV, white girls and black boys and girls felt less self esteem."
The more kids witness stories out of their particular world, the more open they will be as they grow up, Conway added.
"No kid is ever too young to see different kinds of people, different kinds of lives," Conway said. She lauded such a move from Nickelodeon, to cast a transgender child actor in "Danger Force."
"I wish it hadn't taken so long but I am pleased that the big names out there are starting to recognize that you can be a family brand and still bring those people into your fold and represent them," she said.
Nee added: "There are so many LGBTQ people working in this space. And they've been doing it for years kind of knowing they couldn't talk about themselves or their own stories, and it's really liberating to not feel that barrier."
Contributing: Associated Press