The stories we are told as children play a key role in who we become when we grow up. The characters who inhabit our books and our screen—who we fall in love with, laugh with, cry with, and grow older with—have an impact on how we see ourselves and how we see others. They help shape who we are, who we aspire to be, and how we view the world around us. That’s why media representation is so important.
Research shows that children spend on average two hours per day watching TV shows. During the Covid-19 pandemic, their use of media content across multiple channels has only increased. Now more than ever, the content we create for children plays a big role in who we will eventually become as a society. In this article, we will explore the history of media representation, its evolution through time, and why it’s still so necessary to put girls at the center of it.
Get her started with positive female role models with the first two books in our series, now in a box set!
WHAT IS MEDIA REPRESENTATION?
In media studies, representation is “the way aspects of society, such as gender, age or ethnicity, are presented to audiences”. According to a recent study, 91 percent of Americans believe that the media has the power to influence society. Philosophers have been discussing the meaning of representation since ancient times, and governments have always tried to control media representation to influence public opinion and build consent.
Today our media landscape stretches far and wide, with devices ranging from iPads to smartphones and formats as different as podcasts and movies. An entire sector, advertising, has been developed across all media to specifically influence taste and behavior. And the complexity of messages that children are exposed to on a daily basis is only continuing to increase.
WHY REPRESENTATION MATTERS
In November 2021, the Disney movie “Encanto” was released and became a hit worldwide. Soon after, a mother posted a picture of her son standing in front of the TV, which played Encanto. The boy stands proudly next to the character Antonio, who bears a striking resemblance to him.
Representation matters to everyone, but it is particularly important for minorities and segments of society who are marginalized and powerless. Women, people of color, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community have been systematically erased from mainstream media, contributing to their social disempowerment and removal from public consciousness.
Multiple studies have shown the effects of television on children, emphasizing a strong correlation between TV exposure and lower self-esteem for Black girls and boys. If we don’t create stories that allow children to see people with their identities being featured in a positive way, they will rely on the wrong assumption that they are fully represented by the stereotypes that they see across media. And as the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us, “The problem with stereotypes is not the fact they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
REPRESENTATION AND GIRLS
Research shows that by the time girls are 6 years old, they already feel less capable than boys. Between the ages of 8 and 14, girls’ confidence falls by 30 percent. This so-called “confidence gap” is what discourages women’s pursuit of many prestigious careers later on in their life.
Many factors contribute to the development of this confidence gap. Family, language, school, and entertainment all play a role in passing on and reinforcing gender stereotypes as old as time. For instance, according to a recent report on North American children’s television content, “female characters were twice as likely to solve problems using magic while males were more likely to solve problems using science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), or their physicality.” (Lemish & Johnson, 2019)
Our first book, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, published in 2016, brought this issue to the attention of a global audience by introducing a new type of fairy tale in which girls are not powerless princesses waiting to be saved by a prince, but the heroes of their own extraordinary lives. Since then, publishers and content creators worldwide have started to feature girls and women more and more prominently across books, TV, and movies. Rebel Girls itself has expanded into a global media brand that empowers girls through the stories of pioneering women.
We develop all our content across books, apps, and podcasts for 4- to 12-year-old girls. Our storytelling empowers and inspires them, and helps them build their confidence. 86 percent of parents tell us their girls’ confidence has increased because of Rebel Girls, and 92 percent of parents tell us our stories inspired their girls. So far, we’ve told the stories of women representing more than 400 professions and from more than 100 countries. We work with hundreds of female and nonbinary writers, illustrators, editors, and narrators to tell these stories authentically.
We want every girl out there to read our books or listen to our audio stories and find dozens of role models who she can see herself in. Through these stories, we want her to be empowered to build, nurture, and celebrate her own identity and her own self.