Characters in
Children’s Television

Maria Klatte
Current events

Some people believe that nature makes people good, others say that it is habit, and still others say that it is teaching. Experience shows that logical arguments and teaching are not effective in most cases. The soul of the student must first have been conditioned by good habits just as land must be cultivated to nurture seed.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X, 9, 1179b, 20 et passim.

When we are children we are like sponges: We absorb every little piece of information that surrounds us (such as language, social norms and gestures) and then eventually form our own personality and views of the world.

Thereby, many of the principles on which we base our opinions as adults are shaped at a very young age – essentially putting into question to what extent an “opinion” really is individual instead of rather being conditioned.Does a human being who grows up on TV shows that mostly show the image of heterosexual families tend to be less accepting towards homosexuality as an adult? Is heterosexuality more likely to be regarded as the “desired” sexual inclination due to the more frequent exposure to such images, not only on TV but also in fairy tales and children´s books in general?

The most mentioned counter-arguments are that children are too young to understand the true meaning of sexual preferences.

And if so, how does this affect individuals that identify themselves as LGBTQ, especially in the process of “coming out”?

A broader LGBTQ character inclusion in children’s TV programs would contribute to the “normalization” of the diversity we see in our communities today by removing the taboo under which homosexuality still seems to be placed when raising children. A more frequent exposure of infants to this reality could potentially raise their acceptance of the LGBTQ community as adults by making them grow accustomed to it. 

The studies of Rebecca Bigler, developmental psychologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas, show important insight:

In one of these [1] Bigler and her team came to two important conclusions: First of all, in this experiment the vast majority of parents implemented a “colourblind” approach to socialization when discussing a

book that was about race. Instead of confronting their children with the recognizable issue, they did not focus their discussions on race but rather generalized the morals of the stories. Their intentions seemed to be rather good-natured: They assumed that their silence would lead children to not notice differences and thereby remain unbiased. Secondly, the Children’s racial attitudes were predicted by their mother’s cross-race friendships. Thereby, children whose mothers had a high percentage of non-European friends showed a lower level of racial bias.

Furthermore, in another study [2] Bigler and Liben gave important insights about how children learn and construct stereotypes and prejudices. A paramount conclusion was that not talking about race can have a very negative impact on a child’s views: When asked why all presidents to date were white (Obama had not yet been President), 26% of the Children thought that it was illegal for Black people to be President. Although this was probably not taught to the children, they looked for a logical reasoning and inferred this conclusion due to the lack of a proper education. 

 For the topic at hand, it is therfore of major interest to know: To what extent could we come to the same conclusions if we replaced race with sexual orientation? Does not talking about LGBTQ issues lead children to have similarly biased conclusions? 

 Another aspect of this discussion that should not be ignored is that of children from so-called “rainbow families”: A lack of inclusion of their family’s constellation may induce them to think that there is something atypical about them. How are they to be expected to explain to their classmates that they have two fathers or two mothers when these barely even know such kinds of household exist? Seeing more of their favourite famous movie characters with the same “rainbow family” structure, might help them feel more “normal”.

The most mentioned counter-arguments are that children are too young to understand the true meaning of sexual preferences.

People with this view are concerned with children being more prone to becoming gay out of curiosity. There are two problems with the argument, however: First of all, it implies that more human beings identifying themselves as gay is a negative thing, which is in itself a discriminatory assumption. Secondly, if children are too young to understand sexual preference and the structure of a family overall, the correct approach would be to forbid such content in the first place (including the heterosexual one, of course). As this however is not realistic, it has to be accepted as a fact that children are exposed to content involving sexual orientation. As such, preferring one type of content over the other is a type of discrimination against the LGBTQ community. 

Shaun Delley, deputy head at Alfred Salter Primary School in Rotherhithe, London, launched an initiative (“Inclusion for All”) to tackle homophobic bullying in his school. His main argument was that children are never too young to know that homophobic bullying is wrong. The inspiration for this initiative was a research done at Delley’s own school: it showed that 75% of his pupils were hearing homophobic bullying and language (derogative use of the word ‘gay’) on a daily basis. Additionally, it was shown that in more than 76% of cases, the children knew what “being gay” (or lesbian) meant [3]

The huge negative impact that can result from a lack of education involving prejudices was highlighted in a famous experiment done by Jane Elliott in 1968: She divided the children (that were all white) by eye colour and told them that people with brown eyes were smarter, faster and better than those with blue eyes (and vice versa). Her experiment showed that prejudice is a learned behaviour and can therefore be unlearned as well [4]. James Arthur, Head of the School of Education and Professor of Education and Civic Engagement at the University of Birmingham and Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and Professor of Character Education and Virtue Ethics at the University of Birmingham, reinforced these findings in their research on character education. Their results suggest that stories, especially those that can be projected on a larger screen, are useful teaching aids to enhance what may be called “virtue literacy” [5]. The “Knightly Virtues” Programme, devised by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, is a programme designed for 9 to 11 year olds, which draws on selected classic stories to help teach moral character in schools [6]. Recent research from the Centre has shown that the qualities that make up character can be learnt and taught, and suggests that we need a new emphasis on their importance in schools and in professional education [7].

Thereby, building on these findings, the popularization of LGBTQ characters in mainstream television, especially for children (e.g. Disney movies) could be a paramount step towards providing future generations with a more modern and inclusive education. As much as black actors as main characters of a Hollywood movie were regarded as “scandalous” and “unacceptable” earlier in history (and sadly, the number of black main characters is still quite dissatisfactory [8]), this is what we face today when it comes to LGBTQ characters. According to a GLAAD [9] study, LGBT representation in film fell in 2017 [10]. This study revolved principally around movies in general (with focus on adult movies). First steps to tackle this underrepresentation in Children’s Television have been taken by major film giants like Disney and Nickelodeon [11]. However, these are mostly secondary roles and not the main focus of the corresponding series. There is still a long way to go until we actually see main characters of children’s movies and series that belong to the LGBTQ community. 

I think that educational initiatives for children of primary schools (the age starting somewhere between 8 – 10 years) are strictly necessary to provide an environment of support and acceptance for children that identify themselves as LGBTQ.

[1] Pahlke E., Bigler R.S.Suizzo M.A. – Relations between colorblind socialization and children’s racial bias: evidence from European American mothers and their preschool children. Child Dev. 2012 Jul-Aug;83(4):1164-79. Disponibile al link:

[2] Bigler R.S., Liben L.S. – A developmental intergroup theory of social stereotypes and prejudice. Adv Child Dev Behav. 2006;34:39-89. Disponibile al link:

[6] Arthur J., Harrison T., Carr D., Kristjánsson K., Davidson I., Hayes D., and Higgins J., (2014) Knightly virtues : enhancing virtue literacy through stories : research report. Project Report. Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham. Available at:

[7] Idem.

[8] New York Film Academy: Black inequality in Film (Infographic): In the top 500 grossing films from 2007 – 2012, 12.4% of speaking characters were portrayed by Black actors vs. 75.8% of White characters. Disponibile al link:

[9] Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (Alleanza Gay e Lesbica Contro la Discriminazione).