You’ve seen all our fun Black Betty Boop merchandise with images of cute and sexy women with dark hair and skin, many with positive words of affirmation like ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Deserving’. But maybe you don’t know the reason behind why we do what we do.
When you were growing up, did you have a hero, celebrity or fictional character that you looked up to? Maybe someone like a pop star, or a real-life princess, a champion athlete, or even a Disney Princess? How many of those people you admired were black or brown? Chances are you may have had a hard time finding popular images of people who look like you. And to a child’s eyes, when the people you see idolized in your society are not like you, or when the ones that do look like you are portrayed in a skewed light, that difference can translate into thoughts of unworthiness. Thoughts like, “I don’t have long blonde hair, my hair is black and curly, so I must not be beautiful.” Or worse, “My skin is too dark for me to be accepted as a top attorney/doctor/scientist.”
Researchers have been reporting for decades that there is a large disparity in the media our children consume such as tv shows, movies, and picture books between male and female characters and also between white and non-white characters. Recent studies have shown a significant increase in both female characters and non-white characters, although there is still work to be done to balance this out.
A study conducted by The Children’s Television Project at Tufts University found that Black characters accounted for about 5.5% of the characters in children’s television today, although African Americans constitute about 13% of the general population. This number is way up from when the research began taking stock in the 1960s, but we've got a way to go yet.
Further, this research found that many cartoons still use stereotypes like villains with accents or black characters who are played with ‘urban’ accents - a euphemism for a more stereotypical African American dialect.
The researchers at Tuft recognize that the most important question they are addressing is why this matters. There are many studies in addition to this one that reveal it is vital for children to see characters that not only look like them and their families, but also sound like them. They have shown that there is a strong correlation between low self-esteem in children and negative media portrayals of people of color. Other studies have shown that media representations of ethnic groups can cause confusion about aspects of a child’s identity. This stuff matters, people!
Children are also processing the media they consume in some surprising ways. For example, the Tufts study found that children in 1st and 2nd grades are able to quickly sort a group of example cartoon characters into categories of good and evil and can even express the reasons why they put them there. They may point out someone who looks ‘like a princess’ or like ‘someone who goes to jail.’
The conclusion is that children and adults need to see diverse characters all around them expressing the good and bad in a way that they can understand easily, but which does not always relegate people with different colors or accents to the position of stereotypes or villains. There should be black heroes, brown heroes and white ones. There should be villains of all colors and accents as well - after all, that’s how they come in the real world too, right?
The Nigerian American author Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie gave a TED talk about The Danger of a Single Story, in which she explores the danger of telling only one story told about each other and the power of those stories to define us. Imagine if you had to be judged for all your life by only one, probably unflattering, story about you. You can't be summed up in one story! You are multi-faceted, right? Now consider what it means for an entire group of people to be judged by the story told about a handful of them.
My takeaway is that we need many stories told by many different people.
Adichie's point highlights the need to surround ourselves and our children with examples of success and real-life achievement from within our own diverse communities to combat this imbalance in the media. We need to celebrate the black activists and innovators and artists so that we are reminded that we can achieve just as much as they have. We need to create cartoon and other media characters that reflect ourselves in a more complex and faithful manner. And we need to teach our children about the rich history of contributions that people of all colors have made to the world.
Here at Shay Better Products, we believe in creating cultural icons that look like our beautiful brown and black selves. The fact is that the Betty Boop character we all love, was appropriated from a young black girl, Esther Jones, who happened to be a jazz singer. We celebrate the rich history of where the Betty Boop character originated from. We also believe in creating an environment where people of all backgrounds are celebrated, admired, copied, and emulated. We aim to create products that empower women to claim their power, beauty and greatness. We want our children to grow up seeing examples of greatness all around them, greatness that looks like them to help them understand that they are just as worthy and capable of marvelous achievements as anyone else.
We will be exploring some of those icons whose stories are not told often enough and we will be working to empower women and girls no matter what their skin color may be. And through our Black Betty Boop products we will continue to promote a fun, positive reminder that we have always been fabulous.
For a more complete review of the Tufts’ study read, Why it’s so important for kids to see diverse tv and movie characters, The Conversation, 2018. http://theconversation.com/why-its-so-important-for-kids-to-see-diverse-tv-and-movie-characters-92576
Ted Talk:Chimamanda Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story#t-308654