Imagining scientists in children’s TV
Holliman, R., Whitelegg, E. and Carr, J. (2010, December). 'Imagining scientists in children’s TV', People and Science, p. 19. Available from: www.britishscienceassociation.org/NR/rdonlyres/3B896AE2-BEFE-4ADD-805F-905E969FE2C5/0/Feature.pdf
It’s alive! It’s alive! The stereotype of a scientist, that is. That white-coated, bespectacled, middle-aged, male with crazy hair may have found the secret of eternal life. Watch animated cartoons on children’s television and you are likely to find him, working on illicit experiments in a secret underground laboratory. But do not despair. Children and young people are coming to the rescue.
Dead scientists’ society
Scientists are venerated in lots of cultural forms - in portraits, sculptures, textbooks, the names of buildings, even on banknotes. These representations tend to favour older men. In part this is down to the historical legacy of denying women access to learning and the sciences. It is also because scientists tend to be honoured towards the end of their careers. As a result, successful, ageing, male scientists tend to dominate the public face of science. Of course, this reality is slowly changing as female scientists gain greater prominence. It will, however, take time to redress the balance.
We studied children’s television to explore why stereotypes of scientists endure in some forms of popular culture. We wanted to know how female and male scientists were portrayed on children’s television. What did they look like and say? What roles did they play? What narratives were employed to represent the work they did as scientists? And how did children and young people respond to these images?
We looked at a whole range of genres for pre-school and school-age children, both factual and fictional. We included news and current affairs, natural history, reality TV, gameshows and educational programmes, but also comedy, drama, science fiction and animated cartoons. We found scientists everywhere we looked, and positive images were in evidence. But we also located stereotypical images of scientists. These images were more likely to be represented in fictional genre.
We identified stereotypical images of incompetent male scientists in comedy programmes, some of whom were contrasted with more positive portrayals. We also found images of ambitious and over-worked male scientists conducting dangerous experiments. Portrayals of super-heroes in animated cartoons illustrate the point well. Overall then, the flow of children’s television can be characterised as a mixture of stereotypical scientists juxtaposed with emerging types.
Why are these stereotypical images used? After all, images of scientists in fiction are only limited by the imagination of producers and what they perceive audiences will understand. We found that investigating audiences can provide a useful resource to imagine more authentic images of female and male scientists and the types of work they do.
Recent audience studies have addressed developments in digital media to explore ideas about media literacy. How do audience members access, interpret and respond to media? We adopted this approach to complement our studies of television content, working with children and young people.
By employing a range of methods we studied how children and young people interpret and contextualise images of scientists. Inviting them to also produce imagery and ideas for children’s television programmes featuring science added another level of creativity.
The results show that the children and young people we worked with had sophisticated media literacy skills. They could deconstruct stereotypes, differentiate between fact and fiction, and produce ideas that were age appropriate and worked across platforms. We argue that it is time to include children and young people, alongside scientists, in the development of original programming for children’s television.