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My toddler cousins, like all children their age, were born into a world of rattles, Legos, diapers, and TV. Now more than ever, kids programming is a dominant and formative force in young children’s lives. The average preschooler spend 32 hours a week latched onto the TV screen, and by high school graduation has clocked more hours watching TV than at school. Studies have already shown us that the way kids’ TV treats race and gender affects how kids see their identities, and that kids need to see someone like them on their screen. White boys, for example, have been shown to have higher self-esteem after watching TV, which is typically dominated by characters matching their demographic, while underrepresented groups of children suffer from lower self-esteem after watching TV. So how come my toddler cousins see no little Muslim girls?
The four most popular stations for kids programming in the U.S. are Disney, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and PBS Kids. Disney, arguably the biggest conglomerate, suffers from a shocking lack of diversity. Of its nine presently running live-action series, none of the characters are Muslim. Furthermore, Disney’s only efforts at diversity seem to be a halfhearted attempt to fulfill the minimum threshold needed to meet minority quotas; three shows have an all–white main cast, and of the 46 characters in the main casts of its currently running shows, 37 are white. Both Jessie and Phineas and Ferb do have little boys from Southeast Asia; these characters are horrendously stereotyped, both sporting thick accents that are often the brunt of jokes, and their religious background is not specified.
As far as Disney goes, the only seemingly Muslim character is Princess Jasmine of the Aladdin movie, and her representation has its own host of problems. The Aladdin franchise, first released in 1992, was Disney’s first nod to the existence of people who might be of Muslim background, by taking place in stereotypically Muslim lands, but, since then, has remained the only one. Many of the same discourses applied to Aladdin, Jasmine, and their friends are applied to Muslims throughout the world. The movie opens with a song describing Arabia as “barbaric,” replete with an earlier line of “the land…where they cut off your hands,” which was edited out after the film received criticism for it. Jasmine is sexualized both by her scantily clad wardrobe and her scenes with Jafar. When, in the movie, Jasmine is captured by Jafar and seen by him as an overtly sexual trophy, some argue that her agency is effectively made nonexistent as her only power lies in her sexuality and ability to seduce Jafar into confusion. Furthermore, her father’s treatment of her echoes stereotypes that all Arab and/or Muslim females are forced into arranged marriages. Of course, there are arguable positives to Jasmine’s character; her personality is independent, fierce, and likable. She holds her own against her father and at one point reprimands Aladdin, saying “I am not a prize to be won.” Regardless, Jasmine should still not be the only representation of a stereotypically Arab or Muslim woman in children’s entertainment.
Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon have similarly poor showings of Muslim girls and women or Muslims at all in their programming. PBS Kids, due to its concerted efforts at diversity, fares a bit better, with online resources teaching kids about Arthur’s Muslim friend Ayah, who celebrate Ramadan. Still, there is no currently running TV show with a Muslim girl in the main cast, or even infrequent guest cast, on any of these three stations. The resolute absence of Muslim girls in the thousands of hours of programming these channels produce on a regularly basis in astonishing and may even cause young Muslimahs to have lower self-esteem. Furthermore, the white-dominated casts of most shows put on Christmas specials with regularity, without considering the possible alienating effects to children belonging to religions other than Christianity, like young Muslimahs.
Disney, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon have huge audiences outside of the U.S., and Disney is the world’s iconic children’s entertainment company. The lack of representation on their programming schedules hurts not only the millions of Muslim girls in the U.S., but diasporic Muslimah children around the world. Studies show that underrepresentation or negative representation of a child’s group hurts their self-esteem; what does an absence do?