While there is no doubt about the importance of teaching children — especially White children — about racism and tolerance, it can sometimes be a tricky road to navigate. On the one hand, you’ve got the direct approach, mostly aimed at younger children. On the other hand, there’s…doing nothing at all, which is absolutely unacceptable. Somewhere in the middle, we find pop culture: the media our children consume, and are influenced by, as they grow older and move through the world.
If you are a parent looking for diversity in your grade- and middle-schoolers’ TV shows, here are two that seamlessly share messages of inclusivity without beating viewers over the head. The diversity in these shows just is, and best of all — there are actual actors of color behind the microphones.
The Amazing World of Gumball (2011–2019, Hulu)
On the surface, The Amazing World of Gumball might seem like a spastic, absurdist version of The Simpsons, and in some ways, that’s exactly what it is: a family of 5 in a generic American suburb, interacting with a long list of colorful neighbors and friends. Look closer, though, because Gumball is really so much more.
Because none of the characters are human or even humanoid, the diversity isn’t immediately obvious. However, within the Watterson family, you already have a mixed marriage between a blue cat and a pink bunny, and three children including an adopted goldfish. The goldfish, Darwin, is voiced by a series of young Black actors (Kwesi Boakye; Terrell Ransom Jr.; Christian J. Simon; and Donielle T. Hansley Jr.). Unlike certain beloved shows of the 80s, there’s never the sense that the Wattersons adopted Darwin because he’s a charity case. He’s just, you know, part of the family. In fact, it was Gumball and Darwin’s love for each other that brought Darwin back to the Wattersons when he got lost and they thought he was dead.
But there’s even more diversity in The Amazing World of Gumball! Nicole Watterson works a full-time job (at a rainbow factory) outside the home, while dad Richard works as a stay-at-home-dad. The little sister, Anais, is brilliantly gifted and so attends the same middle school as Darwin and Gumball, despite being four years their junior.
The rest of the characters help make the show such a big hit. Sentient bananas, balloons, ghosts, potatoes, a T-Rex, clouds, and some unidentifiable nondescript creatures all populate the Wattersons’ town of Elmore. By doing this, the show’s creators have made Gumball as diverse as possible without drawing attention to the fact that this is what they’re doing. The lessons in tolerance and inclusion are funny on top and quite serious underneath, such as when Darwin decides to give up eating potatoes because that is insensitive to his friend Idaho (a potato), or when Alan (a balloon) dates Carmen (a cactus).
This clever and wild show is fast-paced and extremely meta, winking at the audience so subtly that younger kids might miss it, but grownups will love it. The message in this show is loud and clear: what you look like doesn’t matter as much as how you behave towards others.
The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants (2018-present, Netflix)
Anyone who has been around children in the past decade has probably heard of some of Dav Pilkey’s work, from Dog Man to Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot to his most famous creation, Captain Underpants. After the success of the Captain Underpants movie in 2017, the unusual superhero and his creators/sidekicks George and Harold got their own show on Netflix, now in its fourth season.
The characters in Captain Underpants are human, so the diversity is much more noticeable. George Beard is Black, and so is the actor who voices him (Ramone Hamilton). He’s not the comic relief best friend of White kid Harold, either; at least, not in the usual sense. George and Harold create comic books about a superhero named Captain Underpants, so in that way, they are both the “comic” relief, pun intended. But it’s clear from the show that George and Harold share the spotlight. It’s not Harold’s show and George is his sidekick. This is equal representation at its best.
George isn’t just a token Black character, either. Jerome Horowitz Elementary school is full of a diverse student population, none of whom represent stereotypes or cliches. The show is about children forming friendships, getting into trouble, having adventures. They come in all colors, sizes, and dispositions, sort of like kids in real life.
Dav Pilkey spent his childhood being picked on by his teachers for having ADD and ADHD, so he well understands how hard it is for kids to be taken seriously by adults and how adults can break children’s spirits. His characters, and therefore the show, are testaments to his promotion of children as actual human beings whose energy and intuition should be celebrated, not squashed. These children don’t care about skin color or gender identification: they just want to be friends and have fun. Like Gumball, it’s inspiring without being dogmatic, and a lot of fun for both kids and their grownups.
Review originally posted by Meredith Morgenstern on Medium on 7/24/2020