About a week ago, Flavorwire published an interview with Mathew Klickstein, author of Slimed: An Oral History Of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age. The interview, conducted by A.V. Club contributor Pilot Viruet, found the ’90s nostalgia apologist likening Nickelodeon’s emphasis on diversity to blackface, attributing Clarissa Explains It All’s retroactive popularity to women bloggers, and insisting that modern Nick shows like Sanjay And Craig are “awkward” because “there’s no reason for [the main character] to be Indian—except for the fact that [Nickelodeon president] Cyma Zarghami and the women who run Nickelodeon now are very obsessed with diversity.” Oof. (Full disclosure: Both associate editor Erik Adams and myself were in talks with Klickstein at one point about writing a Nickelodeon book together. Our concepts and preferences about the then-theoretical book didn’t match up, and so we parted ways, with Klickstein going on to write Slimed.)
While Klickstein is obviously entitled to have any opinion he wants—even a wrong-headed one—lots of culture-obsessed writers have since spoken out against his opinions, snarkily pointing out inaccuracies in his piece or concluding, as Jezebel did, that “life is really tough for men, OK?” And while Klickstein certainly did deserve “to get his ass handed to him,” as Jezebel puts it—there are major flaws an inaccuracies in his arguments, both theoretically and factually, like how many seasons Doug and Hey Dude got, for example—most of these reaction pieces focus more on how racist or sexist Klickstein sounds rather than on why it matters that he said those things. Yes, saying that the mere act of non-Indian writers penning an Indian character is equivalent to blackface is obviously absurd. But why do we care if children’s television shows are diverse? Does Nickelodeon care? And just how much of a say did the creators of The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, for instance—a show Klickstein said “was made by white people and is about white people”—have in making their show diverse?
In short, a lot. While Nickelodeon has historically been pro-diversity—with executive vice president of communication Dan Martinsen telling The A.V. Club that “diversity has always been and continues to be a part of our brand’s DNA”—Hey Arnold!’s setting in a diverse, multi-racial neighborhood was a decision made by the show’s creator, Craig Bartlett. As he told The A.V. Club in an interview for this piece, Hey Arnold!’s setting “spoke about what it was like to live in a modern city,” where “you have all these different ethnicities mixed up.”
That on-screen diversity is important. As a piece from The Atlantic notes, “African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and disabled actors have been struggling to achieve proportional and fair representation on TV since the age of Andy Griffith.” And while entertainment dynamics have no doubt changed since Andy and Opie wandered on over to the ol’ fishin’ hole, a recent UCLA study found that minorities had lead roles in just under 15 percent of cable comedies and dramas, despite accounting for about 36 percent of the United States’ population. (Interestingly, Bartlett also told us that PBS, where his show Dinosaur Train runs, gets about a quarter of its viewers from Latino households.)
And while you could make the argument that, “Hey, we all like Batman, and he’s white, but we can all learn from him, so who cares?” a study published in Communication Research from 2012 found that “children are affected when they don’t see themselves represented on TV.” Further, “it affects them when the young people who look like them are seen doing something wrong.” In fact, the same study found that TV exposure directly correlated to a decrease in self-esteem for white and black girls and black boys, while white boys experienced a self-esteem boost. In essence, when girls and black boys are shown acting stupid, deferential, or malicious on TV, those messages get to kids. And if they’re not even shown at all? Forget it.
Children’s television should be educational. While preschool shows can drop numbers and letters, shows for older kids should aim to enrich. Clarissa Explains It All didn’t teach about colors, but it taught that boys and girls could be friends, and that you would ultimately be rewarded for being yourself. Moreover, as the show’s creator Mitchell Kriegman explained in an interview for this piece, Clarissa was part of Nickelodeon’s brand identity, as both the show and the network were legitimately concerned with representing another then-underserved minority: kids. Geraldine Laybourne, who headed up Nick in the ’80s through the mid-’90s, strongly believed that kids should be empowered as a smart subculture, one with a point of view and a diversity within their own group. Clarissa, for instance, was occasionally smarter than her parents, had agency and purchasing power, and possessed a strong point of view. As Kriegman told us, sometimes “diversity is a lot bigger than people.”
Diversity also makes sense for business. Dora The Explorer, for instance, started out as a little white girl named Tess before Nickelodeon executives asked the show’s creators to convert her into a bilingual Latina, citing some research on how Latinos were the most underrepresented minority on television. Neither of the show’s creators spoke Spanish or knew anything about Latino life, but they hired a Latino writer and several savvy consultants and language experts. Thus the Dora empire was born.
Bartlett said PBS does something similar, inviting all its content producers to Washington, D.C., for its annual producers summit, where the network drops a whole bunch of science about its viewers and kids in general. According to Bartlett, producers learn “who our audience is and what they’re thinking and how are kids changing—why are millennials different from what we were like when we were kids and so on. How things are changing so much in the way kids consume TV.” And while that can certainly be good for business, with more diversity meaning more viewers and more advertising dollars, it’s also a smart move for the producers, who could be a little out of touch with today’s kids. Moreover, as Bartlett said, it reminds producers to think about why they’re making TV—specifically kids’ TV—and to think about who it’s for and how they might receive a show’s messages.
And who is diversity hurting? If Sanjay And Craig’s inclusion of a non-stereotypical Indian character could, in theory, bring Nickelodeon viewers from the Indian subcontinent in addition to all the Indian-American kids in the States, why not make Sanjay Indian? Those kids can see themselves represented on TV, and the network’s market share might get a boost at the same time. It’s not the purest argument for diversity, but at least it’s a realistic one.
A little creative diversity can also give a show’s storyline a boost. As Kriegman told us, “Diversity is inherently richer than just one voice.” He continued: “Why wouldn’t you want the richest environment creatively in terms of voices and characters and stories?… Why eat Wonder Bread when you can have bread from all over the world?” With Clarissa, Kriegman not only challenged himself to write a central female character that even little boys would like, but to write a female character that could be a good representative of the show’s diverse range of female viewers.
While television production isn’t a model of diversity in any way—as Bartlett notes, “the animation business is really dominated by white men, and it’s not right”—it’s getting better. And particularly in children’s television, it’s getting better for a reason. If the first childrens’ showrunners grew up inspired by Sesame Street, today’s producers could also be inspired by a wealth of diverse, interesting, and challenging shows. And hopefully that diversity will trickle down into the next generation of makers, who’ll ideally be more diverse, more sophisticated, and more creative. In an ideal world, one of today’s kids could grow up to create a show that’s ripe with diversity and difference, not because they thought they should put it in there or were instructed to by the network, but because it’s reflective of their actual life. Shows like The Adventures Of Pete And Pete and Clarissa Explains It All made it possible for shows like Dora and Sanjay to air today. It will be fascinating to see what comes next.