Cool to Be Cruel: Mean-spiritedness in 21st Century Children's TV Sitcoms

By Melle Starsen.

Published by The International Journal of New Media, Technology and the Arts

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

So much has been written about the proven negative effects viewing television violence has on children (Black and Newman, 1995; DeGaetano, 2009; Derksen and Strasburger,1996; Lehman, 2004; and Murray, 2001), and yet there is another kind of “violence” embedded in an unlikely place: children’s television sitcoms. This content analysis investigated 19 live-action children’s half-hour sitcoms and discovered the presence of relational aggression and superiority humor, both of which rely on treating other humans as inferior for the sake of a canned laugh track. The television characters in this study seek revenge on each other, intentionally make others look bad or stupid, humiliate peers and parents, and are rarely punished for their mean-spiritedness and cruelty. The children’s sitcoms are behavioral blueprints of lies and deceit, as the characters unashamedly cheat others, defraud parents and other adults, and attempt to make peers and teachers look stupid and in the vernacular of the culture, “clueless.” Further, stereotypes are not only presented as acceptable, but are reinforced by frequent inclusion into the action. Stereotypes include: the brilliant but socially awkward geek (male or female), the blonde bimbo who isn’t very intelligent, the unwanted nerdy girlfriend or boyfriend, and the rich teenager who is often female and is uncaring, cold and aloof. This study discovered myriad examples of mean-spiritedness and cruelty on the part of characters in the programs, ranging in frequency from seven to 31.25 per half-hour episode, averaging 33.75 per hour for all programs viewed. This study includes recommendations for parents and educators to help offset the possible negative effects of these programs.

Keywords: Children, Television, Sitcoms, Violence, TV, Mean-spirited

The International Journal of New Media, Technology and the Arts, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp.1-20. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 291.178KB).

Dr. Melle Starsen

Assistant Professor, Communication, Liberal Arts Division, Upper Iowa University, Fayette, Iowa, USA

Assistant professor, Communication for 13 years at a small private university with an international and online presence, teaching television history, news editing, writing for media, feature writing, television production, media law and ethics, journalistic and online writing, and public speaking. Previously an instructor in Speech and Communication for 10 years teaching screenwriting, speech and effective listening. Published author with two novels, short stories in academic journals, articles in national publications, and a poem published in The Volga River Review, May 2013. TV producer, director, writer, and videographer at a university PBS affiliate for nine years, producing documentary programs and PSAs. Researched, wrote and worked as location unit manager for American documentary on Dr. Who. Journalist and freelance writer since 1980, with articles in publications such as New York Times and The Navajo-Hopi Observer. Appeared as extra in two films. Ten years experience acting and doing technical work in theatre. Ongoing research interests include: 1) using media such as film and television in successful university teaching; 2) importing real-life experience into university teaching pedagogy; and 3) researching the millennial generation, so-called :echo boomers” and their visually-oriented and technologically-impacted learning styles. Hobbies include photography, fossil hunting, and collecting sea glass and sea shards from the United Kingdom.