A Critique of the Use of Cartoon Characters from the Television Show “Arthur” as an Effective Anti-bullying Campaign – Ammarah Iqbal
Bullying is a persistent and prevalent public health problem that affects many children. It is estimated that 1 in 7 children in elementary school are affected by bullying as either victims or bullies themselves (1). Unfortunately, the severity of episodes and prevalence of bullying seems to be growing(2-3). Persistent bullying can lead to significant health effects in victims with anxiety, lower self-esteem, and higher risk for depression and suicide and may lead to additional long term adverse health effects(4-6). Bullies tend to have poorer academic school performance and are often higher risk for substance abuse and future criminal activity(7). As such, many states have developed legislations specifically requiring bully prevention plans in school districts, and numerous organizations are specifically adopting and implementing anti-bullying campaigns(8).
The PBS television show Arthur is an educational show aimed at children 3-11 years old. It is widespread and reaches 98% of the US with 9.6 million viewers weekly with the predominant viewing population between ages 6-8 years of age(9). Creators of the show use the character of Binky Barnes, a bully in school, to approach and discuss the topic of bullying in the television series. One episode titled “Bully for Binky” (10) has a storyline in which Binky, the bully, is challenged by Sue Ellen, the new girl in school. Binky is a known aggressor and terrorizes children like Arthur and his friends. Sue Ellen, a small but confident young girl, steps up and threatens Binky for his bullying. Binky in turn exhibits fear upon learning of Sue Ellen’s assertiveness and background in Tae Kwon Do and discusses his fears with Arthur and his friends. He attempts to beat her in a musical competition but is unable to. At the end of the episode, Binky is in the middle of bullying a classmate but stops out of fear when Sue Ellen passes by.
Through this show, the writers use the characters and story line to attempt to motivate viewers to act against bullying, a notable public health issue for both victims and bullies. The writers use Sue Ellen to appeal to victims and bystanders to stand up against bullying. The writers also use Binky to appeal to viewers who perpetrate bullying to change their attitude and behavior.
In this paper, I will discuss three flaws to this approach and will discuss improvements to maximize the effectiveness of this anti-bullying intervention.
Fails to Account for Modeling of Sue Ellen’s Behavior
In this episode, Binky is frightened into changing his behavior by a peer, Sue Ellen. Sue Ellen notes Binky’s bullying behavior and stands up and threatens to fight Binky. She is portrayed as a hero who saves the rest of the peers from Binky’s bullying. However, it is important to note that her threats and elicitation of fear in Binky is a form of bullying itself. Bullying has been described as harmful acts including physical, social or verbal harassment to create a power imbalance between the bully and the victim(11). As such, children who watch this episode may take away that aggression and threats, that bullying a bully, is the best way to oppose bullying.
The modeling theory, embedded in the Social Learning paradigm, suggests that people tend to modify their behavior based on similar and like-able characters; though not simply mimicry, modeling creates a generalized framework within which one tends to behave with the expectation for similar results(12). Based on research on the effect of cartoons on violent behavior in children, children are very susceptible to modeling after characters they see(13). Viewing violent television shows has been shown to significantly increase risk taking behavior in child viewers(14-16). In the case of Sue Ellen, her hero-like image, positive personality and success in achieving desirable results serves as positive incentive for children to model her behavior(17). Thus a certain sub-group of children may be more likely to follow Sue Ellen’s actions and take risky behavior to confront a bully like Binky in school.
Sue Ellen has the confidence and training background in Tae Kwon Do to feel able to stand up to Binky’s threats. However, it is likely that the majority of children watching this show have not had her level of training and will not elicit the same reaction of fear from a bully. Because of modeling, children who are victims of bullying may be more likely to attempt to stand up to a bully after watching Sue Ellen and may risk injury and worsening aggression. In an extreme example, victims are more likely to bring weapons to school as a means to stand up against a bully; this reaction to bullying has had dire consequences on the safety of the victim, bully, and bystanders(18).
Furthermore, were the viewers to be successful in challenging a bully, they may believe that threatening a bully is a means to elicit long lasting attitude and behavioral change in the bully. Binky’s fear of Sue Ellen is what triggers his behavioral change at the end of the show. But, while Sue Ellen’s threats may be effective in changing Binky’s behavior in the short term for a single incident, it is unlikely that his behavior and attitude will be affected in the long term. Sue Ellen’s threats are an external source of motivation and are a much less stable source of motivation for behavioral change than one’s internal moral standards or beliefs(19). Thus, though Binky does refrain from bullying in one situation in response to Sue Ellen’s threats, it is unlikely that Binky will make a lasting behavioral change, especially in the situations where Sue Ellen is not present.
Sue Ellen’s Character as an Ineffective Communicator
On the contrary, for another subgroup of child viewers, Sue Ellen’s character is not effective in prompting children to act in the face of bullying. A majority of victims of bullying are smaller in stature like Sue Ellen, but are often more anxious, fearful, with little self- efficacy(20),. Research shows that the most effective communicators are those who are liked and most similar and that such similarity increases the communicator’s credibility in conveying the message(21-22). Others have shown that television viewers react most strongly with characters with whom they can identify(23-24). While Sue Ellen’s character is like-able with her positive attitude and smiling demeanor, her confidence at age 8, background in Tae Kwon Do, and fearlessness for Binky, who has a strong reputation for aggression, distinguish her from the average child viewer population.
Additionally, Sue Ellen’s character is relatively new at this point in the television series. Communications theory suggests that messages and characters that are repeatedly viewed are more effective than those that are viewed once(25). Thus, Sue Ellen’s character is not a relatable to a large number of expected recipients and it is unlikely that viewers will trust Sue Ellen’s experiences and character to take action against bullying as she suggests.
Binky’s Character as an Ineffective Communicator
Bullying itself has proven to have significant health effects on the bully. In one large study of middle school children found that while 11% of children were identified as victims of bullying, 13% of children were identified as bullies(26). Bullies are ubiquitous and so presumably, Binky’s character could serve as a role model to children who tend to bully others if used effectively.
Binky is not a person that a viewer would choose to identify with. Unfortunately, though Binky’s character represents a “classic” bully with a larger than average build, poorer school performance, and repeated aggression towards classmates(27), his character is not likeable. During the episode, he is unable to spell his own name and struggles in understanding simple concepts. By portraying Binky as “dumb”, the writers create a character that is unappealing, and whose message is less likely to be complied with(28). Thus, those viewers who may model after Binky in changing their bullying behavior are less likely to do so.
Additionally, Binky’s inconsistent relationship with Arthur and his friends takes away from his image. In the beginning of the episode, Binky is aggressive towards Arthur but later on he goes on to disclose his fear of fighting Sue Ellen and asks advice from Arthur and his friends. It is unlikely that a bully will feel comfortable discussing his fears and rationale with classmates, especially with others who he repeatedly bullies. Bullies, because of social prestige and high status, may be actually less likely to demonstrate or express fear of others because they tend to lack in empathy and have learned aggression as an effective means of problem solving(29). In fact, Binky’s shift from bully to victim may even lead viewers in the audience who have been victimized to relate to his fear more than viewers who are bullies themselves. Binky’s inconsistent character may cause cognitive dissonance within the viewer, in that the viewer is unable to relate to his whole character, and may cause enough psychological discomfort that the viewer dismisses any connection to the character at all(30). As discussed above, children are more likely to comply with messages delivered by likeable and similar people (31). Thus, as with Sue Ellen, the target audience is unlikely to identify with Binky and model his behavior in their own lives.
Proposal for Improving “Bully for Binky”: An Alternative Intervention
Despite these flaws, the television program is a good avenue to target children of elementary school about key public health issues. Cartoons have been shown to be effective in impacting children’s choices (32).Through story and character development, the key to the value is the relate-ability to the characters and group of friends.
With some changes in character and story-line, the show Arthur can be used more effectively as a means to convey anti-bullying messages to the target population.
Response 1: Changing Sue Ellen’s behavior to Use More Effective Anti-bullying Solutions
Because of the modeling theory, it is imperative that Sue Ellen’s response to bullying be evidence based and an accepted solution against bullying in the public health realm. Because of her like-able characteristics and heroic behavior, child viewers may be likely to be persuaded that her actions are the most effective and correct actions to take against bullying. Sue Ellen’s actions suggest that responding to a bully with aggression and similar threatening behavior is an acceptable anti-bullying solution and fails to take advantage of the opportunity to discuss other effective means of combating bullying. Individual bravery on the part of a victim without surrounding support is risky and should not be encouraged as a recommended solution to bullying.
Rather than individually confronting and threatening Binky, Sue Ellen should approach peers and supporting school staff as a means to target bullying. Effective anti-bullying campaigns are largely centered around open discussion, peer involvement in anti-bullying, and teacher or staff support in identifying and administering consequences to bullies (33). Studies suggest that conquering bullying in school requires a collective response by a number of parties to change behavior (34).
In order for Binky to have a long lasting and impactful behavioral change, the episode should acknowledge that Binky’s bullying behavior may be controlled by a range of factors. Bullying is affected by individual factors such as emotional state or habit, upbringing and family environment, and one’s surrounding peer group (35). Thus, internal motivation for change such as Binky’s realization of the consequences of bullying on Arthur and his friends as mediated through supervised anti-bullying school sessions or discussions would convey a more positive and accepted method as a solution against bullying.
Response 2: Using Arthur and Friends to Communicate Anti-Bullying Message
In order to use characters that child viewers may relate to, the writers should use Arthur and his friends, the core group of characters, to convey a message of anti-bullying. Arthur and his friends are well-known to the viewers of the show through repeated episodes. These characters are also likely to be more similar to the child viewers on subjects other than bullying or those mentioned in this single episode and would serve as more effective role models. By using Arthur’s friend group as the means to change Binky’s behavior, viewers who relate to any of the characters within Arthur’s friend group or viewers who relate by merely recalling similarity between their own friend group and that of Arthur’s are more likely to receive his message in a positive manner and react accordingly.
During the episode, Binky does come to Arthur and Francine to disclose his fear of Sue Ellen and ask them for advice. Later he discloses to Arthur how he feels insecure and bad about himself. The writers can take advantage of Binky’s relationship with Arthur in a way that empowers Arthur, and relating viewers, to play a more integral role in Binky’s behavioral change.
Response 3: Making Binky More Realistic to Convey Anti-Bullying Messages
In order to make Binky’s character more effective, the writers should portray Binky in a way that a viewer in the audience can relate to without the risk for cognitive dissonance. Instead, Binky should be portrayed as confident, strong, and aggressive throughout. He should be able to spell. The episode should be more focused on his good characteristics and success such that the viewer who initially identifies with Binky will receive his image in a positive way. Similarly, Binky should not be confiding his emotional status with Arthur and his friends as this is very unlikely to occur in reality. By confiding in a counselor or someone that he does not bully, his character will seem more credible and his actions will be more likely to be received as effective by the target population. The importance of Binky’s character is especially important to avoid reactance from the target population at the perceived threat of vulnerability and loss of control that may be felt at confessing one’s fear(36).
Arthur is an effective means of conveying public health education to young children. With its broad viewing audience and use of likeable characters it has the potential to be an effective anti-bullying intervention. By realizing its potential through the modeling theory of the social learning paradigm and using communications theory to convey appropriate and evidence based messages through an effective cartoon character, the writers can teach children viewers how to react appropriately as a victim of bullying, a bystander of bullying, or as bully themselves. The writers should use Arthur and Francine as the force for changing Binky’s behavior. By taking advantage of the viewer’s relationship to these key relatable characters and using them to address bullying by working with others with more authority, the writers can persuade viewers to do the same in their own situations. Similarly, Binky’s character can be used more effectively to elicit change in viewers who bully peers if portrayed as a more similar and likeable character. With these changes, the episode “Bully for Binky” can have a greater impact on bullying among young children.
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