Back when I was pregnant with Bean, I had every intention of following the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guideline saying that babies and toddlers younger than age 2 should not have any screen time (this guidance has since been changed). My mom would tell me, “Talk to me in two years and we’ll see if you stick to that,” but I was adamant. But dang it, as much as I hate to say “she told me so,” Mom was right! Bean got a nasty stomach bug at around 15 months old, and I decided to let her watch the 1970s version of Winnie the Pooh with me.
And thus began my quest for the best in kids’ programming.
Honestly, I’m not super worried about Bean being “corrupted” by crude humor or swearing in a movie. Kids’ brains have a remarkable ability to simply skip over the things they can’t put into context yet. Case in point: my parents introduced me to Monty Python and the Holy Grail when I was in second grade, and I didn’t “get” the Castle Anthrax scene until eight years later. I’m pretty sure Bean will be fine if she hears someone say “sex” on TV.
What I am concerned about is providing Bean with media that makes her feel understood and valuable, and does the same for all of her peers. Shows and movies with women and minorities who aren’t stereotyped or objectified, children who are respected, disabled people who are fully three-dimensional characters, queer and transgender characters living well.
Are you looking for liberation-friendly TV and movies for your kids too? Well, Learning Liberation’s got you covered with our favorites for kiddos of all ages (including kids at heart)! Everything featured in this list had to meet the following requirements.
- It passes the “Bechdel Test“ — meaning, there are women or girls on the show who talk to other women or girls, about something other than boys.
- The characters solve their problems in a healthy way.
- Children in the show have loving adults in their lives who help and support them.
- The story reinforces Learning Liberation’s values (but in a way that kids understand): justice, kindness, the right to self-determination, and love for all people.
- It doesn’t annoy the shit out of me.
And so, in no particular order, here’s the best in TV and Movies for the youngest revolutionaries!
- Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (top left of cover image): Daniel Tiger is basically Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, The Next Generation. 4-year-old Daniel lives a pretty average lifestyle with his parents (and, after season 2, a new baby sister) in the neighborhood of make-believe. He goes to school, has playdates, explores the outdoors, visits the doctor, and along the way he learns how to handle all kinds of feelings and challenging situations. My favorite thing about the show is that not only do all the adults in town take responsibility for teaching the kids skills, but the kids also teach each other! (I also featured Daniel in my Body-Positive Parenting post!)
- Best for: Ages 2+
- Where to watch: PBS, Amazon Prime Video
- Bonus Points for: Featuring an interracial couple, a single mom, an uncle raising his nephew, and women of color in positions of authority. Also, if you learn the songs, they’re really helpful in those challenging moments with your little one!
- Any bummers?: There are no visibly queer people, unfortunately.
- Sarah and Duck: Sarah is a young girl whose best friend is her pet duck (aptly named Duck). They live in a small English town surrounded by whimsical and ever-so-slightly surreal neighbors. That’s how I’d describe Sarah’s adventures, too, such as when she goes on a treasure hunt to find the ultimate bread, or when she is crowned Pond Princess by a flock of ducks. Sarah spreads kindness throughout the series, too, such as when she helps an elderly friend preserve her memories of bobsledding after her film reel is ruined, or when she learns how to play with two children who communicate without words. I love that Sarah is never thrown off by characters who look and act so differently than her.
- Best for: Ages 3+
- Where to watch: BBC, Netflix
- Bonus Points for: Being so delightfully British (“Hullo!”), and inter-generational friendships.
- Any bummers?: How is there a young child living in a two-story home with a duck without any other family? Someone find her family!!!!
- Doc McStuffins: Doc McStuffins is an elementary-aged girl being raised by her doctor mother and full-time at-home dad. Doc, like her mom, is interested in medicine — and she uses it to cure and repair toys that have been hurt or damaged. She gets help from Hallie, Chilly, Lamby, and Stuffie, as well as her parents and grandmother. I especially like that Doc doesn’t just fix toys, she provides a service for her neighbors and friends! Talk about teaching kids mutual aid!
- Best for: Ages 3 or 4+
- Where to watch: Disney Channel
- Bonus points for: Starring a Black family in which the parents have non-traditional roles!
- Any bummers?: Being a Disney show, there are a lot of licensed toys and clothes for sale, most of which are cheaply made and very expensive. I don’t particularly love shows that try to sell a ton of toys. But honestly, that’s a pretty small quibble. Doc is a great role model, and if a licensed purple doctor’s kit encourages a generation of young, minority girls to go into medicine, then who am I to complain?
- Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter: I didn’t even know Studio Ghibli made TV shows, but they do! Hayao Miyazaki has retired, but his son followed in his footsteps and directs this series. Ronja is a member of a clan of robbers living in Medieval Scandinavian castle. Her father is the chief, and she is expected to succeed him when the time comes. Ronja, however, prefers to be in the woods where she goes head-to-head with beasts and learns hella survival skills. She also befriends a boy from a rival clan — which is where the real drama begins! A story line of two kids discovering their moral values and learning to stand up for those values by acting in solidarity with each other… Be still, my heart!
- Best for: Ages 8+
- Where to watch: Amazon Prime
- Bonus Points for: Gillian Anderson is the narrator!
- Any bummers?: Younger children may be frightened by some of the beasts in this show. Definitely not for the kindergarten crowd.
- Steven Universe (top right of cover image) is my favorite TV show. Steven is a pre-teen boy living with the Crystal Gems, three magical humanoid aliens who protect the Earth from other magical beings. Steven is half-human, half-gem; his dad Greg is a human who runs the local carwash and lives in his van, and his mom was Rose Quartz, a gem who gave up her physical form to create Steven. Crystal Gems Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl raise Steven so that he can learn to control his magic powers and fulfill his destiny. Oh, also, it’s SUPER SUPER GAY. All the gems are agender femmes, some of whom are in love with each other. Episodes cover issues ranging from “handling grief after complicated relationships” to “ongoing consent and checking in with a partner” to “my identity is not trendy.”
- Best for: Ages 10+, but it depends
- Where to watch: Cartoon Network, Hulu
- Bonus points for: Being the first CN show to be written by a woman! Women of many sizes and shapes and colors being badass and loved! Boys and men being open and honest about feelings!
- Any bummers? NOPE! Well, you may be bummed that your kids don’t appreciate it the way you do, lol.
- EXTRA BONUS: Gender-bending and everybody in town loves it!
- The Muppets (bottom left of cover image): Okay, so honestly of all my picks, this may be the least liberated just because it only barely passes the Bechdel test and it’s not at all diverse (I mean, except for the Muppets). But it’s just so fun and wholesome! Walter is a Muppet and the adult, adopted (I mean, I assume?) son of two humans, currently living with his brother and best friend, Gary. Gary, his girlfriend Mary, and Walter all take a trip to Los Angeles where they discover that an evil oil baron is planning to buy the Muppets’ old studio so he can dig for oil (under the guise of starting a museum). Walter has to help Kermit, Fozzie, Piggie and the gang put on one last show to save their theater and studio. Along the way, they all send a message about the need for more media that’s wholesome, not cynical or crude. I also see a parallel between the Walter-Gary subplot and the way we talk about disabled people and self-determination.
- Best for: Ages 5+
- Bonus points for: Am I a Man, or Am I a Muppet?
- Look out for: While both of the female main characters (Miss Piggy and Mary, played expertly by Amy Adams) both have successful careers, all of their dialogue centers on their relationships with men.
- My Neighbor Totoro: Satsuki and Mei, along with their father, move into a rural home in the Japanese countryside while they wait for their mother to recover from a long illness. As soon as they move in, the girls start to suspect that there are a variety of sprites and other magical creatures about. Of course, it turns out they are right! Their new, large, furry friend Totoro introduces the girls to the hidden magic in the forest. Meanwhile, the whole family is looked after by neighbors in a way that we don’t often see in the United States. It’s a heartwarming story, and my daughter’s favorite!
- Best for: Ages 3+
- Bonus points for: free-range parenting!
- Look out for: Kids watching this might have questions about Japanese culture, such as why the family bathes together or why the children call a total stranger “granny.”
- A League of Their Own: It’s the start of the United States’ involvement in World War II, and with all the men overseas, it’s up to 64 young women to keep baseball alive. The movie focuses on two sisters, Dottie and Kit, as they struggle to find their place in the world of professional baseball – and the world in general. The movie really has it all: humor (thanks very much to ballplayers Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna and their manager Tom Hanks), men unlearning sexism, a few tear-jerking scenes, and sisterhood. Watch it with your favorite tween girl and there’s a solid 80% chance she’ll want to be a baseball player when she grows up!
- Best for: Ages 7+
- Bonus points for: So. many. great. lines! “Did anyone ever tell you you look like a penis with a little hat on?” ” ‘Mae that dress doesn’t fit you – it’s too tight!’ ‘I don’t plan on wearin’ it that long.’ ‘I don’t know why you get dressed at all!'” “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everybody would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.”
- Look out for: There’s a lot of alcohol use in the movie, but the negative consequences are explored through Tom Hanks’ character, who is an alcoholic.
- Moana (bottom right of cover image): Yup, this is definitely the best Disney movie. Indigenous Polynesian heroine? Check. Voice talent with native Hawaiian and New Zealand ancestry? Check. Soundtrack by the incomparable Lin Manuel Miranda? Check. A magical adventure in which the male demigod is a supporter, not the hero? Check. Characters whose motivations and worldview are shaped by a deeply feminist mythology? Check! Now, I will admit that I don’t know how well this story fully represents Hawaii’s indigenous culture. But from what I understand, Disney really did work to be culturally responsive and authentic (certainly more than they were when they made, say, Pocahontas), and I’m hopeful that Moana is the first step in a better, more diverse direction.
- Best for: Ages 4+
- Bonus points for: Auli’i Cravalho, the voice of Moana, was just fifteen years old when the movie was released. This girl is going places, y’all.
- Any bummers?: Te Ka, a lava demon, may frighten some children at first. Luckily, Te Ka is defeated without violence.
- Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, follows Dory on her quest to find her parents after she suddenly remembers them. Just remembering that she has parents is a big deal for Dory, who cannot easily form new memories — and her quest is that much more daunting because of this disability. Dory faces a lot of peril along the way, but she has both old and new friends to help her along the way. Ultimately, its Dory’s own ability to stay calm in a crisis and use what little memory she has that brings her story to its happy conclusion, sending a powerful message about how capable people (and anthropomorphic sea creatures) with cognitive, sensory, and physical disabilities really are.
- Best for: 4+
- Bonus points for: Sigourney Weaver playing herself. It’s so meta and quite well-done.
- Any bummers?: There’s a scene with a giant squid that might be scary for young kids — Bean can’t handle it. Also, sobbing. Like every Pixar movie I’ve ever seen, this movie makes me ugly cry.
- ETA: Some adoptees have mentioned that this film may be triggering for adopted children because of its extensive focus on finding one’s birth parents. (Thanks Jillian for the tip!)