The gender bias in children's books

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I just found out my white middle class eight year old son has a hip-hop name.  He’s hailed heartily across the school and local shopping centre with yelps of ‘Yo, Papa Arcachellar’.  Pretty fly for a white guy and probably my fault.  I put him in dance classes because he hates sport and I proudly reasoned that by learning hip-hop he’d help break down the stereotype that boys don’t dance.  I didn’t consider the issue of cultural appropriation. While his hip hop name is not on par with Miley Cyrus twerking, it’s probably not kosher.

The fact is that in forming an identity boys seek membership of a group.  White privileged male doesn’t look much like a group – but there’s no doubt it’s a way of life that boys and girls increasingly absorb and accept as they grow up.  It’s therefore vital that we encourage our kids to watch movies, observe life and read books that are not all written from the perspective of male protagonists.

However, it seems they are doing just that. Feminist, writer and satirist Soraya Chemaly wrote recently about a study that found 57 percent of children’s books published each year have male protagonists and 31 percent female. 

Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

It also found every single animal book features male characters but only a third have female elephants, birds or monsters.  Chemaly also takes heed with the portrayal of female characters in the classics pointing out Peter Pan’s female leads are boring and jealous.  I direct her to fabulous heroines in literature such as Jo in ‘Little Women’, Katie in ‘What Katie Did’, Dorothy in ‘Wizard of Oz’ and perhaps Hermione in the modern day classic Harry Potter series - but I see her point.

It’s not just the writing of the books that’s the problem.  It’s the marketing.  Too often the books with female characters are seen as only for girls.  My daughter has just been given a list of books recommended by the school library.  They are divided into ‘Boys’, ‘Girls’ or ‘All’.   She has highlighted which books she’d like for Christmas – two ‘Girls books’ (female protagonists) two ‘Boys books’ (with boys in central roles) and two ‘All books’ (male leads but some feature a troika of leads with one female).  

I understand why the school library labelled and divided them but I wish they wouldn't.  Because in doing this, publishers, bookshops and libraries are playing along to the entire schism.  Similarly, special books that are about ‘gentle boys’ – with the words ‘sissy’ in the title are setting up difference and reinforcing for the boys who read them that such a way of being is ‘different’. 

Oliver Jeffer's The Incredible Book Eating Boy.

Oliver Jeffer's The Incredible Book Eating Boy.

Libraries, publishers and booksellers know that girls are happy and able to empathise with characters of the opposite gender but boys are less willing.  This is understandable – it seems girls are rewarded for bucking stereotypes but boys who play with dolls or do ballet or are less ‘masculine’ are rarely celebrated.  Boys have an antennae and aversion to being different. 

There is something in the young male mind and in society that encourages the development of masculinity by rejecting femininity.  Perhaps this is why so many boys talk about how lame girls are and how they hate them (all while playing with them, adoring them and being best friends with them).  It’s hard as a parent to know how to deal with it.

But fear not for there is change.  My son - Papa Arcachellar -reads books that feature white boys like him but they are not masters of the universe. Tom Gates, The Wimpy Kid and Andy Griffith’s heroes are confused, daggy, unsporty, sensitive and slightly anxious boys who are trying to navigate the ordinary world – the local pool, the school concert, the bullies on the walk home, the girl they’d like to talk to. 

He’s grown up watching TV shows staring Dora the Explorer where the star is a Mexican American bilingual girl, Disney movies with female heroines where the boys are often rather boring Princes in the background.  He has been read picture books like ‘Princess Smartypants’ where a Princess refuses to marry any of the Princes and instead turns one into a frog. 

Yes, it’s still obvious that most young girls want Barbie dolls and young boys still want guns, but many mothers and fathers of my generation are attempting to not give them such toys.  We are more tuned to the passive conformity of gender.  And race.  And sexuality.  My kids had an A to Z book written for children of same sex couples – they never commented on the fact that each page featured two mummies or two daddies because it was read to them from an age they hadn’t learnt it was not ‘usual’.

There has definitely been alleviation in the rigidity of gender stereotyping in children and in kids’ books since. Authors are starting to move on from the stereotype boy and girl, past the tomboy hero of my childhood (George from Famous Five) and towards characters that can be complex.  Analysing and talking critically about books, films and cartoons helps break up perceptions of race, gender and class before they develop and set in growing brains.

Young men are growing up capable of less hyper masculine behaviours.  The young teenage boys I know hug each other endlessly, do drama, dance (even if it is only hip hop), join choirs and read a lot.  Thoughtful fathers are leading the way by showing their sons much affection and encouraging them to different activities.

But I make a plea to writers.  I’m about to buy my daughter ‘Ella Enchanted’- the story of a girl cursed by a fairy to be always obedient.  Ella sets out on a quest to find the fairy, lift the curse while overturning traditional fairy tale roles along the way.  I’d like to buy books where male characters undertake their own quests to challenge the paradigm.  Stories that star kids from different races and ethnic groups to their own.  I’ll make Papa Arcachellar read them.  I promise.

 

42 comments

  • "There is something in the young male mind and in society that encourages the development of masculinity by rejecting femininity. Perhaps this is why so many boys talk about how lame girls are and how they hate them" That is a little thing called peer pressure, because rejecting masculinity (or what it means to be a man) leads to one very lonely, friendless life. As I know all too well. Strangely there is a whole film on this called Fight Club. Which is even now more relevant now, than when the original book was writing.

    This grand notion by some that masculinity in itself is horrible and sinful, where as maybe for those who aren't trying to prove their own social agenda. Every man has it,or aims for it, so how is it not every male is a vile monster. Hint: because most understand balance and reject peer group pressure.

    As for the second half about boys talk how lame girls are etc. What a joke, that sentence can equally be used by both sexes, especially given how many lame "boys suck" drone-like conversations of girls i listen to on the trains every day.

    Commenter
    blakeavon
    Date and time
    November 19, 2013, 8:47AM
    • Blake, I have to disagree with you.

      While you do hear girls make some statements about how boys are gross, boy germs, etc etc, there just isn't the same total scorn and utter rejection of ANYTHING associated with masculinity. Boys are trained from a young age to shy away from all things with "female" connotations, even down to saying they can't use a pink texta while colouring in because "pink is for girls" (I saw this first hand, only yesterday).

      While girls are also encouraged to gravitate towards gender-specific toys/colours/clothes etc, they are usually more comfortable with straying outside the lines. Girls can wear shorts, but boys can't wear skirts. Girls can play with matchbox cars, but boys wouldn't be caught dead playing with a Barbie (even if they really, desperately, would like to have a go...). Girls can play basketball, but it takes a brave boy to play netball. Any little girl will happily follow you outside to kick a ball around, but ask a boy to come and pick some flowers, and you'll likely get a sharp rebuke about how that's "girly".

      Because girls showing "masculine" traits is still considered a positive, while boys showing "feminine" straits are subject to scorn and derision. Because to be female, is inevitably to be viewed as lesser.

      By the way... have you read any other work by Chuck Palahniuk? It highly emphasises the fluidity and non-binary status of gender. Chuck himself is gay, and he writes a lot of transvestite and transsexual characters - usually with a lot of sympathy. Your paragon of masculinity is not above gushing over lipliner and silk georgette. Much of what he wrote in Fight Club was supposed to collapse under its own weight. It's not a guide for living.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      November 19, 2013, 12:24PM
    • @Red Pony - and what exactly is wrong with that? Feminists deride masculinity as it is not beneficial to them, but as soon as a male does this there is a problem. Just because a boy doesn't want to do feminine things or be seen as feminine, it does not automatically mean its due to them viewing them as lesser. Bringing up boys to be proud in their masculinity is very important and this is not a situation of all or nothing.

      Commenter
      JaKent
      Date and time
      November 19, 2013, 1:04PM
    • Red Pony,
      When you look back in history you can see a very clear reason why boys and girls read different stories. From my own experience, I started my education in the sixties when nineteen year olds were conscripted and sent to their deaths in vietnam, while many the survivors suffered deep psychological damage. I was fed a stream of heroes that would serve as role models.

      Go back 100 years and 250,000 boys volunteered and served with the British expeditionary force in France, the youngest known was 12. Boys as young as sixteen were shot for cowardice. This figure does not include the boys serving in the Navy, such as 'Boy First Class' Jack Cornwell VC. Jack died a slow and horrific death after being wounded at the Battle of Jutland, aged sixteen. He was then used as a role model to show the real worth of young men and boys - cannon fodder.

      I'm all for challenging gender roles in children's books, books and movies in general and I'm probably doing more about it than you. So get off your high horse about boys being considered more important than girls. It was simply an illusion created to seduce boys and young men into putting themselves in harms way, either at war or in some other dangerous occupation.

      Commenter
      JohnA
      Date and time
      November 19, 2013, 1:20PM
    • Wow, we have totally different interpretations of what Chuck was saying in "Fight Club".

      I got the impression that it's about living an empty, shallow life. Life has no meaning because you don't know who you are because you define yourself by the things you own.

      "...a house full of condiments and no food."

      Of course this isn't the exclusive territory of men. There's loads of women out there who can only define themselves by what brand of shoes they're wearing, what fashion label they have on and how much money they spent on their make-up.

      Commenter
      lauren
      Date and time
      November 19, 2013, 1:33PM
    • JaKent - where did I deride masculinity? (Hint: nowhere.)

      JohnA - what does conscription have to do with the current conversation? And upon what do you base your supposition that you are doing "more" than I am to redress the gender bias in children's media?

      Lauren - I entirely agree with you.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      November 19, 2013, 3:12PM
    • Red Pony how are you raising your children and is it working for you?

      Commenter
      lizzy
      Date and time
      November 19, 2013, 3:13PM
    • I look for boy characters in the books I give to my boys. They are not violent or bad people just strong characters and my boys love love them. Feminism now wants to dictate what boys read, will we never be safe? Are my boys misogynists because they adore boyish literature?

      Commenter
      belinda
      Date and time
      November 19, 2013, 3:38PM
  • I don't know. I never really noticed as a kid. It's these adults who make a big deal out of it.

    Commenter
    Knee Jerk
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    November 19, 2013, 8:47AM
    • First of all, I wonder what the protagonist of the other 12% of books are. Vegetables or minerals? Just kidding. I assume it is either unknown animal (like the Hungry Caterpillar) or mixed boy/girl.

      Secondly, while I cannot dispute the statistics (confusion about the remaining 12% aside), this certainly doesn't match my experience either growing up or as a father. Growing up, my exposure was largely to stories either starring girls (Pippi Longstocking, Ramona the Pest, the Princess and the Goblin, etc, etc), or groups of boys and girls together. In later years, for every Encyclopedia Brown there were several series starring girls, like Babysitters Club, etc. I only found the skew towards males came with books that were read by young adults but written for adults (Tolkein, for example). Have things really changed? In recent years, with children's books I've been exposed to in libraries and bookstores (here I have to exclude young adult books because I haven't really been exposed to that market except via movies like Hunger Games), the leads also tend to be either females or mixed. The Incredible Book Eating Boy is the only one I can think of that we own that clearly stars a boy, unless you count Hairy McClairy. The rest, even when mixing sexes (like Charlie and Lola) tend to feature girls. or feature both equally (Rudie Nudies). And, of course, the old fairy tales and legends are as prone to feature girls as they are to feature boys as ever, with the most famous and popular ones (Red Riding Hood and various stories adapted by Disney) tending to feature females.

      Commenter
      Jon
      Location
      reality
      Date and time
      November 19, 2013, 8:49AM

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