The gender bias in children's books


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.