New study finds ‘huge gender imbalance’ in kidlit

The Guardian reports on a new, extensive study on gender in children’s books by Florida State University Professor Janice McCabe that found male characters far outnumber girl characters. This lack results in “a symbolic annihilation of women and girls” in the real world.

The gender disparity sends the message that “women and girls occupy a less important role in society than men or boys.” Here’s just one stat: “Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, the study found, while female animals star in only 7.5%.”

The Guardian reports:

The authors of the study said that even gender-neutral animal characters are frequently labeled as male by mothers reading to their children, which only “exaggerates the pattern of female under-representation”. “These characters could be particularly powerful, and potentially overlooked, conduits for gendered messages,” they said. “The persistent pattern of disparity among animal characters may reveal a subtle kind of symbolic annihilation of women disguised through animal imagery…”

“I guess the challenge is to write books for boys that have female characters in, that the boys will relate to. It’s a sad fact that books written for boys do tend to fall rapidly into the old stereotypes, and the action figures, baddies etc are generally male, and very straightforward males as well. I try to get away from that. It’s a been a while since I wrote an action-type book, but I am working on one now and it does involve four young people – two girls, two boys – and I always try to make my girls really stand out.”

But it’s not only an absence of female central characters which is a problem in children’s books, believes former children’s laureate Anne Fine: it’s how the women are represented when they do appear. “Publishers rightly take care to put in positive images of a mix of races, but seem not to even notice when they use stereotypical and way out-of-date images of women,” she said”…

The notion, meanwhile, that boys only read books by and about males does “become a self-fulfilling prophecy”, Fine said. “More worryingly, in these new lists of recommended books for boys, there’s a heap of fantasy and violence, very little humour (except for the poo and bum sort), and almost no family novels at all. If you offer boys such a narrow view of the world, and don’t offer them novels that show them dealing with normal family feelings, they will begin to think this sort of stuff is not for them.”

Fine believes that “women should be giving a much beadier eye to the books they share with children … It’s important to balance much loved old-fashioned classics with stuff that evens things up a bit and reflects women’s current role in the world,” she said.

What about dads reading to kids? But otherwise, great points. These stats are sad, but still, I’m happy to see that the gender disparity in the imaginary world is getting more and more attention, because its so obvious, yet so accepted, it’s paradoxically invisible. Back in 2007, I wrote about the sexism in the blockbuster movie Ratatouille for the San Jose Mercury News after I went to see it with my four year old daughter. You can read the full piece here, but here’s an excerpt:

After I saw “The Lion King,” I wanted to know: Why couldn’t the lionesses have attacked weak, old Scar? Why did they have to wait around for Simba to come back to Pride Rock to help them? I was told: that’s how it is in nature – lionesses need a male to lead the pride. So a lion can be best friends with a warthog and a meerkat without gobbling them up, but a lioness heading a pride? That could never happen in the animal kingdom!…

The hyper-concern for gender accuracy in the fantasy world extends to things like plush toys – when I refer to my kid’s animals as “she,” adults invariably do a double take, checking for manes or tusks: even female toys must stay in their place.

If you watch classic Tom and Jerry now on a DVD , there’s a note on the screen before the cartoon begins recognizing the racial stereotypes and explaining about the era it was created. There’s no mention about gender whatsoever. There are hardly any females in Tom and Jerry at all. Unless there’s a love interest, then she’s got bright red lips and bats her eyelashes constantly as Tom and Jerry compete over her. I guess she’s just part of our 2011 era.

7 thoughts on “New study finds ‘huge gender imbalance’ in kidlit

  1. Striking 1 very small blow – I read my nephew a counting book the other day featuring baby animals with their mothers. I switched every 2nd family to have a father – no reason a father fox can’t be looking after 1-2-3-4-5 fox cubs, is there? Not helping increase the female characters, but I was trying to fix the perception that only mothers cared for children.

    My nephew is 2. He doesn’t care. But he is looked after by his father as well as his mother – he should see that reflected in his reading as well. And I noticed immediately – it’s not just the kids receiving these messages, it’s the adult reader as well.

    I read him books with girls as protoganists too, and he certainly doesn’t mind. Not sure he notices, but I figure it can’t hurt.

  2. I am a mother of 2 little girls. When I buy their little friends books for birthday presents I find I have to tell myself that it’s fine to buy a little boy a book that features a female as the main character. Needless to say, it doesn’t work the other way. How screwed up is that?

    I have a mother friend who refers to cow toys as “Mr Cow”. Enough said.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Tamara, me too! As much as I have thought about this stuff and firmly believe in tearing down restrictive and stereotypical ideas, I still find myself arguing with that voice in my head too, almost every time I choose a purchase for my children. “She wants the Cars shoes just like her brother’s. But these are for boys – maybe – don’t they have something else – oh look, PINK Cars shoes!” Sad to say, I succumbed that day and bought the pink Cars shoes, but she does sleep in a handmade rocket ship bed. We are totally programmed too but at least we are smart enough to recognize it and fight back!

  3. I’m glad to see that someone else has an issue with this also. I read the entire study in Gender & Society and posted about it on my own blog,

    The study suggested that boys will only read books with male characters; whereas, girls will read books with male or female characters. It also suggested that much of this gender bias begins at home (exactly what you described when you refer to your kids’ stuffed animals as “she”.)

    I applaud your article in the San Jose Mercury News and wish that others would take a stand for their daughters also.

    • Hi Holly,

      Thanks for your comment. It drives me crazy when people say boys will not see movies about girls. From my experience, its the parents that freak out and encourage their kids to follow gender norms. And the parents do this when the kids are two years old! And even if you did had a boy who insisted he would only see movies about boys, at what other time do parents let their toddlers direct them? Girls, on the other hand, get trained early to watch boys be the stars of the show, again and again. Of course they accept it, they have no choice!

      Thanks for visiting ReelGirl


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