Kids trained to think stories about boys for everyone, stories about girls only for girls

Soraya Chemaly is my new favorite writer. I can’t get enough of her blogs on Huffington Post and Salon. From her post What Does it Mean that Most Children’s Books are About White Boys:

One day when my daughter was in third grade, she had to explain to a classmate what sexism was. Four kids — two boys and two girls — had been put in a reading group together, given a basket full of books and asked to talk about them and decide together which one they wanted to read and discuss.

As they went through their choices, the boy picked up a book whose cover showed an illustration of a woman in a hoop skirt. He quickly tossed it aside. My daughter suggested that it might be good, and asked if he’d already read it, because she would like to. He said no, it was a girl book and he wouldn’t read it. Her response was pretty cut and dry: “That’s a sexist thing to say,” she explained. He was a friend of hers and an intelligent kid. He paused long enough for her to realize he wasn’t sure what she meant.

“Do you know how many books with boys in them I read?” she said. “You should read girl books, too. Not reading them just because they’re about girls is sexist.”

Frankly, today, I’m pretty certain that what she, a 9-year old, told her classmate was more than most adults can muster.


Chemaly is so right. Sexism gets passed on, generation to generation, from parents who continually read their kids stories and take their kids to movies starring males. What happens when the narrative is about a girl, when a girl is shown front and center on the book cover or on the movie poster? Parents, too often, decide that kind of entertainment is just for girls.  Of course, multinational industries like Target and Disney support and enforce and make money off of gender segregation. Disney execs, when changing the title of a movie from “Rapunzel” to “Tangled” and making Flynn Ryder a costar to the female, hold a press conference, telling us, with no shame at all, that while girls are happy to see movies about boys, boys refuse to see movies about girls. So are girls just born open-minded, generous, and altruistic, perfectly happy to be marginalized, cast in the supporting roles, if they get to exist in the story at all? Or, are girls trained, from day one, from before day one, frankly, while still in the womb, that stories about boys are important?

Chemaly goes on:

Do you know what percentage of children’s books feature boys? Twice as many as those that feature girl protagonists. In the most comprehensive study of children’s literature during a period of 100 years, researchers from the University of Florida found that:

  • 57% of children’s books published each year have male protagonists, versus 31% female.

  • As with television and film, books with animated characters are a particularly subtle and insidious way to marginalize based on sex, gender and race. In popular children’s books featuring animated animals, 100% of them have male characters, but only 33% have female characters.

  • The average number of books featuring male characters in the title of the book is 36.5% versus 17.5% for female characters…

    Researchers of the study above concluded, “The gender inequalities we found may be particularly powerful because they are reinforced by patterns of male-dominated characters in many other aspects of children’s media, including cartoons, G-rated films, video games and even coloring books.”


    Please seek out books and movies and games with smart, strong girls for all of your kids. Here is a list of movies Reel Girl recommends. Check out the “Reel Girl recommends” category as well. Other categories to explore on Reel Girl include books, games, television shows, Cool and Radical Girls, and Top Heroine Rating. Or do a search for a book or movie title on Reel Girl to get my review. I rate media and products with 1 – 3 S’s for gender stereotyping and 1 – 3 H’s for heroines. For media or products to avoid, look into Reel Girl’s Worst Stereotyping category. Everything I rate, I’ve personally read, played, or viewed, often with my three daughters, now ages 4, 7, and 10. Great resources also include A Mighty Girl and Toward the Stars.

6 thoughts on “Kids trained to think stories about boys for everyone, stories about girls only for girls

  1. In school today (I’m a 5th grader) I was standing up and speaking about feminism. A boy shouted out a sexist comment. I was later given in school suspension for hitting. I know I was wrong and I am quite sorry, but the sexist boy never got in trouble. I on the other hand, am grounded and have three days of in school suspension.
    ~Nikki Roseworth 11 years old

    • Hi Nikki,

      I am so happy you spoke up in class and it’s horrible that the teachers/ administration did not address the sexist kid. I know you know this already but do not hit. Once you do, your point gets lost. You are far more effective when you use words as a weapon. Express your anger and frustration in a blog or an oped to your local paper or a journal. Be creative and put your vision out into the world. Thanks for your comment here!

  2. I confess: I was a little sad when I first learned I was going to have a girl, because I was looking forward to raising my boy to appreciate “girl culture” (as not separate from the “boy stuff”)! I also felt sad because I knew my daughter would have to face explaining to boys how they have learned to have a sexist attitude 🙁 Maybe the the next child I have will be a boy, or maybe not… either way, I am going to raise my daughter to stand up for herself and demand equal representation and treatment.

  3. That University of Florida study also showed that with animal characters, the gender disparity is worse. There are three times as many books with male animal protagonists than books with female animal protagonists. So the likes of Beatrix Potter’s Jemima PuddleDuck, Miss TiggyWinkle the hedgehog, and Miss Moppet the kitten, Russel Hoban’s Francis the Badger, Laura Jones’ Poppy Cat, and Amy Tan’s Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat are in the minority.

  4. We talk about this so much with our boy/girl twins (in large part, thanks to you). My son often points things out that he feels are a “stereotype”, my daughter will point out how many females vs males are in a show or book and so forth. They’re starting to be very aware of it and are only 6 1/2. Just recently we bought The Snow Queen to read before possibly seeing the movie “Frozen” when it comes out. They were both shocked at how little the original had to do with the film that is supposedly based on it. And I loved that my daughter pointed out that “in this book the girl saves the boy!” She was thrilled. 🙂

    As for boys reading “girl” books etc. I want to suggest to your readers if they haven’t tried them yet, that the Wizard of Oz series is a huge hit with my son in particular. Yes, the first book has more male characters who seem to do most of the hero stuff, but as you go through the rest of the series there are so many wonderful female characters who drive the story, rescue others, are friends etc. They’re just wonderful to read. Our favorite so far has been “Glinda of Oz”…but we’re only 5 books in!

    Thank you for all you do, Margot…you have taught me, and subsequently my family, so much! Keep up the great work!
    – Gina

    • Thank YOU Gina. I rely on you too. It’s a great idea to read The Snow Queen to kids and I am going to do that, or at least that’s in my plan. The Wizard of Oz books are great. Amazing they just made that horrible movie instead of Ozma of Oz.


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