gender and sexism in children’s literature: two studies

When I worked on my book project’s section on children’s literature, I got sort of obsessed with ready scholarly literature on sexism in books for young people. It’s just a really fascinating body of scholarship. Anyway, I thought I’d share a bit from two interesting articles with you.

Gender in Twentieth-Century Picture Books,” Janice McCabe, Emily Fairchild, Liz Grauerholz, Bernice A. Pescosolido, and Daniel Tope, Gender and Society 25.2 (April 2011), 197-226: a study of “5,618 books published throughout the twentieth century in the United States”

  • “Although feminist stories have circulated since at least the 1970s, ‘neither feminist versions of old stories nor new feminist stories are readily available in bookshops and libraries, and schools show almost no sign of this development’ (Davies 2003, 49). Therefore, combating the patterns we found with ‘feminist stories’ requires parents’ conscious efforts. While some parents do this, most do not. A study of parents’ reasons for selecting books finds most choices are based on parents’ personal childhood favorites—indicating the continued impact of books from generations ago—and rarely on concern for stereotypes, particularly gender stereotypes (Peterson and Lach 1990).”
  • The authors found by far the biggest imbalance of male and female main characters when they looked at characters who aren’t humans. They muse: “Why is there a persistence of inequality among animal characters? There is some indication that publishers, under pressure to publish books that are more balanced regarding gender, used animal characters in an attempt to avoid the problem of gender representation (similar to the disappearance of Blacks during the height of the Civil Rights Movement discussed in Pescosolido, Grauerholz, and Milkie 1997). As one book editor in Turow’s (1978) study of children’s book publishing remarked about the predominant use of animal central characters: “It’s easier. You don’t have to determine if it’s a girl or boy—right? That’s such a problem today. And if it’s a girl, God forbid you put her in a pink dress” (p. 89). However, our findings show that most animal characters are sexed and that inequality among animals is greater—not less—than that among humans. The tendency of readers to interpret even gender-neutral animal characters as male exaggerates the pattern of female underrepresentation. For example, mothers (even those scoring high on the Sex Role Egalitarianism Questionnaire) frequently label gender-neutral animal characters as male when reading or discussing books with their children (DeLoache, Cassidy, and Carpenter 1987) and children assign gender to gender-neutral animal characters (Arthur and White 1996). Together with research on reader interpretations, our findings regarding imbalanced representations among animal characters suggest that these characters could be particularly powerful, and potentially overlooked, conduits for gendered messages.” (220)
  • “Although children’s books have provided a steady stream of characters privileging boys and men over girls and women, examining representation across the long range illuminates areas where such messages are being challenged. Clearly, children’s book publishing has been responsive to social change, and girls are more likely to see characters and books about individuals like themselves today than midcentury. Feminist activism during the 1970s specifically targeted children’s books. For example, the publication of Weitzman et al.’s (1972) study appears to have influenced the publishing industry in important ways. Weitzman received funding from the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund to reproduce children’s book illustrations for a slide show to parents, educators, and publishers. This presentation made its way around the world in an effort to promote social change (Tobias 1997). Some argue that Weitzman et al.’s study profoundly shaped the children’s book industry as a “rallying point for feminist activism,” including the creation of “nonsexist” book lists and feminist publishing companies and the “raising of consciousness among more conventional publishers, award committees, authors, parents, and teachers” (Clark, Kulkin, and Clancy 1999, 71). The linear change we found since 1970 for most measures suggests this second-wave push for gender equity in children’s books may have had a lasting impact.” (220-221)

Learning to Be Little Women and Little Men: The Inequitable Gender Equality of Nonsexist Children’s Literature,” Amanda B. Diekman and Sarah K. Murnen, Sex Roles 50.5/6 (March 2004), 373-85: a study of 10 elementary-level novels recommended by various sources as nonsexist and 10 identified as sexist

  • “Gender role socialization occurs in part through observations of the rewards and punishments that others receive (Bussey & Bandura, 1999). These other people can be the “little women” and “little men” whom a child comes to know through books. Even though the stories may take place in chocolate factories or academies of wizardry, literary adventures educate children about what is expected and valued in the real world. [...] Expo- sure to stories that portrayed stereotypic characters or roles increased the traditionalism of children’s gender-related beliefs (Knell & Winer, 1979; Scott, 1986), whereas exposure to narratives that portrayed egalitarian characters or roles decreased children’s stereotypes (Barclay, 1974; Berg-Cross & Berg-Cross, 1978; Flerx, Fidler, & Rogers, 1976; Scott, 1986; Scott & Feldman-Summers, 1979). [...] These persuasive effects are mediated by the degree of transportation or immersion that the reader experiences (Green & Brock, 2000), and such immersion is likely to be more pronounced for children than for adults. Children have relatively less knowledge of real-world limitations, less ability to counterargue information effectively, and less differentiation between fiction and reality.” (373)
  • “The purpose of exploring sexist or nonsexist literature is certainly not to censor literature that is deemed sexist. [...] Instead, the purpose of investigating these aspects of books should be to provide child readers with a range of portrayals of men and women and boys and girls. Giving children only books that showed absolute gender equality would severely limit the selection of books (and might deplete it completely). [...] Furthermore, limiting children’s reading diet solely to gender-egalitarian models may not be the best way to work against sexism. In real life, children will surely encounter gender prejudice; educating children that such constructs exist, and how to work against them, can be more effective than ignoring the reality. [...] Parents and teachers can supplement the reading of more gender-traditional books with discussions about why male and female characters were portrayed as they were. The intent should not be to ruin the joy of reading for boys and girls but to build their skills as critical consumers of the written word [...]” (381-382).
  • “The unsettling conclusion is that certain aspects of traditional gender norms are transmitted even in books that have been praised for being nonsexist. If society’s goal is to enable children to pursue a wide range of opportunities in order to make the best use of their individual talents and abilities, children need to see the whole range of opportunities as viable choices. Although some children’s books have succeeded in showing girls that they can be assertive and independent, pursue medical careers, or take care of the car, very few books have shown boys that they can be nurturant and caring, cook meals, or take care of children. These roles and characteristics are valuable for both men and women, girls and boys, and we as a society do a disservice to children by failing to show them the many possibilities for the people that they can become.” (382)

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One Comment

  1. Amy @ You Shall Go O
    Posted 2 December 2012 at 6:37 PM | Permalink

    Very interesting. Some of these points are very true for me! I think about this a lot with the books I read to Gus. I am discovering a lot of great British books that my friends grew up with but I had never read, but many of those have very little in the way of gender equality. And the animal thing drives me crazy. I especially hate it when a book refers to a cow as male! But I do find myself referring to random pictures of animals as male more often than I like. I try to offset that by changing pronouns in books to make at least one of the animal characters female, but I guess that strategy only will work until Gus learns to read :/

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