Whilst looking for research based upon this subject, i have found that its a commonly spoken about subject in some science journals which i find interesting. This is because the gender representation featured in children’s book’s does affect the physcological development of the readers, it helps to shape their views as they grow up and try to determine their place in the world.
“Since children’s books are a “dominant blueprint of shared cultural values, meanings, and expectations,” the authors say the disparity between male and female characters is sending children a message that “women and girls occupy a less important role in society than men or boys.” Books contribute to how children understand what is expected of women and men, and shape the way children will think about their own place in the world.”
This is another article spun from my original source of research, the findings discovered in “gender & society” April issue, and the opinions in this article are informed by these findings and more recent sociology theories.
In seeking to answer why there is such persistent inequality among animal characters in books for kids, the authors say some publishers–under pressure to release books that are more gender balanced–use “animal characters in an attempt to avoid the problem of gender representation.” However, their findings show that most animal characters are gendered 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. The authors note that mothers frequently label gender-neutral animal characters as male when reading with their children, and that children assign gender to gender-neutral animal characters. “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…The persistent pattern of disparity among animal characters may reveal a subtle kind of symbolic annihilation of women disguised through animal imagery.”
At the same time, some nagging doubts unsettled me. As a teacher, librarian and member of a children’s literary award committee, I have periodically heard people echo the common wisdom that girls will read books about boys, but not the other way around. I have also on occasion cringed to see this belief influence someone’s choice about what book to read aloud, assign or honor with an award. So, despite my initial high hopes, I approached this study with mixed expectations.
The findings were, in a word, grim!
In every area the study looked at, male characters outnumbered female ones.
This study, just published in the sociology journal, Gender and Society, examined gender representation in approximately 5,000 books published between 1900 and 2000. Researchers pulled titles from three main sources:
- Winners of the Caldecott Award (given for excellence in picture books)
- The Children’s Catalog (a broad spectrum reference book, once frequently used in library collection development)
- Little Golden Books (yep–you know the ones–sold mostly in grocery and drug stores)
For consistency’s sake, the researchers selected preschool-to-third-grade-level books from all three sources, then compared the gender of central characters. Male title characters outnumbered their female counterparts by a ratio of 2:1. Overall, males were central characters in 56.9 percent of the books; females, in only 30.8 percent.
Doesn’t add up to 100, you say? That’s where animals characters filled in the gap.
Unfortunately, the animals had their own gender issues: Of the gendered animals who were central characters, 23.2 percent were male, compared to only 7.5 percent who were female. Moreover, the authors noted previous research indicating that this gap may be compounded by readers’ tendency to impose a male identity on animals if their gender is unclear in the story.
Perhaps the biggest surprise however, was the lack of linear improvement for the second half of the century.
Instead, the study found shifts correlating to periods of heightened feminist activity. Consequently, progress was strong during the second wave of feminism in the 1970′s. The authors attribute this improvement in part to a widely distributed quantitative study funded by the NOW Legal and Education Fund, which helped expose the disparity to publishers, educators and parents. Additionally the researchers expected to find backlashes to feminism and did discover that disparity was greatest from 1930-1960, ” precisely the period following the first-wave women’s movement.”
Although the number of female characters never fully caught up with the number of males, the researchers discovered, “a significant trend toward parity,” from 1990-2000–except in the case of those darned animals!
The authors have stern words about the societal implications of their findings:
Finally, while quantitative analysis helps show where there’s smoke, additional qualitative analysis would help find where there’s fire. To really gauge how literature affects children’s perceptions of gender, the type of representations they encounter, not just the number, must be considered. A larger number of female characters who promote stereotypes, for example, would not help raise anyone’s feminist consciousness. Unfortunately, the murkier more subjective area of qualitative analysis does not easily lend itself to a largescale study. Some of the questions that would make qualitative research tricky, include:
- Are the central female characters empowered or do they reproduce stereotypes?
- If they are not empowered, could this be because the book exposes injustice towards women?
- Is there a conflicting subtext? Literature is complicated. From a feminist angle, it’s often revealing to note not only the traits and behaviors of female characters, but also whether these traits are ultimately punished or rewarded. A book that creates martyrs for example, can function implicitly as an anti-feminist cautionary tale, even if its intended message is pro-feminist.
- Is there character growth? If not, even positive portrayals can become stale conventions (e.g. the wise old healer woman, or the precocious young girl who always has the right answer or snappy come-back.) Female characters who exhibit relatable human flaws and developing maturity tend to be the ones who feel more realistic and inspiring.
Finally, deciding what constitutes a stereotype can be highly subjective because as our cultural norms change, what we perceive as breaking those norms changes also.
Children’s literature both reflects and shapes our wider societal values. Hopefully, both the number and type of representations children increasingly find in their books will inspire them to imagine a more equitable future for everyone.
IMPORTANT QUOTE: Recent studies continue to show a relative absence of women and girls in titles and as central characters…Theoretically, this absence reflects a “symbolic annihilation” because it denies existence to women and girls by ignoring or underrepresenting them in cultural products. … As such, children’s books reinforce, legitimate and reproduce a patriarchal gender system.