When were you last saved by a heroine?

Pippi-vs-rapunzel - Who'd you rather be?

Seriously… When did you last read a book with a female as the main character? when did you read one to your boys? (I know girls love books about girls, so this is a boys-only question 🙂 )

I have two boys, we had hours upon hours of happy reading together, but I remember only one story with a female heroine – “Momo” by  Michael Ende (one of my favorites as a child). I remember their disdain when they realized that Momo was a girl. To cut a long story short – we didn’t finish reading it…

I know, I know, I’m a horrible mom, educating my boys for inequality, or at least not doing enough to help them identify with female main characters.

It’s not that it was a conscious decision on my part, but I mostly let my boys choose a book from few suggested options and there weren’t many suitable books with significant female characters. When such books were in option… guess what – They didn’t choose any book with a female heroine.

Is it just me or is it all bad news for women?

A study covering a whole century of children’s books, “Gender in twentieth century children’s books, Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters“, reviewed almost 6,000 books published between the year 1900 – 2000, and found the following:

  • Main character – Almost two-thirds of children’s books published each year  have a male hero (or main character), and only about a third of them have a female heroine (57% male vs. 31% female)
  • Animal characters – It’s even worse in books that depict animal characters, these are usually labeled as “gender neutral” by publisher but are, in fact, mostly male. Female characters are hardly represented at all (only in 33% of the books) and are typically marginalized and stereotyped when they do.
  • Readers bias – “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 and children assign gender to gender-neutral animal characters”.
  • Book titles – On average, twice as many (36.5 percent) books each year include a male in the title compared to those that include a female (17.5 percent).

Female characters – under-represented, marginalized and dogmatic

So it’s not just me… Women and girls are grossly under-represented in children’s books. But it get’s worse… it’s how they are represented in the stories they do appear in. Take “Winnie the Pooh” for example, the only female character there is Kenga – how much influence does she have within the story? another example is the Lord of the Rings, where the female characters are scarce and marginal. I’m sure we all know many other examples.

In too many books women are usually depicted as being either a mother, a witch or a godmother. Girls are mostly depicted as shallow, one-dimensional, helpless twits, waiting for the handsome prince to save them.

That is not to say that there aren’t books with powerful female heroines, two of which are Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and the most shining example to my humble opinion: Pippi Longstockings, but there are very few of these.

How boys identify with female heroines 

So not only there’re not enough books with meaningful female characters, boys usually dismiss such books as “books for girls”and avert from reading them. But even when they do get to read such books, they interpret them differently:

“When boys identify with a girl as a central character, they redefine her as a secondary character and they identify male secondary characters as central characters when retelling stories”

Conclusion

These biased patterns are ingrained in us and we, in turn program our children with the same values through our choice of books and other media.

The conclusions of this study regarding the depiction of girls and woman in children literature are pretty grim:

“The messages conveyed through representation of males and females in books contribute to children’s ideas of what it means to be a boy, girl, man, or woman. The disparities we find point to the symbolic annihilation of women and girls, and particularly female animals, in twentieth-century children’s literature, suggesting to children that these characters are less important than their male counterparts.”

I can’t say that I was very aware of how pervasive gender bias is when it comes to children’s books, I must have been somewhat aware of that to make me choose a heroine for my book. I’m glad I did that, and I am most certainly going to make a conscious effort to introduce more books with female heroines to my kids.

A side note – the cultural bias does not end with the under-representation of girls and women, ethnic groups are under-represented in children literature as well: 

“The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education has conducted a survey of children’s and young adult books published each year since 1985. Of an estimated 5,000 books released in 2012, only 3.3% featured African-Americans; 2.1% featured Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders; 1.5% featured Latinos; and only 0.6% featured Native Americans.”

I’ll save that for another post…we can only save the world one step at a time…

Sources:

Gender in twentieth century children’s books, Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters, JANICE MCCABE, Florida State University

Children’s books are ‘sexist and enforce gender inequality,  The Telegraph

What Does it Mean that Most Children’s Books Are Still About White Boys?, the Blog

Study finds huge gender imbalance in children’s literature,  The guardian

 

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