Accessed 20th August 2013
Study finds huge gender imbalance in children's literature
New research reveals male characters far outnumber females, pointing to 'symbolic annihilation of women and girls'
theguardian.com, Friday 6 May 2011 14.21 BST
From The Very Hungry Caterpillar to the Cat in the Hat, Peter Rabbit to Babar, children's books are dominated by male central characters, new research has found, with the gender disparity sending children a message that "women and girls occupy a less important role in society than men or boys".
Looking at almost 6,000 children's books published between 1900 and 2000, the study, led by Janice McCabe, a professor of sociology at
found that males are central characters in 57% of children's books published
each year, with just 31% having female central characters. Male animals are
central characters in 23% of books per year, the study found, while female
animals star in only 7.5%. Florida
Published in the April issue of Gender & Society, the study, Gender in Twentieth-Century Children's Books, looked at Caldecott award-winning books, the well-known
book series Little Golden Books and extensive book listing the
Children's Catalog. Just one Caldecott winner (1985's Have You Seen My
Duckling? following a mother duck on a search for her baby) has had a
standalone female character since the award was established in 1938. Books with
male animals were more than two-and-a-half times more common across the century
than those with female animals, the authors said. US
Although the gender disparity came close to disappearing by the 1990s for human characters in children's books, with a ration of 0.9 to 1 for child characters and 1.2 to 1 for adult characters, it remained for animal characters, with a "significant disparity" of nearly two to one. The study found that the 1930s to 1960s, the period between waves of feminist activism, "exhibits greater disparities than earlier and later periods".
"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 20th-century children's literature, suggesting to children that these characters are less important than their male counterparts," write the authors. "The disproportionate numbers of males in central roles may encourage children to accept the invisibility of women and girls and to believe they are less important than men and boys, thereby reinforcing the gender system."
The authors of the study said that even gender-neutral animal characters are frequently labelled as male by mothers reading to their children, which only "exaggerates the pattern of female underrepresentation". "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."
The Carnegie medal-winning children's author Melvin Burgess, whose own novels regularly feature female central characters, pointed to the "truism in publishing that girls will read books that have boy heroes, whereas boys won't read books that have girl heroes".
"Boys are far more gender-specific," he said. "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. "In modern classics such as Owl Babies and Hooray for Fish! it's always the mother, never the dad, whom the child ends up wanting and needing. God forbid each book should try to cover all the 'issues'; but we do need a bit of balance. Children's authors should make an effort to do a bit of role widening. I try. You wouldn't notice, but in every single one of my books, the male can cook. In The Country Pancake, my farmer just happens to be a female. And on and on."
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.
But Carnegie medal winner Frank Cottrell Boyce feels that "women have an influence in children's literature that belies the numbers".
"I'm sure this is because brilliant women like Edith Nesbitt, who in a fairer society might have gone into politics or science, have instead poured all their brilliance into writing. The result is that over several years, women have produced really important – really, really important – children's fiction that has helped define eras and people," he said. "I'm thinking right back to Little Women – which has provided women with a roadmap of identity for generations– and Anne of Green Gables. But also of the way women from Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton – incomparably our best prose stylist and paradoxically the writer who defined boyhood – to JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson and Stephenie Meyer, have totally dominated popular narrative culture. So never mind the quantity, feel the quality."