Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Books for boys, books for girls: how innate is this?

When Eleanor was born, I was halfway through an Open University course on Children's Literature. As part of this course, I studied the rise of gender segregation in children's books from the eighteenth century onwards, and an interesting point kept popping up: while girls would (and still will) read books intended for both girls and boys, boys would only read books intended for boys. Put bluntly, girls see boys' books as providing action and adventure that girls' books tend not to contain, but boys see girls' books as a load of sentimental, pink mush. But how innate is this divide?

Over the past two years, I have read A LOT of books aimed at babies and toddlers (largely thanks to our wonderful local library) and I've noticed a worrying trend. Even in books aimed at very tiny people, gender divisions creep in. For instance, Eleanor has a book called That's Not My Fairy in which all the fairies are female - because boys aren't supposed to identify with fairies, right? Ladybird's similar offering, This Little Angel fares better with one angel out of five being male, but conversely another book from the series, This Little Footballer has four boys and only one girl. Considering the rise of popularity of football with girls, this is surprising to say the least. Here, the inclusion of a token girl seems to say, "well, some girls play football, but it's not really normal, now is it?"

So even with the most basic of books, gender divisions are being taught. And they creep into some books aimed at toddlers too: one of Eleanor's favourite library books is Get Dressed, Max and Millie which shows two friends, um, getting dressed. It's a lovely little book, but what riles me is the start where Max and Millie are playing dress up. Millie dresses as a princess and a fairy, Max as a builder and a superhero. Humph. (Another book about dressing up that Eleanor likes is Zoe and Beans: Look At Me which is much more gender neutral and even shows the boy and girl dressing up as each other at the end!)

Have a think about some of the picturebooks you've read and you'll notice a creeping inequality. Much as I adore The Gruffalo, where are the female characters? (Thank goodness for The Gruffalo's Child which ever so slightly redresses the balance!) How often do you see a book where the main character is female, or where the gender balance is equal, let alone girl-heavy? Perhaps this is one of the reasons why girls read boys' books but not vice versa - girls are so under-represented in books aimed at the very young that girls just get used to reading about boys, but boys don't get used to reading about girls.

So what to do? I'm certainly not going to refuse to read Eleanor anything with any less than 50% female representation, because the pool would be so small I wouldn't be able to satisfy her seemingly limitless appetite for reading! Instead I try to slip in comments to even up the scales, or subvert the text a bit - for instance, I might have changed the gender of one of the footballers in the aforementioned book. But the day will come when Eleanor can read and will notice things like that, and what to do then? Well, hopefully by then I'll have found a decent collection of books which show girls as more than fairies and princesses.

And here's where you come in - what books for little ones have you found that give a good representation of girls, or simply that have equal male and female characters? The more we share our knowledge, the more we can raise the profile of these books and give a message that we want more of the same!

11 comments:

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  2. Edit of above comment: What makes you think all the animals in the Gruffalo are male? I'm not trolling, it's a serious question. Mouse (our protagonist) doesn't have any personal pronouns.

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    1. Ooh you're right, I hadn't spotted that! But all the others are referred to by male pronouns at some point. I don't have 'Gruffalo's Child' to cross-reference, but that's a good point!

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    2. The Gruffalo is much more gender-neutral read in German - because Mouse, Owl and Snake are feminine words. But the Grüffelo is male.

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    3. I think that unfortunately we have all been trained (by Disney et al) to recognise female anthropomorphised animals by certain specific signifiers (eyelashes, lipstick, a bow on her head) and therefore when neuter characters *don't* have these signifiers we tend to assume they're male by default. I'm making a conscious effort to make more characters female when I read to my son to help redress the balance.

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    4. I agree with the male-as-default point, it happens in life too - when Eleanor was a baby people would assume she was a boy if she was wearing anything but pink! I also make characters female where I can get away with it. Thinking back to the Mouse, I've only seen the TV version but I'm sure he's a he in The Gruffalo's Child - although at least the child is a girl!

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  3. Many of Astrid Lindgren's books have great, strong, funny leading girls, and not just Pipi Longstocking. I used to love the Bullerby books, told by Lisa, even if the girl/boy pursuits are often traditional, Mardie is lovely too, and for younger ones the Lotta series. Ronia the Robber's Daughter was my favourite ever book when I was about 11.

    Of the 'current crop' I think Charlie and Lola books are good, even if Lola seems to have only female friends and Charlie only male ones.

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    1. I'll definitely look out for Astrid Lindgren, thanks! Yes, we've tried a bit of Charlie and Lola and Eleanor quite liked it so I'm on the look out for more of those. Thanks for the suggestions!

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  4. Interestingly, Cbeebies recently did some research about the received wisdom about boys not tolerating stories about girls and found it totally wrong. The audience for 'girl protagonist' shows like Fifi and the Flowertots was found to be 50-50. Amazing, as this is treated as hard fact in the publishing industry, and of course becomes true as children grow older, as they've got used to the way that books are promoted and sold to them.

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    1. Ooh I'll have to look out for that research, sounds interesting. Just goes to show that toddlers/preschoolers aren't too fussed about gender and it's only as they get older that prejudices are learnt. Thanks for the tip about the Daisy books, I love Nick Sharratt's work so will definitely look out for those!

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  5. Check out the Daisy books by Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt. My son and daughter both love these.

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