Research by the Observer newspaper shows how picture books present children a worryingly lopsided view of the world: with males outnumbering females 2:1 among significant speaking characters, and male villains in 89% of books with ‘baddies’. Jess Day takes a look at the results.
The Observer’s research looked at 2017’s 100 top selling picture books: non-human characters (animals and monsters) were nearly twice as likely to be male, while you were twenty times more likely to come across an all-male book, than an all-female book.
Not a surprise – bias across the board
These results are troubling, but not surprising. It’s consistent with what we see in films and children’s TV programming, with research showing that just 31% of speaking characters in films are female, and similar findings from previous research into gender bias in children’s literature.
The subject is certainly under the spotlight with publishers, and there’s a noticeable rash of books specifically raising the profile of girls and women, such as Goodnight stories for rebel girls or Great women who changed the world, making the most of the suffragette centenary as a marketing hook. But overall, progress seems glacially slow.
Many of the books on the bestseller list are not new titles – parents understandably return to the books they remember enjoying, from the Gruffalo to The Very Hungry Caterpillar. But worryingly, books published more recently didn’t come out noticeably better in the research.
Kids learn about the world through play, and through reading and media. This kind of skew prepares kids for a real world where males get most of the speaking parts. We’re all coached to see a situation where males are dominating as normal, and this is likely one of the reasons change is slow. Even to an adult who’s aware of the issues, a very male-dominated situation may seem fairly equal.
An example: the zoo in 35-year-old best-seller Dear Zoo doesn’t feature a single female animal. Speaking personally, what’s even odder is that I’d read it to my small daughter about 200 times before I noticed. We’ve all been surrounded by this bias all our lives, and it’s hard sometimes even to see it.
And of course, once you look a little closer you’ll notice something else: when it comes to human representations in children’s books, white boys and men overwhelmingly get to drive the narrative and have most of the dialogue. Women and girls, and black and minority ethnic characters, are relegated to sidekick roles, recede into the background in non-speaking parts, or are absent altogether.
A cumulative effect
As with the findings of Let Toys Be Toys toy catalogues and TV ads research, the problem is not one ad/book. The problem is with how the message builds into a wider picture. An image of a girl playing with a doll – great. A catalogue with 16 pages of girls and dolls and no boys – more of a problem.
A book with a male protagonist and villain, fine. A whole bookshelf where males do most of the doing and the talking… maybe time to consider whether this is really what we want to tell our children about who matters and how the world works?
Boys do read about girls
The assumption that boys won’t read about girls, or watch programming about girls is very embedded in the media and publishing industries, but the evidence is weak, and overdue for challenging, as author John Dougherty entertainingly outlines in this blogpost Why do we believe these things?
For starters, it just isn’t true – boys can of course take an interest in stories about girls, as our ‘Boys read girls‘ gallery, and contributions to this Guardian Witness project showed. Authors such as Rob Biddulph tell how boys and girls have loved their girl-led stories.
Sadly though, all too often, boys are made to feel that they’re not allowed to show an interest in girls’ stories. And the research done by media organisations or publishers doesn’t necessarily dig into this, often researching with children in single-sex groups, or asking them their opinions in front of peers.
An anecdote told at the Children’s Media Conference a couple of years ago by PBS exec Linda Simensky is telling: in a focus group she asked a set of eight boys how many of them watched Power Puff Girls, a cartoon show about girl superheroes. Only one boy raised his hand. Later the question was asked again, but this time they were asked to look down at their laps, knowing the other boys could not see their response – and seven out of the eight said that they did watch the programme.
But most importantly, if boys are unsure of whether they’re allowed to identify with a female character, this is concerning, and something we need to work out how to overcome, not just passively accept. It’s not OK for the adult world to reinforce the idea that it’s somehow demeaning for a boy to take an interest in what a girl might do, think or feel.
The main target audience for picture books is too young to have any strong opinions about whether the main characters are male or female, so a gender bias in books and media at this age is likely a key factor in setting this up.
Villains and monsters
Story book baddies were overwhelmingly male in the Observer’s research – this matches the findings of a recent piece of research by bloggers Hannah and Leo Garcia, who looked at the animals featured on children’s clothing.
The animals on boys’ clothing were predominently fierce, dangerous animals – lions, crocodiles, dinosaurs, dragons, while the girls’ clothing featured rabbits, horses, unicorns and mice. Bluntly, the boys are set up as predators, the girls as prey, boys as wild creatures, girls as domesticated.
What’s the harm?
The harm to girls is obvious – they learn that they’re not really meant to take up space in the world, that their voices don’t matter as much. They’re coached to expect little. The publishers may say, ‘Boys won’t read about girls, girls don’t mind,’ but girls do notice, and they mind very much, if my daughter is anything to go by. However, they learn very quickly that it’s just tough. I minded a lot that there were no female characters in my childhood favourite, The Hobbit. Should I have written to the publisher to tell them just how much it bothered me?
But what on earth are boys meant to take from this? That fierce and wild are the only way to be, that villainy is somehow linked to maleness? And that they are entitled to expect a world where men get to talk more than women do?
Research by Australian academic Dale Spender found that male students consistently overestimated how much the women spoke in class, considering 30% female speech as over half. And efforts to even out male and female contributions provoked protests from the men – equal representation felt unfair to them. It’s not hard to see how we end up with certain Star Wars fans yelping in protest at yet another film with a female lead.
If you’ve been raised to expect the whole cake, seeing someone else get a slice might feel shockingly unfair.
Parents want something different
The change in the best seller lists may be slow, but it’s certainly the case that parents are starting to demand better when it comes to gender balance. A recent survey of Australian parents found that 92% of parents of 0-3 year olds felt that it was important that boys and girls should be treated the same, and that 79% wanted to take action to challenge traditional gender stereotypes. Another international survey of parents found that a majority thought that children should be raised in as gender neutral a way as possible to guard against stereotypes.
My own son is a gentle, thoughtful character, who as a little one refused to wear clothes with dinosaurs or sharks on – too scary. He went through a phase of worrying about whether it was OK for him to read stories about girls. He just needed a little reassurance, and left that phase behind.
But what if I’d just accepted it? Or told him that it was normal to reject half the planet as beneath his notice? I’d like my son to be ready for a world where a woman is his equal, and a woman may well be his boss, without him feeling like something’s gone very awry.
What can we do?
As parents and book-buyers:
- Do a ‘ten book test’ on your bookcase – pick ten books at random and take a look at the gender balance. How many male and female characters? Who gets to speak? Act? What are male and female characters shown doing?
- If the balance isn’t as good as you’d like, look for, share and give as gifts books with better gender balance: our friends @GenderDiary have crowdsourced a fantastic kids book list
- Don’t just seek out girl-led stories as ‘great for girls’. Boys need to read about girls too.
- Kids quite often notice what adults don’t. Use questions as a chance to discuss balance and inclusion – children have a strong sense of what’s fair!
Teachers and educators
- Take a critical look at your bookshelves, and think about whether you can improve the range and balance on offer. Specialist suppliers like Letterbox Library can help.
- Books can be a great starting point for group discussions about stereotypes – check out the suggestions in the NUT’s It’s Child’s Play resource.
- Think critically about the received wisdom that boys won’t read about girls – what research is this based on? Is it self-perpetuating? Is it more about adult book-buyers than children’s real interests? Is it something that ought to be reinforced, or undermined?
- Commission, promote and market more balanced books. Support authors who are trying to provide more balance, and nudge those who perhaps haven’t considered the issues. Seriously – would that story be so different if the wolf were female? Might it even be better?