08 Aug Gender Stereotypes and Children’s Books
We take it for granted that our boys will grow up understanding they shouldn’t rape or become murdering white supremacists (*scoff, not my little darling, scoff, scoff*).
But with so much at stake in the delivery of this message where are the flashing, neon, floor-to-ceiling signs that drive this point home for them day after day after day? What are we doing to be sure they know? Of all the things we’re trying to teach them, surly respect, equality and non-violence are ones that bear highlighting?
gender stereotypes on the Book Shelf (The Most Dangerous thing In Your House? Kinda.)
This brings us to our children’s book shelves, of all things. At first glance it’s a magical little corner of our home. A world of imagination and squishy cuddles. This is one of the first places they learn about the world. The stories we read are their first inklings of how the world works and their place in it. Shit, that shelf is problematic AF!
Amidst the magic and wonder, where are the strong female characters? Where are the leading non-white characters? Hang on, where are any female / non-white characters at all? Not hanging out on our bookshelf, I’ve sadly come to realise.
In our home, once we really got into the story book groove with our baby boys, we started to notice the absence of diversity. We started changing the pronouns and adapting storylines. Alan the Alligator becomes Catherine the Crocodile and we carry on.
Gender stereotypes - Is Enough Enough Though?
But is that enough? I mean the stakes are pretty high. You may think I’m being extreme. You may think that we can show our kids how to be good people just by being good ourselves. You may think I should relax, but I can’t. I think of the pain and suffering those men bring into the world.
I know that teaching my children things like - all people are equal and deserve respect no matter what’s going on between their legs or what colour their skin is, and that violence is never the answer, is pretty much one of the most important parts of my job as a mother. A white mother of boys. That’s my rent I pay to this world.
Gender stereotypes - A Feminist Parenting approach
So I’m taking steps to improve. As this is a space for feminist parenting, I started with a gender-equality analysis of my children’s books first. I used a a wonderful little test I found over on rosetintedtentacles
Inspired by the idea of the Bechdel test, which can be seen as a (somewhat limited) way of analysing how a book or film performs in terms of gender equality, RoseTintedTenticles created her own, more comprehensive equality test for children’s books. It’s somewhere between Bechdel, bingo and her own imagination.
I took a morning to apply the test to 25 randomly chosen children’s books from our shelf. Here’s the test, and my results.
Gender stereotypes in the feminist book test (from Rosetinted Tentacles)
Take each of these nine situations and apply them to each book. Add or subtract points according to instructions:
Female characters who speak or influence the plot of the story. Include animal or object ‘characters’ where their gender is apparent: 1 point each
Female characters finding their own solutions: 5 points each
Characters in atypical jobs or roles for their gender: 5 points each
Scenarios where main carer is male: 10 points
Scenarios with working mothers: 5 points
Female monster or villain: 5 points each
Female ‘bitch’ or ‘slut’ character: Deduct 5 points
Mentions of the wealth or strength of a male character: Deduct 1 point each
Mentions of the looks of a female character: Deduct 1 point each
Mother of Snot Feminist Book Game - Results:
As a point of reference, if all 25 books score positively at least once for each question and never have a point deducted, there is a potential to score 775 points...
My children’s books scored a whopping -5 points. That’s minus five. In total. All together. Out of a possible 775.
Almost half of the books had no female character at all. Every single character was male, or non-specified.
Slightly more than half did have at least one female character who spoke or moved the plot along at some point but very few of those characters were central to the plot. Sometimes they may have had just one or two words to say, to point the boy hero in the right direction. In fact, 0% of my children’s books had a lead character who was female. Not one single lead female character.
Female Impact On The Plot
There were three different moments when a female character found her own solution to a problem. Which meant in the vast majority of the books that did actually have a female character, she needed a male character to solve a problem on her behalf. In all 25 books a male character found his own solution.
Atypical Roles / Gender Stereotypes
I did find one book with a character in an atypical role. A female truck at a construction site. Woo hoo. Great as that is, it means that in every other book in the test, stereotypical gender roles were presented and reinforced. There were zero books that presented a male character as the main carer in the story. Zero books with mothers working outside the home. And zero books with a female monster or villain.
There were no books with a female ‘bitch’ or ‘slut’ character, and, well, that’s fine with me. I don’t think I’d allow them in my house anyway, but still, good to see they hadn’t snuck in unnoticed.
Stereotypical Gender Characteristics
In terms of mentioning the wealth or strength of a male character, more than half the books felt it was important to do this. For the female characters though, it wasn’t mentioned once. Not one time. In fact, out of 25 books I looked at, what the writers felt was most important to mention was how they looked. The looks of a female character was mentioned 33 times, in 25 books. How they looked was actually what the writers focused on most when talking about female characters. This was not the case with male characters.
What about POC, Disability & LGBTQ characters?
I ran the test again for race, disability & LGBTQ diversity.
Let me summarise those results here:
There were zero books with a character who was a person of colour.
There were zero books with a character who had a disability.
There were zero books with a character identified as LGBTQ.
In these tests, each genre scored a ridiculous -33 out of a possible +775 points. They’re so below par that a score of zero would even be a vast improvement.
The messages I’ve been giving my baby boys every day are that straight, white able-bodied men are the default human being. That anyone else shouldn’t speak or be listened to. In fact, these ‘other’ humans don’t exist, not in any real sense, and if they do happen to appear, they are weak and helpless.
The straight, white able-bodied male must be strong enough, clever enough and rich enough to solve everyone else’s problems. It’s his responsibility to sort shit out.
Whereas I tell my boys they can grow up to be anything, with the books we read every day, I’m also giving them the message that this is conditional on them being anything ‘within traditional roles’. No need for them to care for others. Someone else will do that. No need for them to work in the home, someone else will take care of that.
The books I’ve been reading to my boys are telling them they just need to focus on being strong and wealthy, because apparently that’s all the white, able-bodied, straight male is supposed to be. Oh, and every other type of human is just a prop, there to serve their white male journey in some way.
The Only Reasonable Feminist Parenting Response
This stops here. The search starts now. From today, I’ll be searching out books that represent the wide and wonderful variety of people in the world, and the vast expanse of ways to be a human being.
There’s nothing wrong with being a straight, white able-bodied man. Odds are, my boys will grow up to be just that. It’s my job though, as a white mother of boys, to help them to understand that there’s nothing wrong with all the other types of human being. in fact, they can be pretty flippin' fabulous!
Women, people of colour, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQ - we’re all here. We should all feature in the stories we tell and we all deserve the same respect and opportunities.
The work starts today - look out for a follow up blog post where I’ll put the new books through the test and share the results. If you have any suggestions of a book you love, drop it in the comments to feature in the follow up post!
Now, I'm off to the library!