Gender Bias in Children’s Books?

There’s been some discussion on Twitter (and I imagine elsewhere) about a recently released study revealing gender inequality in children’s literature. The study looked at nearly 6000 children’s books published from 1900 to 2000. They discovered that even in children’s books featuring animals, a significant majority of the central characters are male. At most a third of the books contain female characters at all while 100% include male characters. Take a look at the article for more statistics.

Assuming there’s no funny business in the counting of characters’ genders, it seems indisputable that there are more male characters than female in children’s literature. Where I think the study gets mushy is in the conclusions the authors say that the data led them to. For instance, they point out that mothers and children read gender into even gender neutral animal characters. The article mentions “research on reader interpretations” to support readers’ gender assignment of gender-neutral characters, but nothing is cited. So I do wonder about that.

The other issue that raised a red flag for me was the conclusion drawn by the authors as to the impact of this gender inequality in children’s books. They state that this will lead to a presumption that “women and girls occupy a less important role in society than men or boys” and that it amounts to the “symbolic annihilation of women disguised through animal imagery.” That second statement in particular sounds like an overly dramatic leap too far to me. In any case, I’d like to see other studies that support their contention.

I’m no scientist (although I like to write about them). I didn’t do the study, haven’t read it in its entirety. I know often what appears in a short article such as the one I’ve linked to includes material taken out of context and the issues I have with the conclusions may be explored in greater depth in the original study.

And although I can’t speak for every little girl out there, I can speak for myself. As a kid in the ’60s and ’70s, I probably read some very gender biased books. Did I feel that women had a less important role in society as a consequence? Did I feel symbolically annihilated? Hell, no.

If I read a book that featured a boy as the main character, that omitted female characters entirely even, I don’t know that I ever even noticed. I became that main character anyway, lived his adventure, imagined myself as him. I was Tom Sawyer, not Becky Thatcher. I was Black Beauty, not poor doomed Ginger.

Later, in my late teens when I started noticing women’s minuscule roles in books (mainly science fiction by that point), I was irritated and ticked off that the author either omitted or limited their female characters. I certainly wasn’t traumatized by it. It’s one reason I have almost entirely stopped reading adult SF written by men. Because the women authors know how to create worlds with as many interesting powerful women as men.

I know there are certainly girls/women out there who felt different than I did growing up. Who read those male-dominated books and felt smaller. But I bet there are others like me who don’t give a damn if the author wrote the character as male. They see themselves in that story, doing all those fun and exciting things that boy/male character is doing. They’re strong girls, they’re smart girls, they’re adventurous girls. And if the character doesn’t look like them, they will damn well just re-write the story so they do.

About karensandler

Lover of chocolate. A couple felines short of full-fledged Cat Lady. Author of the YA Tankborn Trilogy (TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION), from Tu Books. Founding team member of We Need Diverse Books. Opinions expressed here are my own.
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One Response to Gender Bias in Children’s Books?

  1. Angelica says:

    I read a lot of sci fi as a teen also, and I remember noticing how some books didn’t have female characters at all, or else they were just accessories for the male characters. I read Podkayne of Mars as a teen and liked it, went back and read it as an adult and thought it was pretty condescending. So my perspective and life experience obviously affected my reading of that book.

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