Just when you thought we’d done a pretty good job of knocking down stereotypes, a new study (those three words have to be among the most irritating in the English language these days) shows that gender disparity is still rampant in children’s books. True, there’s been some progress since the 1990s, with an almost-equal balance between male and female child protagonists. But that’s only among human characters. Among animal characters, male bunnies, dogs, and cats are three times as prevalent as female bunnies, dogs, and cats.
The research was conducted by five college professors (four female, one male–talk about disparity!)
with too much time on their hands who surveyed almost 6000 children’s book titles and series published in the US in the twentieth century. The study, “Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books,” were featured in the academic journal Gender & Society last April and found its way to a few newspapers and online sites. Little comment so far; no one outside academia appears to be worried enough to consider rewriting Peter Rabbit and The Cat in the Hat with female thieves and trouble-makers. I’m just wondering if the souls of little girls are as deeply imprinted by the overwhelming number of male animal characters as the professors fear: “We argue that these disparities are evidence of symbolic annihilation and have implications for children’s understandings of gender.”
“Symbolic annihilation”–wow! Can symbolic pregnant-and-barefoot mother rabbits tied to the kitchen stove be far behind?
Personally, I don’t remember feeling threatened or marginalized by the Pokey Little Puppy or The Runaway Engine (though that was a machine, not an animal)–if anything, they just reinforced my stereotype of boys as lazy and wayward. I had no brothers, only sisters, but when I got to know them better I recognized that there was a wide personality range in men just as there was in women. But I also noticed some general characteristics that were less true of one sex than the other. It’s too broad a subject for a little post, but in a nutshell: men drive society and women stabilize it. Men occupy both ends of the bell curve–there are more male geniuses, but there are also more male criminals. Women occupy the middle, and exercise their multi-tasking gifts to keep everyday affairs going while society moves forward. Or back, depending on whether it’s being driven by criminals or geniuses.
I know–plenty of exceptions to this rule. But it’s still a rule, and it’s because of the way we’re made, not because of how the culture influences us.
What this means for literature in general, and children’s literature specifically, is that writers instinctively know the dynamic capacity of the male. Females can be dynamic too–see my book reviews later this week for examples–but theirs is mostly reactive and less extreme. Also risk-averse: they’re generally not daredevils, for one particular reason which I don’t have time to go into now, but you can probably guess what it is. Action novels with–excuse the expression–female kick-butt characters don’t ring true to me. I know such women actually exist but they are rare. Katniss Everdeen, of The Hunger Games, can more than hold her own in a fight to the death, but how likely is that, really? In an matchup with a young man of comparable skill and wiles, who would be more likely to win?
To too many authors and educators, the way to gender parity is having girls behave more like boys. The Cat in the Hat is actually supposed to be androgynous, but if you had to choose, how would you specify him/her? It takes a little effort to imagine a female Cat In the Hat wreaking havoc in someone’s living room, but unfortunately it can be done. We’ve seen too many U-Tube videos of girls beating up other girls lately. But it just seems . . . wrong. Even wrong-er than boys being destructive. Might that be because we subconsciously rely on girls to be the steady ones, the stabilizers, and if they reject that role, society is toast?
What do you think? Do you sense that your little girl is troubled by the fact that so many animal characters are male? Does she have problems relating to them, or hearing about them? Do you have any problems with gender stereotypes yourself?