Sex, Cats, and Stereotypes

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.

Scary stuff.

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?

This may be a good time to remind you of our post from a couple of months ago: Stalking the Elusive Boy Reader.  And don’t miss Is Your Daughter “God’s Little Princess?

, , , ,

7 Responses to Sex, Cats, and Stereotypes

  1. Betsy June 2, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    Brandy, I love that you mentioned Eilonwy! She made it into my Thesis on the last MA round. And, of course, Turner’s females are excellent examples of women who are strong because they are women… not because they are trying to be men. As an avid reader growing up, I never remember thinking the animals were unrelatable–even if they were boys. Take Frog and Toad for instance… talk about life lessons! I think, once I got older (say upper elementary), I gravitated towards more female protagonists, but most books by then were about people, not animals (Black Beauty being a glorious exception). So, no, I don’t think my little girl is scarred or affected in the least by the Cat in the Hat, or Little Bear’s “masculine” nature, or Winnie-the-Pooh’s male-ness, or Benjamin Bunny. Besides, there are plenty of lovable girl characters to throw in there, too: Frances, Mrs. Tiggywinkle, Lily and Chrysanthemum,….

  2. adrianna June 1, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    “Can symbolic pregnant-and-barefoot mother rabbits tied to the kitchen stove be far behind?”
    LOL at this sentence. Also the “too much time on their hands” concept is humorous and right on!

  3. emily May 31, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    And one more thing, to the best of my knowledge, most writers and editors of kids’ books are female. And liberal. I guess they were all just too warped after reading The Cat in the Hat to imagine kids might like The Cat in a Slinky Dinner Dress.

  4. Brandy May 31, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    Janie, you are in for a treat! I love Turner’s books more than is probably a little healthy so they are never far from my mind during discussions of this sort. :) The middle two are definitely my favorites so far.

  5. Janie May 31, 2011 at 5:12 pm #

    Brandy, Thanks for the mention of Meg Welan Turner. I’ve recently discovered her–through A Confederacy of Kings, which is probably not the best approach. But I was impressed anyway. I’ll start over with The Thief. I agree; females are just as strong as males, but their strength is different. Designed that way. When we tinker with God’s design (or deny it) there are always consequences.

  6. emily May 31, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    Also, the publishing truism is that boys are less likely to read books about females, while girls will read about both genders. There’s an economic incentive for publishers to focus on males.

    I also have to ask whether these folks considered the possibility that girls are just drawn to people? My girls are pretty wild over princesses and ballerinas, and let’s face it, the dresses just don’t look as good on frogs or cats.

  7. Brandy May 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Interesting…and yeah, clearly too much time on their hands.

    My daughter has always preferred books with an important female character (whether human or animal). She has never complained girls weren’t adequately represented though.

    As a reader I prefer well rounded characters who are not the sum total of a stereotype. I don’t mind the stereotype so long as there is more to it. That being said, men and women were created differently and that should show. My problem with the female kick butt character is that I find it demeaning to true feminine strength. The girls often portrayed as physically strong are emotional and intellectual basket cases. (Katniss is an example of this as are Katsa and Fire from Kristen Cashore’s books.) I prefer female characters who are strong but I want them to find their strength in being female instead of trying to be like the boys. (Both queens in Megan Whalen Turner’s books are great examples of this and the Queen of Attolia is my favorite female character of all time. Eilonwy from the Prydain Chronicles is another example.)

Leave a Reply