Often when I read a picture story book to my students they will identify characters as male, regardless of the character’s gender. They will use ‘he’ and ‘him’ to describe a character that has just been called ‘she’ or ‘her’ only seconds before when I read aloud from the book. I thought this was a strange phenomenon. My students correctly used pronouns in other situations but for some reason, so often girls would become boys when we discussed the characters in a book.
A commentary on a study by the University of Central Florida noted that the study found that out of children’s books published each year in the US only 31% have lead female characters, while 57% have male lead characters. That’s almost twice the amount of males to females at the forefront of the stories children read. There were many more alarming statistics in a similar vein that all highlight the same problem: We are telling children that boys and girls are not equal, that boys are normal and girls are secondary.
I was reading an article recently that used the popular book The Day the Crayons Quit to illustrate this problem perfectly. It said that in this book “not a single crayon is identified with a female pronoun. Just about everything and everyone in the books – from five of the crayons to a paper clip to a sock to Pablo Picasso to the crayons’ owner, Duncan, to his father to his little brother – is male, or not assigned a gender. The exceptions are a female teacher and Duncan’s little sister, who uses the otherwise under-employed pink crayon. To colour in a picture of a princess. And is praised for staying in the lines.”
Polygraph recently released an analysis breaking down the dialogue spoken in 2000 screenplays by gender. If we look at the sample of 30 Disney films analysed, we find that 22 of them have a males accounting for majority of the dialogue. 22 out of 30! This is hideously unequal! Movies like the The Jungle Book and Monsters, Inc. have almost all dialogue spoken by male characters (98% in The Jungle Book), while the extremely short list of four movies with a majority of dialogue spoken by females only had them contributing a little over 60% of the dialogue (Alice in Wonderland, Inside Out, Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty).
How will girls learn that they have value and are equal members of society if the literature we provide them does not value being female? We are teaching girls (and boys!) that females come second, that girls are lesser, that they are not as interesting and not worth being read about or watched.
It needs to become normal for animals in the farm book to be females, rather than for males to be the standard and females the deviation.
It needs to become normal for superhero teams to have a majority of female members, instead of five boys and one token scantily-clad girl.
It needs to become normal for there to be no default gender.
So what do we do?
It is imperative for teachers – as well as parents, carers, friends, everyone of influence – to model, speak about and encourage the importance of females in an equal society.
In our classrooms we can start with books. We can read books with female lead characters. We can read books with heaps of female characters. We can challenge our boys to read books about girls (since most girls will read books about boys without hesitation). We can discuss female characters. We can discuss the fact that the gender of the character often makes no difference. We can stop students assigning genders to genderless animals, objects and people. We can analyse films with females in the lead role. We can read books about girls that are not about ‘girl stuff’ but just about ‘stuff’. We can encourage them to write stories about girls. And we can keep going until gender is no longer an issue we need to deal with.
Which books or texts do you use for reducing the gap between girls and boys in literature?
- A Mighty Girl has a huge list of picture books and novels that feature girls as main characters.
- For children’s movies that pass the Bechdel Test (a test that requires a film to have at least two named female characters to have a conversation about something other than a man) check out this article.
- Where are all the female characters in children’s books? Jennie Yabroff, 2016. http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-culture/where-are-all-the-female-characters-in-childrens-books-20160109-gm2jdl.html
- Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books. McCabe, Tope, Fairchild, Grauerholz & Pescosolido. Gender & Society Journal. April 2011 25: 197–226, http://gas.sagepub.com/content/25/2/197.abstract
- Film Dialogue. H. Anderson & M Daniels. (2016). http://polygraph.cool/films/
10 thoughts on “Gender in the Classroom: Books about Girls”
Great article Emily. I also notice many of my students assume the author as a male. Very rarely do they think it would be written by a female.
Thanks for sharing,
Hi Zoe. It’s surprising how often it happens when you start to notice it. Thanks for reading.
What a great article Em. I will definitely put more thought in to my choice of classroom texts from now on.
Thanks for sharing the link, Danny 🙂 It’s definitely something to consider and male teachers taking it on board is really powerful and important.
Great article Em. Gender inequality is still well and truely entrenched and teachers have a very important role to play in breaking down the stereo types and creating a more equal society.
Thanks for reading, Vern. I agree – there’s so much teachers can do in the area of diversity.
Hey, this article is so thought provoking. I agree with Zoe that most students think of authors as being male first and refer to the author as “he”
We do need to think about book choice. Great article Emily.
“You go girl!!”
Hey Chris, thanks for the comment. It’s amazing to hear that both you guys have had the same experience too!
Hopefully the fact that the “next” Doctor Who is a woman will set another good example, and also entice more girls to “nerd out” a bit on things like Doctor Who. It’s just one thing of many, but very important.
Thanks for the comment, Arjen. This Doctor Who news is a massive step in the right direction, but hopefully after the initial backlash that is going around, people will see that it’s just another way of having a new and exciting doctor character, and the gender isn’t important. Next step, female Bond!