Not long ago it was socially acceptable to say, “I won’t read that book, it’s about black people” in the same way that boys routinely reject stories about girls today, says Soraya Chemaly.
One day, a few years ago, when my daughter was in third grade, she had to explain to a classmate what sexism was. Four kids, two boys and two girls, had been put in a reading group together, given a basket full of books and asked to talk about them and decide together which one they wanted to read together for a book review.
As they went through their choices, the boy picked up a book whose cover was an illustration of a woman in a hoop skirt. He quickly tossed it aside. My daughter suggested that it might be good, and asked if he’d already read it, because she would like to. He said no, it was a girl book and he wouldn’t read it. Her response was pretty cut and dry, “That’s a sexist thing to say,” she explained. He was a friend of hers and an intelligent kid. He paused long enough for her to realize he wasn’t sure what she meant. “Do you know how many books with boys in them I read?” she said. “You should read girl books, too. They’re good. And not reading them just because they’re about girls is sexist.”
Do you know what percentage of children’s books feature boys? Twice as many as those that feature girl protagonists. In the most comprehensive study of children’s literature during a period of 100 years, researchers recently found that:
- 57% of children’s books published each year have male protagonists, versus 31% female.
- In popular children’s books featuring animated animals, 100% of them have male characters, but only 33% have female characters.
- The average number of books featuring male characters in the title of the book is 36.5% versus 17.5% for female characters.
It’s not just the quantity, but the quality as well. Female characters, as in movies, are often marginalized, stereotyped, or one-dimensional. For example, in Peter Pan, Wendy is a stick-in-the-mud mother figure, and Tiger Lily is a jealous exotic. The animated books featuring animals are particularly subtle. Think about Winnie the Pooh—Kanga is the only female character, and she’s definitely not one of the gang.
The researchers concluded, “The gender inequalities we found may be particularly powerful because they are reinforced by patterns of male-dominated characters in many other aspects of children’s media, including cartoons, G-rated films, video games, and even coloring books.”
But, it goes beyond gender and is true of racial and ethnic diversity as well. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education has conducted a survey of all kids and young adult books published each year since 1985. Of an estimated 5,000 children’s and YA books released in 2012, only 3.3% featured African-Americans; 2.1% featured Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders; 1.5% featured Latinos; and only 0.6% featured Native Americans.
These numbers reflect similar patterns in television where research has shown that, with the exception of young, white boys, children’s self-esteem drops the more they watch.
National Public Radio featured the study in a program named, As Demographics Shift Kids’ Books Stay Stubbornly White. The CCBC publishes a great guide to multi-cultural lit for kids. Publishers, such as First Book, are also working on improving these numbers.
Neither these studies, nor frank discussion about their findings demonizes young white boys, a common retort. The problem is not boys, but rather cultural habits and entitlements that disproportionately favor them. Boys aren’t responsible for the perpetuation of media injustices or their effects. But, publishers, educators, parents, and other caring adults are.
A girl’s imagination and literary life would be a stark and barren place if she didn’t learn early on to read books about boys and enjoy them. As with other aspects of socially sanctioned behavior, children’s ability to cross-gender empathize is a one-way street. It’s not a matter of gender per se, but about this enduring sense of “otherness” when boys taught to be “real boys” disdain books about girls.
It’s “otherness” that is disdained and that’s used as the basis for inequality. Skin color used to be as strongly and publicly objected to as the basis for empathy and interest. Not long ago it was socially acceptable to say, “I won’t read that book, it’s about black people” in the same way that boys routinely reject stories about girls.
Frankly, what my 9-year-old told her classmate was more than some adults can muster. Children need to be taught to recognize sexism and racism in action and given the tools to help others to understand them, too. Books for children are a great way to start.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.