Janice McCabe wants parents to notice that the duck wearing the sweater in their children’s books is likely male. So is the hungry caterpillar and the caring elephant.
“Gender equality is not on most people’s mind when they select books for their children. But I think it would be great if it could be something parents could be aware of,” she says.
McCabe and fellow researchers at Florida State University have spent more than a decade studying 5,618 children’s books published from 1900 to 2000 and recording the disparity between male and female characters. Her findings show that males were represented twice as often in titles and 1.6 times more often as central characters. When characters were animals, they tended overwhelmingly to be male.
“I was surprised in that I expected representations to become more equal over the century and that wasn’t the case. The first three decades of the century were similar to the last three,” says McCabe, assistant professor of sociology at Florida State University.
The disparity was the greatest in the middle of the century. “In the 1930s through to the 1960s, there was a backlash against the first wave of the women’s movement. There was pressure for women to scale back the gains they had made in professions during the roaring 20s. That backlash persisted through World War Two until the second wave of the women’s movement in the 1970s,” she says.
“The widespread pattern of underrepresentation of females supports a belief that female characters are less important and less interesting than male characters. That may have implications about how children think about themselves and think about their gender.”
The ratio improved in the last decade of the study: books published in the 1990s came close to parity for human characters (0.9 males to every one female for child characters and 1.2 to 1 for adult characters). Think of Robert Munsch’s books – of his 30 published by Scholastic Canada, there are slightly more girl protagonists.
But curiously, when it came to animals, it was still two to one. On top of that, readers tended to interpret gender neutral animals as male.
The study only looked at books published in the U.S. and Jeffrey Canton, a lecturer in Children’s Studies at York University, believes that Canadian publishers are more sensitive to social disparities.
“Our small independent Canadian publishers, such as Groundwood, Orca, Annick, Second Story Press, are more aware of the need for gender equity. Because of that awareness, they publish books that do try to balance that,” he said.
He also noted that many Canadian publishing houses are run by women.
“I had been on the publishing board of Women’s Press and we knew for some time that if we wanted to achieve gender equality as adults, we had to introduce content for children that reflected that,” says Margie Wolfe who with three other women, foundedSecond Story Feminist Press in 1988.
“We want the readership to be both male and female but we try to reflect content that represents the concerns and experiences of girls. We’ve just released a book this spring called Princess to the Rescue. It’s as simple as turning traditional images on their head.”
Scholars list many heroic female stories coming out of the 70s feminist context: Jane and the Dragon and The Paperbag Princess.
“The ‘70s convinced us we weren’t educating girls properly; but the last decade, we’ve had people saying the reverse. I’ve seen a concerted effort to give boys stories that they want to read. I’m thinking of Captain Underpants and The Wimpy Kid,” says Mary Chapman, a professor of American literature at the University of British Columbia and a feminist scholar who recently edited a book about women’s suffrage.
While there may be parity, there is a clear distinction between girl books and boy books.
“I have heard this from countless teachers when they are picking a novel for class study: the book can be about a boy or about a boy and a girl with equal billing, but not about a girl as a lead character if you want the boys to read it. This is reinforced by the belief that boys are more reluctant and less competent readers so need to be considered more when a book is being picked,” says Lahring Tribe, manager of library, school and academic sales, at Random House.
“I can’t come up with too many books involving boys and girls where the girls dominate if there is a mix of genders in the cast; the only way a girl gets to star is if the book is a ‘girl’s book.’”
Another point to remember, scholars say, is that children do not identify solely with gender. Consider the universal popularity of Harry Potter. Readers identify with characters, their stories and their struggles.
“Our relationship to gender has become much more fluid and the concept of gender is much less polarized than it was a hundred, or even fifty, years ago,” says Irene Gammel, professor of English at Ryerson University. “We ultimately read because of the aesthetic experience, because we are able to immerse ourselves in a new world. We don’t just read because we see our identity reflected in a book. A good book is an adventure.”