In a new study that hardly qualifies as news, The New York Times reported that there is gender bias in children’s literature.
Shocking, maybe, if this were 1971.
The argument over and over is that girls will read about boy characters but boys won’t read girl characters. Publishers don’t want to eliminate 50% of their audience, but isn’t that a self-fulfilling prophecy? All the usual complaints.
When these gender studies are done, has anyone bothered to parse out content to see if maybe there isn’t some negative gender reinforcement there? You want a boy to read a picture book with a girl protagonist, fine, stop making the story be about a Purple Plastic Purse or getting dressed up Fancy and going out to dinner. You want books to appeal to boys, then appeal to what boys want.
As an emerging reader I read Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, but I didn’t read any of the sequels. Why? Because walking in straight lines and being led around town by a nun did not appeal to me. It wasn’t that it was about a girl character, it’s because it was about character behavior I couldn’t identify with. If the story had been about a boy named Montague and a dozen other orphan boys being lead around Paris in two straight lines I wouldn’t have been any more interested.
That lack of interest extended to male characters as well. Babar the Elephant was a ba-boring simp. Stone Soup… really? A soldier tricking a town into feeding itself? And if I’m being honest, I never understood the fuss about Peter Pan. If you don’t grow up, how can you be a fireman or policeman or, as was my case, a swimming pool builder? These characters didn’t appeal because of who they were, not their gender.
Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand appealed to me because there was chaos and character and action. Despite his pacifist ways, which might be seen as anti-boy, the fact is that there are bulls and bull fighting and the idea of finding identity. Similarly one might look at Leo Lionni’s Frederick as a soft male character, a poetry collecting mouse who nourishes the soul, but here’s a secret: boys actually like poetry, until they get the joy of it killed out of them through education.
In David Shannon’s No, David! we have a boy behaving badly. Or rather, we see a boy behaving like a boy. If we were to gender swap this story and only change the name and the appearance of the main character, would the book work? Probably not, because the mischief David gets into is the personality of a boy who is curious to the point of destruction and it would read odd if what we were seeing was No, Doris. The argument could be made that there’s a gold mine to be made in simply taking successful and award-winning books with male characters and creating new versions with female characters, but if it were as easy as that wouldn’t someone have done it already? If gender were truly the key to formula then girls would have their own Curious Georgina.
Dr. Seuss didn’t seem to have very many female characters, but one that sticks out for me is The Lorax. Sort of a humanoid creature, he does nonetheless have a rather prominent mustache. Does the gender of the Lorax make any difference? Not at all, which is interesting because I think if Seuss had feminized the Lorax there wouldn’t be any change in the message and I don’t believe it would be any less popular among boys.
Even when the story features a character without gender, say a garbage truck as in Kate and Jim McMullen’s I Stink, the appeal of that book is generated by the attitude and language. Boys like reading about trucks, and things that stink, and the unashamed tone of the garbage truck simply calls out for boys to imitate it. Is it biased to appeal to boys this way? Does it reinforce gender stereotypes to not have a similar book where a garbage truck is behaving with more decorum and etiquette?
I think if we’re going to dredge up the old gender question in children’s books we need to look at what those main characters are doing and question the stereotypes they portray. Boys and girls behaving like boys and girls, both fictional and in real life, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And if there’s truly a problem with gender inequity it doesn’t appear that having fewer female characters has had an effect on girl readership.
So seriously, what’s the big deal here?