Positive Female Role Models in Children’s Literature

Are the words our children and young people hear and read and the connotations of their use really significant to their development of self-concept, self-image, self-belief and aspirations? We...

Are the words our children and young people hear and read and the connotations of their use really significant to their development of self-concept, self-image, self-belief and aspirations? We know that literacy is a key enabler for obtaining better life chances, such as education, job opportunities, and understanding of social systems, codes and laws, awareness of equity, social justice and human rights.

Literacy and education for girls is far more empowering for whole communities than that of boys. That is not to say that boys shouldn’t be given every opportunity possible but rather to highlight the fact that girls are often the last to obtain educational opportunity and yet will return the most advantage to their communities when they receive it.

It is not only an intuitive conclusion that under-representation and sexual stereotyping influence children’s attitudes but research also suggests that gender bias has a harmful effect on child development in that it strengthen children’s biases.  Children who read gender-biased materials tend then to gravitate more towards traditional “boy” toys or “girl” toys. Whilst gender bias in children’s books tends to lower girls’ self-esteem and aspirations, it has the opposite effect on boys. There is also evidence that the under-representation of female characters encourages both genders to see girls as less worthy than boys and that stereotyping affects the way that they then perceive what constitutes being a “man” or being a “woman”.

Reading has many competitors in a child’s life.  Video games, television, sport & other peer group activities take much time. Often, both parents work and there is less family time when parents might read to children. Homework is not unusual even in the earlier years and swatting for university entrance can be time consuming and stressful.

In poorer countries, families may be unable to afford books. In many cases children may be expected to work or have to do so simply to aid family survival. Although advances have been made, many children, particularly girls still receive little or no schooling.  So, even where literacy facilitates reading, poverty, circumstance and gender may substantially reduce the opportunity for a child to hear a story read or to read one for themselves.

Gender Stereotyping

Misrepresentation of girls and women in this way, gender stereotyping, give a false view of the potential and worth of 50% of our population. This disadvantages not only those girls and women but our society as a whole.  The pen can, indeed, be mightier than the sword but it must be a fine pen, in thoughtful hands and used in a critical, observant and skilful way.

Gender stereotyping needs to be considered within the total context of the tendency to view “what is” as reality. The problem is that, “what is” or “how things are” is not necessarily synonymous with “what is possible” or “how things ought to be.” So, if we are to actively develop positive self-image, confidence and recognition that girls and women have a right to “choice”, then we must tackle not only female stereotyping but also male stereotyping and, indeed, all forms of stereotyping.

The words used to describe women and girls in literature can subtly influence how the reader comes to see them. Female characters tend to be described in terms of their external appearance and inner sensitivity and ability to nurture. Male characters tend to be described in terms of their physical strength, their boldness and their ability to take charge and make decisions

The dialogue of female and male characters is also often different.  Female characters tend to ask more questions, seek advice, and have their point of view or agreement taken for granted or even overlooked altogether.  In contrast, male figures dominate conversation, talk of “important” issues, make decisions and give directions.

Such portrayals are a fraud. They represent a stereotypical view of society and of the characteristics of men and women.  Real people are not one-dimensional and do not conform rigidly to one pattern of behaviour or belief.   Good quality literature will show the multi-facets of characters, whether male or female and not paint all of one gender in the same colour.

Selecting Positive Reading

Unfortunately, it is not possible to offer a simple solution to choice of reading material for children.  It is not as simple as choosing just books written by female authors, because, gender stereotyping is as prevalent in those books as it is in books authored by males.

Children’s books do not come with a simple sticker certifying them as free of gender, racial, social or other bias. There is no standard formula that can guide parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers and others in determining which titles are free of bias.  Neither book award winners nor the gender of authors have been shown to make a significant difference in the extent of bias in children’s books. However, there are criteria that can guide selection of more open, socially and gender supportive titles.  Significant differences between male and female characters in the areas below will indicate a tendency towards gender bias.

AREA INDICATOR
Author gender Male authors tend to have more main male characters.
Titles Are specifically male or female characters included in the title?
Main characters What is the balance of male to female main characters in the book?
Illustration Are male and female characters portrayed in equal numbers?
Illustration Are male and female characters equally prominent?
Illustration Do pictures avoid stereotypical dress, activity or gender associations?
Illustration Are characters shown in non-typical roles or occupations?
Illustration How are parents and other adults portrayed in dress, occupation or activity?
Characters Are female characters portrayed in other than “nurturing” or “caring” roles?
Characters Are female characters shown as readily active outdoors as indoors?
Characters Are adults, male or female, shown in non-traditional occupations?
Characters How wide a range of occupations is shown for male and female characters?

Surprisingly, some commonly held beliefs regarding gender bias in children’s books appear not to be a reality.  Some of these are:

Activity Boys and girls are portrayed as equally active
Rescue Girls are as likely as boys to be rescuers, as opposed to being passive recipients of rescue
Book Awards There appears to be no less chance of gender bias in award winning books than in other popular titles

Clearly, not every parent or adult selector of children’s books will be able to analyze every title in detail. However, by consulting reviews, reading the book jacket “blurb”, noting gender references in titles and of the main characters, selecting books by female authors and perusing illustrations more analytically, it is certainly possible to considerably minimize the chance of selecting gender biased titles.

Be careful of major publicity drives for certain titles and series – two of the most common and best selling series for children are the Thomas the Tank Engine series of the Rev. Audry and the prolific range of children’s material written by Enid Blyton.  These books are not only replete with stereotypes but have condescendingly low levels of vocabulary and language, constituting some of the worst children’s books ever written.

In contrast, consider the richness of language, intriguing plot and positive messages of Mem Fox, superbly complemented by the illustrations of Julie Vivas in their: Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge.  Whilst simple enough for the youngest of readers the story has depth that suits it to many reading levels.  It brings together male and female, old and young and life between in a surprising and sensitive way.

Travels with Tarra by Carol Buckley is inspiring non-fiction for mid-grade readers.  Combining love & caring for an animal with determination and ambition, this is the true story of a girl who gave a new life to an elephant stolen from Burma & taken to the USA.

Nim is a strong and independent young girl living with her scientist father on a remote island.  She has pets and email friends for company and when her father has to go away for a few days and leave her on her own, she isn’t at all phased.  Nim’s Island by Wendy Orr tells how Nim capably meets potential tragedy head-on.

A book about a woman’s struggle for self-identity and self realisation, Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the river, captured me when it was released, almost 40 years ago. I would still strongly recommend this novel about Nora Porteus and her journey of escape from a stifling life with a domineering husband to any young adult reader.

Summary

Literacy is an essential and empowering tool in any person’s life.  Research tells us that in the majority world, education and literacy for girls has benefits for their communities far beyond the personal.  Regardless of geographic location, ideology, religion, race, wealth or any other difference, it seems self evident that our world will benefit from a situation in which all people can attain their full potential and where diversity and differing perspectives are valued.

A world in which 50% of the population are seen as “less than” and suffer discrimination by action or omission, simply because of their gender, is not one of which humanity can be proud.  Women deserve equity and choice.

Categories
16 Days CampaignGender
Roger Hawcroft

Roger is an online activist & library consultant living in Queensland, Australia. Roger has a diverse work background in both public and private sectors and large and small organisations. Her has degrees in teaching and library & information science. Roger is keen to contribute to a more equitable and peaceful society. Roger feels that his own struggle with an autism spectrum disorder have given him awareness of the difficulties & stigma that is the lot of the disadvantaged every where. He is particularly interested in social justice and human rights and in reversing the trend towards "blaming the victim" in society.
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