ERIC Identifier: ED424591
Publication Date: 1998-00-00
Author: Singh, Manjari
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Gender Issues in Children's Literature. ERIC Digest.
"Everything we read...constructs us, makes us who we are, by presenting our
image of ourselves as girls and women, as boys and men" (Mem Fox, 1993).
Besides being an important resource for developing children's language
skills, children's books play a significant part in transmitting a society's
culture to children. Gender roles are an important part of this culture. How
genders are portrayed in children's books thus contributes to the image children
develop of their own role and that of their gender in society.
HOW IS GENDER PORTRAYED IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE?
bias exists in the content, language and illustrations of a large number of
children's books (Jett-Simpson & Masland, 1993). This bias may be seen in
the extent to which a gender is represented as the main character in children's
books and how that gender is depicted.
Numerous studies analyzing children's literature find the majority of books
dominated by male figures. For example, Ernst (1995) did an analysis of titles
of children's books and found male names represented nearly twice as often as
female names. She also found that even books with female or gender-neutral names
in their titles in fact, frequently revolve around a male character. Many
classics and popular stories where girls are portrayed usually reflect
stereotypes of masculine and feminine roles. Such gender stereotypes are
prevalent not only in mainstream children's books but also in Newbery and
Caldecott medal winners. Children's books frequently portray girls as acted upon
rather than active (Fox, 1993). Girls are represented as sweet, naive,
conforming, and dependent, while boys are typically described as strong,
adventurous, independent, and capable (Ernst, 1995; Jett-Simpson & Masland,
1993). Boys tend to have roles as fighters, adventurers and rescuers, while
girls in their passive role tend to be caretakers, mothers, princesses in need
of rescuing, and characters that support the male figure (Temple, 1993). Often,
girl characters achieve their goals because others help them, whereas boys do so
because they demonstrate ingenuity and/or perseverance. If females are initially
represented as active and assertive, they are often portrayed in a passive light
toward the end of the story. Girl characters who retain their active qualities
are clearly the exception (Rudman, 1995). Thus, studies indicate that not only
are girls portrayed less often than boys in children's books, but both genders
are frequently presented in stereotypical terms as well.
WHY IS GENDER-REPRESENTATION IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE SIGNIFICANT?
Many researchers and authors argue that readers identify
with characters of their own gender in books. Therefore, the relative lack of
girl characters in texts can limit the opportunity for girls to identify with
their gender and to validate their place in society.
The manner in which genders are represented in children's literature impacts
children's attitudes and perceptions of gender-appropriate behavior in society.
Sexism in literature can be so insidious that it quietly conditions boys and
girls to accept the way they 'see and read the world,' thus reinforcing gender
images (Fox, 1993). This reinforcement predisposes children to not question
existing social relationships. At the same time, however, books containing
images that conflict with gender stereotypes provide children the opportunity to
re-examine their gender beliefs and assumptions. Thus, texts can provide
children with alternative role models and inspire them to adopt more egalitarian
Gender stereotypical roles are constraining to both genders. Just as girls
are trapped in passive and whiny roles, boys and men are rarely described as
people demonstrating emotions of sadness and fear, having hobbies/occupations
that are not stereotypically male and in roles where they aren't competing or
meeting high expectations. These stereotypes limit boys' and girls' freedom to
express themselves (Fox, 1993; Rudman, 1995) and pressure them to behave in ways
that are 'gender appropriate' rather than ways best suited to their personality.
WHAT SHOULD TEACHERS KEEP IN MIND WHILE SELECTING CHILDREN'S BOOKS?
Ideally, all children's books used in the classroom should have
well-rounded male and female characters. However, teachers seldom have much
control over the children's books they use as their selection of books is often
restricted to what is cheap, easily available, or contributed by parents and
well-wishers. Despite these constraints, it is possible to take active steps to
ensure the use of books that promote gender equity among the sexes.
One recommendation is to look actively for books portraying girls/women in a
positive light with active, dynamic roles. Another suggestion is to look for
books and stories that do not portray either gender in a stereotypical manner.
Rudman (1995) recommends gender-neutral books where
are portrayed with distinctive personalities irrespective of their gender
achievements are not evaluated on the basis of gender
occupations are represented as gender-free
clothing is described in functional rather than gender-based terms
females are not always weaker and more delicate than males
individuals are logical or emotional depending upon the situation
the language used in the text is gender-free, etc.
Teachers can also choose books that have counter-sexist attitudes embedded in
them, such as feminist texts that can help children recognize
gender-stereotypical messages. Combining traditional and non-traditional books
can also spark discussion of how genders are portrayed in different books
(Jett-Simpson and Masland, 1993).
Regardless of the type of book chosen, the message of respect for both
genders should be subtly contained in the texts. It is important to avoid books
that have strident messages on gender equity, as children tend to reject books
that preach. In Mem Fox's (1993) words, "laboring the point kills the point of
HOW CAN TEACHERS USE CHILDREN'S LITERATURE TO PROMOTE GENDER EQUITY?
Before using strategies to identify gender stereotypes and
develop gender-equitable perceptions among children, it is important for
teachers to first recognize and articulate their own attitudes (Rudman 1995).
Then they can guide children to be critical by using scaffolding strategies like
collectively analyzing gender assumptions in the text
raising questions about main characters and their portrayal.
asking children to reverse the genders of individuals, e.g., "What if Sleeping
Beauty was a boy?" (Temple, 1993)
having children guess a writer's gender on the basis of the story they have just
heard (Lawrence, 1995)
asking children to use gender-neutral names in the stories they write and read
this aloud to other students so that they can guess the protagonist's gender
have children adopt the opposite sex's point of view about a very gendered issue
Children can discuss a novel by participating in the above activities in
heterogeneous groups. It is important for teachers to support children's group
discussions by posing thought-provoking questions and facilitating student
exchanges. McGowan, McGowan & Wheeler (1994) have described a number of
children's books that can be used as catalysts for discussions, and suggested
different group activities for primary grade students. The authors have designed
these activities for the purpose of promoting gender awareness and using them to
explore issues such as: respect for yourself and other individuals, similarities
and differences between boys and girls, traditional and non-traditional gender
roles, gender stereotypes, and friendships between boys and girls. Along similar
lines, Lawrence (1993) suggests getting older students to conduct surveys and
create collages to sensitize themselves to gender issues they encounter in books
Trites (1997) reminds us that during discussions with children, it is
important to validate both feminine and masculine voices, and to listen to
dissenting individual opinions. Teachers need to recognize that many children
may have attitudes that are gender stereotyped only towards certain issues.
Students need to be allowed to make choices that are consonant with their own
personalities and which are self-empowering. It is also important to keep in
mind that rethinking gender roles cannot be achieved in a day but is an ongoing
Ernst, S. B. (1995). "Gender issues in books for
children and young adults." In S. Lehr (Ed.). Battling dragons: Issues and
controversy in children's literature. (pp. 66-78). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
[ED 379 657]
Fox, M. (1993). "Men who weep, boys who dance: The gender agenda between the
lines in children's literature." Language Arts, 70 (2), 84-88. [EJ 457 107].
Jett-Simpson, M., & Masland, S. (1993). "Girls are not dodo birds!
Exploring gender equity issues in the language arts classrooms." Language Arts,
70 (2), 104-108. [EJ 457 110].
Lawrence, B. (1995). "Teaching Ideas: Getting into gender issues." English
Journal, 84 (3), 80-82. [EJ 502 751].
McGowan, M., McGowan, T., & Wheeler, P. (1994). Appreciating diversity
through children's literature: Teaching activities for the primary grades.
Englewood, CO: Teachers Ideas.
Rudman, M. (1995). Children's Literature: An issues approach. (3rd
edition).White Plains, NY: Longman. [ED 379 684]
Temple, C. (1993). "What if 'Beauty' had been ugly?" Reading against the
grain of gender bias in children's books. Language Arts, 70 (2), 89-93. [EJ 457
Trites, R.S. (1997). Waking sleeping beauty: Feminist voices in children's
novels. Iowa City: University of Iowa.