Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Sexism in Children's Books?

I feel the need to weigh in on this, or at least to fling it out there. So apparently there's a new study out that says children's books are inherently sexist because of the disparity between female and male heroes. It was conducted at Florida State University and reported in the Daily Mail. Clippage? Don't mind if I do.
Overall, 31 per cent of the best-sellers featured a female lead character, compared to 57 per cent featuring a male. The remainder gave equal weight to a male and female protagonist, or had a gender-neutral character.
Hmm. Damning numbers, those. And yet, we've been bewailing the dearth of "boy books" for awhile now.

What to think? I think it's too late at night to be reasonably coherent about this, especially on the same day as a major program (head-to-toe pinata paste here, people. Hot tip: pack extra clothes).

Those of you in the trenches with me (hi!), be my brain. What do you think? Is sexism alive and well in the children's section? And here's more: do you think there are differences between different age levels? Are picture books more or less sexist than chapter books? Are different genres more or less sexist?


Lisa Jenn Bigelow said...

I wish they'd linked to the study itself. I'd like to know more about their methodology. Certainly looking at today's NYT bestselling lists, the children's books seem pretty evenly split in terms of main character's gender.

Regardless, I feel like these discussions turn into a comparison of apples and oranges. Boys are observed to lag behind girls in reading, so many people assume the solution is to publish more fiction literature with boys as the main characters. But research has also shown that boys are more likely than girls to take pleasure in reading elsewhere: nonfiction, magazines, etc. If that's true, all the male main characters in the world won't change that trend.

In my ideal world, there's balance in all areas of literature. I do believe that our world is sexist and that children's publishing is, too -- but we're so accustomed to it, we've become blind/complacent. We don't think about the fact that Pooh and Curious George are male, yet Fancy Nancy is undeniably "girls only." We're surprised when a female character such as Katniss grabs hold of readers across gender lines because it *is* unusual in our culture. Sexism doesn't need to be malicious to exist.

Bibliovore said...

I'd like to see the methodology too. Did they examine everything published or just major publishers? Just US books, or imports as well? Did they weigh bestsellers differently? I also find the language somewhat loaded. I think the word annilhation was used at one point, suggesting a deliberate maliciousness rather than it being a result of our admittedly flawed culture. It's providing food for thought anyway.

Mister K said...

I've been teaching 4th grade for a dozen years, and one thing I've learned for true is that girls really are willing to read pretty much anything, while boys will seldom pick up a book with female lead characters. It's not sexism on the part of the authors and publishers, it's understanding their audience.

Bibliovore said...

Hi, Mister K! Thanks for stopping by. You mention something that's familiar to a lot of us working with kids, and unfortunately reflects our society's larger approach to literature. Books about boys/men are universal, books about girls/women are specialty. You're absolutely right that this is publishers simply knowing their audience. That's one of the reasons I had a problem with the language in the article, which posits sexism in children's books as cause rather than effect and thus oversimplifies the problem in general. Of course, I still haven't read the study itself, which may have a different tone.

Have you ever been over to Ms. Yingling's blog? She runs a "Guys Read Pink" event in her school library and has a fair amount of success getting her male students of all ages to read books with female main characters.