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What Does it Mean that Most Children's Books Are Still About White Boys?

11/07/2013 05:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 11, 2013
  • Soraya Chemaly Feminist, writer, and satirist (not always in that order)
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This article is updated from a version published earlier this year in Role/Reboot.

One day when my daughter was in third grade, she had to explain to a classmate what sexism was. Four kids -- two boys and two girls -- had been put in a reading group together, given a basket full of books and asked to talk about them and decide together which one they wanted to read and discuss.

As they went through their choices, the boy picked up a book whose cover showed an illustration of a woman in a hoop skirt. He quickly tossed it aside. My daughter suggested that it might be good, and asked if he'd already read it, because she would like to. He said no, it was a girl book and he wouldn't read it. Her response was pretty cut and dry: "That's a sexist thing to say," she explained. He was a friend of hers and an intelligent kid. He paused long enough for her to realize he wasn't sure what she meant.

"Do you know how many books with boys in them I read?" she said. "You should read girl books, too. Not reading them just because they're about girls is sexist."

Frankly, today, I'm pretty certain that what she, a 9-year old, told her classmate was more than most adults can muster.

Do you know what percentage of children's books feature boys? Twice as many as those that feature girl protagonists. In the most comprehensive study of children's literature during a period of 100 years, researchers from the University of Florida found that:

  • 57% of children's books published each year have male protagonists, versus 31% female.
  • As with television and film, books with animated characters are a particularly subtle and insidious way to marginalize based on sex, gender and race. In popular children's books featuring animated animals, 100% of them have male characters, but only 33% have female characters.
  • The average number of books featuring male characters in the title of the book is 36.5% versus 17.5% for female characters.
It's not just the quantity, but the quality as well. Female characters in books that are for "everyone" are often marginalized, stereotyped or one-dimensional. Especially in traditional favorites that are commonly highlighted in schools and libraries. For example, Peter Pan's Wendy is a stick-in-the-mud mother figure and Tiger Lily is a jealous exotic. Or, take Kanga, from Winnie the Pooh. There is nothing wrong with these books per se; they are wonderful stories, and they reflect a reality of their times, but continuing to give them preference -- out of habit, tradition, nostalgia -- in light of newer, more relevant and equitable stories is really not doing anyone any favors.

There are so many exceptionally good books with strong female characters, but not nearly enough, and boys are not encouraged to immerse themselves in them. How many people would never consider buying Anne of Green Gables or Island of the Blue Dolphins for their 10-year old boy, but don't pause before giving a daughter Treasure Island or Enders Game? Books featuring girls are, for the most part, understood to be books for girls. Which is interesting as well because, in addition to there not being enough, books featuring girls as protagonists are disproportionately among the most frequently banned children's books. In a recent Buzzfeed list of 15 commonly banned books for kids, almost half were about girls. Girls who do things apparently scare a lot of people.

Researchers of the study above concluded, "The gender inequalities we found may be particularly powerful because they are reinforced by patterns of male-dominated characters in many other aspects of children's media, including cartoons, G-rated films, video games and even coloring books."

This is true of racial and ethnic diversity as well. The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education has conducted a survey of children's and young adult books published each year since 1985. Of an estimated 5,000 books released in 2012, only 3.3% featured African-Americans; 2.1% featured Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders; 1.5% featured Latinos; and only 0.6% featured Native Americans. God forbid you have the audacity to be a girl of color and expect to see yourself as cherished by our culture.

The same statistics are reflected in television programming. In that medium, a 2012 study from the University of Indiana found that, with the exception of young, white boys, children's self-esteem drops the more they watch.

A girl's imagination and literary life would be a stark and barren place if she didn't learn early on to read books about boys, put herself in boys' shoes and enjoy them. As with other aspects of socially sanctioned behavior, children's ability to cross-gender empathize is a one-way street -- girls have to do it and boys learn not to. People are married to enduring ideas about "otherness" when it comes to masculinity and a big part of being a "real boy" is disdaining stories, books, movies, and games -- really just about anything in some families -- about girls.

What was that? "Feminists out to destroy boys blah blah blah blah..." That is nothing but an excuse for a crippling lack of imagination or understanding of the infinite malleability of human culture. Researcher Isabelle Cherney found that half of boys ages 5-13 picked "girl" and "boy" toys equally... unless they were being watched. They were especially concerned about what their fathers would think of them if they saw them. Over time, boys' interests in toys and media become more rigidly masculinized, whereas girls' stay relatively open-ended and flexible. Think of the implications of storytelling on that pattern and what it means for social skills development, adaptability, work-life issues and more.

Neither the studies above, nor frank discussion about their findings, demonizes young white boys, a common retort to pointing out, with blunt language, media inequities and their harmful effects. Boys aren't responsible for the perpetuation of media injustices or their effects. The problem is not boys, but cultural habits that disproportionately favor them.

Media that distorts reality in these ways, and creates imbalanced pictures and ideas, hurts everyone. As children grow up, girls' media marginalization becomes more acute and racialized. We seem incapable and unwilling to deeply consider the societal effects of dysfunctional, stereotype-plagued media. Without fail, when I talk or write about this and focus on girls, the first response I get is "What about the boy crisis?" It's remarkable. So, what about the boys who are over-represented in media as valued and worthy, albeit, too often, hyper-masculinized? I think that while benefits can accrue to them as a class, by imparting a sense of confidence and entitlement, the effects on individual boys can be awful.

Boys who grow up seeing themselves everywhere as powerful and central just by virtue of being boys, often white, are critically impaired in many ways. It's a rude shock to many when things don't turn out the way they were told they should. It seems reasonable to suggest media misrepresentations like these contribute, in boys, to a heightened inability to empathize with others, a greater propensity to peg ambition to intrinsic qualities instead of effort and a failure to understand why rules apply or why accountability is a thing. It should mean something to parents that the teenagers with the highest likelihood of sexually assaulting a peer and feel no responsibility for their actions are young white boys from higher-income families. The real boy crisis we should be talking about is entitlement and outdated notions of masculinity, both of which are persistently responsible for leaving boys confused and unprepared for contemporary adulthood.

People are quick to provide anecdotal evidence that contradicts the findings in these studies on children's literature and other media, but there really is no getting around the fact that year after year, media corporations, overwhelmingly still led by white guys, have had no real vested interest in making connections between media justice and social justice. Besides, people get what they pay for.

I am not suggesting that writers, teachers and parents create and share these media while thoughtfully planning to perpetuate discriminatory ideas. No one sits down and says, "Hey, what a great way to teach sexist and racist norms to a class full of kids!" I'm just saying that, like so many other aspects of culture, male and white in children's books is considered standard and magically inclusive. Shifting our norms to prepare kids to live happily in a diverse, pluralistic society requires that we stop accepting defaults and seek out alternative media narratives. Seriously, go take a look at your kids media diet from this perspective.

This doesn't mean that parents and libraries create "boy" and "girl" book lists by the way, an approach that exacerbates rather than eliminates the problem of difference. Resources like "Great Books for Girls" are terrific, but they should be for everyone, without shame or revulsion. If you disagree, just change your son's name to "David Gilmore" and call it a day.

Racebending advocates for media equality across a broad spectrum of platforms and is a great resource. The CCBC publishes a helpful guide to multicultural lit for children. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media regularly shares information about media equality and First Book, a nonprofit that works to get books featuring diverse casts and cultures into the hands of children from low income families, recently launched its "Stories for All" program, which is worth wholesale emulation. Common Sense Media also has a K-9 parents and educator toolkit that helps children understand the media they are consuming.

If you are interested in what this all looks like when children grow up in a world where we haven't nipped it in the bud Women, Action and the Media, Women and Hollywood, and Anita Saarkeesian's Feminist Frequency critiques of gaming and film are all good places to start.

We are a storytelling species, and symbolic representation and visibility are crucially important to the way we structure society. Exposing children to diversity in media encourages them to learn about people who are "different" and to understand why that difference isn't the foundation of hierarchy, but community. That's an issue that exceeds books for children, to be sure, but stories, especially books while we still have them, are a great way to start. In the meantime, over in Sweden, they're now rating movies based on a gender-bias test.