I’ve been meaning to write a “Sexism in Children’s Books” post, but I need to clarify that I’m specifically talking about sexism in the books that I come across frequently, in my work as a childcare provider – not just random books floating around the universe or books in general, or the most sexist books I can find on Amazon. The books discussed here (most of them) are chosen SOLELY because they are ones that are literally in the hands of the children I love. It’s also important to note that I live in a very liberal, progressive, artsy, environmentally-conscious, GLBT-friendly, intelligent, caring town on the coast. Nowhere near the Bible belt. Also, none of the children I mention (never by name) are my children, and when I critique the contents of the books they are reading, I am not at all criticizing the children’s parents, who are, on a whole, loving, progressive, educated, even FEMINIST parents! I’m not at all suggesting that parents do a poor job choosing books for their children. My point is that sexism in children’s books is so pervasive that it frequently takes an enormous amount of research, effort, time, and perhaps money, to find the high-quality, non-sexist ones. They are the buried gems in library shelves, which you have to be specifically looking for; they are the ones you have to go to the library desk and fill out an interlibrary loan card and wait two weeks for.
Disclaimer over! Onwards we go!
Whenever I pick up a children’s book for the first time now, I assess it not just for its story, but for its ratio of male and female characters, as well as the differences between how the males and females are portrayed, and their interactions with each other. Most children’s books I’ve seen call most animals “he,” unless it’s an obviously female animal, e.g. a hen. In the illustrations, male animals are the default, and female animals are distinguished by the “extras” that have been added to them – e.g. longer eyelashes, redder lips, flowers somewhere, a bow, something pink, etc. For instance, a 2-yr-old girl I know loves a set of 4 books about 4 cats, 3 males and 1 female. The male cats are merely cats, but the female cat has a pink bow in her hair so that it becomes clear to everyone that she is female. Imagine how different it would be if, e.g., the dogs in children’s books were automatically and unquestioningly female, and if one was male, you could only tell because it had a mustache or neck tie or huge adam’s apple!
In the books about the boy kittens, they get into mischief, go hunting, and chase other animals. The only girl kitten, wears a pink bow in her hair, and her book is all about how she makes herself look pretty for her birthday and “gets a new pretty doll, but the collar is her favorite present of all!” Yes, the male cats go exploring and thus have unlimited freedom, while the female cat is domesticized even further by being given an item that will restrict her movement – and it’s her “favorite present of all.”
At first, I tried calling a couple of the boy cats “she,” as is my small way of rebelling, but the girl got super annoyed at me and kept saying, “It’s a BOY!”
Then she got out her block set, giving each cat a block, and gave the female cat the pink one, even directly saying, “She likes pink.”
The books were written in 2007, by the way.
Another example of this “animals are male by default” phenomenon is in another library book I recently read to a toddler – Goodnight, Animals, by Lena Arro. The main characters are a boy (Bubble) and a girl (Pearl), going camping. Bubble is brave and Pearl is scared, stereotypically and predictably. Some animals come camping with them – the cat, dog, and horse are all male, and only the hen is female. This is so common it’s virtually unnoticable, the way in which water is unnoticable to fish.
Piggie and Gerald books are in vogue right now amongst the preschool set (kids I know have them and ask me to read them), and both are male, as are Frog & Toad, Little Bear and most of his friends, Franklin and most of his friends, the pigeon in the books by the same author as Piggie and Gerald, the child and the animal in the popular “If You Give a [Moose, Mouse, Pig] a [Muffin, Pancake, whatever]” books, which most of the children I know have on their bookshelves. Female characters are rare in Dr. Seuss books, and Dr. Seuss books are so popular that almost every child I know who is familiar with books, knows/has/has read Dr. Seuss books. In “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are,” which I read to a 4-yr-old a few weeks ago, all of the characters are male. The words are written as if the author is speaking directly to the reader, and includes the line, “You’re a lucky guy,” as if all of the readers are male, too. The Grinch is male, as is his dog, and most of the Whos; the Cat in the Hat is male, as are most characters in Hop on Pop, Green Eggs and Ham, etc. [More Dr. Seuss books examined in more detail later].
Popular male children’s TV/book characters,which I’ve had MORE than enough of throughout my years as a childcare provider, include Barney, Thomas the Tank Engine, JayJay the Jet Plane, the narrator in Blues Clues, Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor, and most of the characters in Winnie the Pooh and Sesame Street.
Winnie the Pooh characters:
MALE = Pooh, Christopher Robin, Tigger, Roo, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore.
FEMALE = Kanga
Sesame Street characters:
MALE = Elmo, Big Bird, Ernie, Bert, Grover, Snuffy, Telly, the Count, Cookie Monster.
FEMALE = Prairie Dawn, Zoe…?
Thomas the Tank Engine characters:
MALE = over 83 characters, as seen on the online Thomas & Friends Character Guide.
FEMALE = 17 characters, 2 of which don’t even have photos on the site, 1 of which is pink, and 2 of which are named Lady and Queen.
I have never seen any female characters other than Annie, Clarabel, and Lady, in a child’s personal toy collection. And did you know the character of “Lady Hatt” existed, to go with Sir Topham Hatt? Neither did I, until I visited the online character guide, and I bet no one else does, either.
Recently, a 4-yr-old I was with wanted me to read her books, and the ones we semi-randomly took from the closest shelf featured a male crocodile protagonist whom I called him “her” throughout (Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile), a male owl and male firefly who became friends (I made the owl female), and a little girl whose house is taken over by approximately 5 male animals and 1 female – I made all but 2 female. (That’s What Do You Do With a Kangaroo?) And we also read Madeline, which, amazingly, had no male characters – at least, not that I remember! (Maybe a doctor?)
On another day recently, I was asked by a 2-year-old girl to read Angelina Ballerina. Angelina Ballerina is a little mouse who, you guessed it, is obsessed with ballet. In the beginning of the book, she is so obsessed with dancing that she gets lost in her own world and misbehaves by not tidying up her room, not coming when her mother calls her, and, oddly, “never let[ting] the boys catch her on the playground.” Once she’s enrolled in ballet class and thus has an outlet, her behavior improves. She tidies her room, comes to dinner when her mother calls, and “Now she lets the boys catch her sometimes.” WTF?? As if it’s a good little girl’s DUTY, along with cleaning her room and listening to her mom’s instructions, to give in and be available to the boys who are pursuing her?? I’d love a book about a little girl mouse who starts out meek, then enrolls in karate class and learns to beat the crap out of the boys who won’t leave her alone.
A couple years ago, a 9-year-old girl I babysat for, and her 10-year-old friend, were having a conversation in the backseat of my car about how guilty they felt for not having boyfriends yet, like the other girls in their class. Nine-year-old explained that she didn’t want to, but there was a boy that had been bothering her at school for years, and last week he was leaning towards her trying to kiss her, which made her lean so far backwards that she fell off the bench and hit her head. Because little girls aren’t taught to or encouraged to counter attack, to lean forward and say “GET AWAY FROM ME!” and give a shove if necessary… no, little girls are socialized to politely resist (or let the boys do what they want, as Angelina Ballerina does!), to back up, accomodate, accomodate… no matter how much it hurts them.
Children I know also LOVE Ruby & Max, and apparently so do many other children, for the books have now been made into a cartoon. Ruby and Max are brother and sister, and very stereotyped in terms of gender roles. Ruby is the traditionally rational, calm, feminine older sister – she wears pastel floral dresses and plays nice, quiet activities, and keeps her rowdy little brother in line. Sample line of dialogue: “I don’t understand what little brothers see in frogs, especially when there are such beautiful flowers to be picked!” Max is “all boy” – wears blue overalls, loves to get messy, loves frogs and tools and robots, which frequently crash Ruby’s tea parties.
I want Ruby to wear some jeans and chase a frog through the mud, or climb a tree and yell really loud.
I want Max to rock a baby doll to sleep, or dance in a field with a flower crown on his head. But I’m sure he won’t, nor will Franklin, another male cartoon character I mentioned earlier. In one of the Franklin movies, Franklin’s dad suggests he pick some flowers for his cousin, and Franklin exclaims, “Yuck! Flowers are a girl thing!” and his dad replies, “Exactly! All girls want flowers!”
As I mentioned earlier, I live in a really great, progressive town. The hub of our town is a large natural foods co-op, and in it is a playroom, and in that playroom is a bookcase full of children’s books. I decided to examine the books on just one randomly-chosen shelf. I examined the books with my usual criteria – how many male vs. female characters, and the portrayal of males and females. The books aren’t necessarily high-quality or popular books, and I chose them ONLY because they are the actual books that children in my town are reading.
Here’s what I found:
There were 28 books on the shelf. Sixteen of them had more male characters than female, two books had ONLY male characters, and 4 books had 1 or more characters that were definitely male and other characters of undetermined sex. Four books had an equal number of male and female characters. NO book had only females, and NO book had more females than males. Three books had only characters whose sex was undetermined.
Ten books had male protagonists, ONE book had a female protagonist (and the rest didn’t have protagonists).
(If you want to read the specifics about these 28 books, you can find that info at the end of this post)
And finally, Mother Goose nursery rhymes. That’s a huge topic in and of itself, and a thorough examination and critique of nursery rhymes is beyond the scope of this post.
However, one of the toddlers I work with is enthralled with nursery rhymes, owns 3-4 anthologies of them, and has many memorized. I will include here only the specific nursery rhyme books that she personally reads.
Classic Nursery Rhymes, copyright 2006 Gramercy Books, includes many sexist nursery ryhmes, such as “Georgie Peorgie, pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry.” And yes indeedy, there’s an illustration of a boy kissing a crying girl. There’s nothing, anywhere, that suggests Georgie Peorgie is wrong for doing this…and the crying girl doesn’t seem to be trying to get away from him. She’s just standing there rubbing her teary eye. Is it so far-fetched to think that young children might not realize Georgie Peorgie’s a jerk? Especially if they also read Angelina Ballerina, in which Angelina’s supposed improved behavior includes her “letting” the boys chase and catch her.
In “One Two, Buckle my shoe,” in the illustration that accompanies “Thirteen, Fourteen, maids a-courting; fifteen, sixteen, maids in the kitchen” (’cause where else would they be!), there is an illustration of a traditionally masculine man on bent knee, holding the hand of the stereotypically Ideal Woman – white, blond, blue-eyed, skinny with a tiny waist, etc., and gingerly holding the corner of her apron up with her pinky extended.
It ends “Nineteen, twenty, my plate’s empty,” with an illustration of an apparently royal male teenager, holding up his fork and knife by his empty plate, with a very displeased/angry look on his face. Spoiled, self-righteous sexist brat, fuming that those “maids in the kitchen” are making him wait for his supper.
There is nothing in the text of “Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo” that suggests two super feminine little girls are having a tea party, but that’s what the illustration is.
In “Ring Around the Rosie,” there’s a line about “the wedding bells are ringing, the bride and groom are singing,” and sure enough, there’s an illustration of a very traditional bride and groom by a church. This is only one of several wedding scenes in nursery rhyme books, such as the one to accomany this text – “This is the priest that married the man that kissed the maiden all forlorn that [BLAH BLAH BLAH, house that Jack built].” Fairytales, too, of course, frequently glorify weddings and marriage – toddlers and preschoolers should care about marriage WHY? But again, I digress.
And then there’s “Peter Piper Pumpkin Eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her. He put her in a pumpkin shell; there he kept her very well.” Blatant oppression – a man can’t control his wife to his liking, so he locks her up in the house, which works very well for him. There’s an accompanying illustration of a very unhappy woman staring out the window of her pumpkin house, while the man stands happily outside of it, with all that freedom and space. Ahhhh, Patriarchy, isn’t it grand!
How about Higglety, Piggelty, My Black Hen? “She lays eggs for gentlemen.” And that’s all she does. It’s chilling to imagine all of the animal characters in nursery rhymes as humans – here is a nursery rhyme that clearly spells it out: women exist to reproduce, for men.
“Old Mother Hubbard” would also be even more revolting if one read the character of the dog as a human, rather than canine, male. The nursery rhyme is about a woman (“Old Mother”) who spends all of her time trying to please the dog, buying him more and more things, only to come home and find him obliviously reading the paper, smoking a pipe, etc., and on and on. It ends with “The dame made a curtsy, the dog made a bow. The dame said, ‘Your servent!’ The dog said, ‘Bow wow’!”
In the introduction of Mary Engelbreit’s Nursery Rhymes collection, she says, “These poems are innocent and bring children the enjoyment of simpler and slower times.” Yet the book includes the horribly sexist Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater; What Are Little Boys/Girls Made Of?; Georgie Peorgie; the House that Jack Built; and Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be? That last one is a rejected woman’s lament – her boyfriend/husband/whatever, Johnny, is supposed to be taking a quick trip to the fair to buy her a ribbon for her hair, but he’s gone for SUCH a long time that the woman frets “Oh dear, what can the matter be?” The accompanying illustration shows what the “matter” is – Johnny’s not buying ribbons at all, he’s standing and talking/flirting with (practically leering at) another woman, who is quite pretty, while the woman who is at home worrying and waiting for Johnny is frumpy and mad.
I could go on and on. This is just a small sampling, of the books that the children I care for have read in the past month or so. There are many wonderful, progressive, feminist (or at least non-sexist) children’s books out there, but does it matter, when they’re not the books in children’s hands?
* * *
If you’re interested in reading more about sexism in children’s books, and racism in children’s books, here are some good sites, which are more comprehensive than my one blog post —
[Keep going for the details of the 28 books from that randomly-chosen shelf]
M = male character(s)
F = female character(s)
U = character(s) of unknown sex
1. THREE LITTLE KITTENS – 3 U kittens. No names or pronouns were used, and the clothes were rather unisex. The only gendered character in the story is the mother, who wears a frilly, pink apron and does nothing but bake and clean.
2. SUPERBABE AT THE PARK, by Deborah van der Beek, 1989 – features a baby boy in blue (superbabe), and his sister in pink, but both are equally active in the park.
3. THE CAT IN THE HAT, the movie version, adapted by Jesse Leon McCann in 2003 – boy in blue, girl in pink dress and bow. The children’s babysitter is an older, obese, Asian woman, who falls asleep on the couch immediately and stays sleeping while the kids and the cat get into all their mischief. Racism in children’s books is another subject well-deserving of attention…
4. WAY OUT WEST LIVES A COYOTE NAMED FRANK, by Jillian Lund, 1993 – Most of the book is about Frank on his own, but he has two friends, one M and one F.
5. KIPPER, by Mick Inkpen, 1991 – Kipper is M, as is a frog, and the other characters’ are U.
6. COUNTING CREATURES, by Lori Peth and Rosanna Gallagher, 1991 – A Halloween book with a male ghoul, 2 male goblins, 3 U cats, 3 male pumpkins and one pumpkin that we know is female only because she has eyelashes and more prominent lips, 5 female witches, 6 male vampires, 7 U bats, 8 U owls, 4 male ghosts (judging by hats and clothes and hair) and 5 ghosts that may be female, and 10 U mummies. 7. ONE FISH, TWO FISH, RED FISH, BLUE FISH, by Dr. Seuss, 1960/1988 – There’s a girl and boy both in yellow clothing, and many ungendered characters, but there are 4 characters that use male pronouns, and also Mr Gump, Ned, Mike, Joe, Clark, and a male “Nook,” and no one that’s specifically female. Sexist line of text: “All girls who like to brush and comb should have a pet like this at home.”
8. IN A PEOPLE HOUSE, by Theo LeSieg, 1972 – characters are Mr. Bird and a U mouse. 9. FOX IN SOCKS, by Dr. Seuss, 1965 – Lots of male characters, only some of which are named – Mr. Knox, Joe Crow, Bim & Ben, LukeLuck. Only girl with a name is Sue, who sews.
10. THE FOOT BOOK, by Dr. Seuss, 1968/1996 – both male and female characters! Perhaps even an equal number of them!
11. IT’S NOT EASY BEING A BUNNY, by Marilyn Sadler, 1983 – main character PJ FunnyBunny is male. Other animals = U.
12. PUPPY PEEK-A-BOO – features a dog and cat, who are not gendered.
13. I SPY LITTLE WHEELS – One page features a traditional bride and groom with a priest (heterocentricism), and another page is a “beach scene” with 4 knights in armor and carrying swords, surrounding a woman in a bikini, standing near a construction vehicle. ?!
14. PLANES, by Byron Barton – 4 M pilots, 1 F, and a bunch of U pilots.
15. BABY’S WORLD: THINGS THAT GO, 2003 – yay equality! I counted 6 boys and 8 girls, and 2 U kids. Girls and boys both are playing with trucks, busses, cars, etc. Some children are wearing yellow, grey, green, etc. instead of pink and blue, even! 16. POOH’S 1-2-3 – Kanga is female. Pooh, Eeyore, Owl, Tigger, Christopher Robin, Roo, and Rabbit are male.
17. STICKER PLAY – LITTLE CHICK – Little Chick is male. Other animals U.
18. GUESS WHAT?, by Taro Gomi – 10 M, 7 F. Girl has flowers and a jumprope, boy has squirt gun and a horn.
19. MY LITTLE BOOK OF CARS AND TRUCKS, 1973, by Kennon Graham – story of a little boy and his mom, out in town, where there’s a M firefighter and police officer, 9 M drivers (no explicitly F drivers, but there are some U), a boy in yellow, and two girls in pink with a bow.
20. IN THE JUNGLE, by Julie Lacome – characters are not gendered
21. ABC RHYMES, by Carl Memling, 1982 – there are 3 male acrobats, a male in a canoe, with a drum, and with a pogo stick; a male bear, a male on an elephant, on a boat with a male captain, and a gondolier with a female passenger in a lacy dress and carrying a doll. There’s a male on a male horse, a male sawing, and riding a kangaroo, and climbing a mountain. There’s a female lioness, and a male and female watching a starry night. There’s a male steering a ship, playing the piccolo, and meeting a “lovely queen” who stands far away in a window. There’s a male playing tennis, climbing a tree, and holding an umbrella over a smaller girl looking up to him. There’s a male whale, and a male yak. The females are background characters and all in dresses.
22. THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT – M main characters, Peter and Mr. McGregor. There’s a F cat, but she doesn’t do anything other than sit and twitch her tail. Peter has 3 sisters, but they stay home while he has the adventures.
23. OLD HAT, NEW HAT, by Stan and Jan Berenstein, 1970 – only characters are two male bears.
24. GOOD MORNING, LITTLE BERT – Bert is M, and it’s all about him.
25. MAISY’S BIG FLAP BOOK, by Lucy Cousins – main character Maisy is F, and has 2 M friends and one F friend. Maisy wears overalls, and red/blue/green.
26. COUNT ALL THE WAY TO SESAME STREET, 1985 – M characters: the Count, Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, Kermit, Grover, Oscar, and Telly. F characters: Miss Finch (the “busybody bird”) and Prairie Dawn. One character is U. 27. CARNIVAL RIDE – 6 M characters, 3 F.
28. BAND IN PARADE – 7 M characters, 1 F, 2 U.