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INTRO:

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 —

10 Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books

 Gender Issues in Children’s Literature

Female Representation in Children’s Literature

[Keep going for the details of the 28 books from that randomly-chosen shelf]

Read the rest of this entry »

For years, I’ve been annoyed with how sexist most Disney fairytales are, but it wasn’t until I read “The Disney Princess Carry Along Treasury” book, written by Rita Balducci in 2003, that it all “clicked” for me and I became truly scared of Disney’s messages, scared for the safety and well-being of the little girls who eat this stuff up like candy. The stories in this book do nothing less than groom girls to be submissive, happy victims of violence and abuse.

Full text of the Snow White story:

“A long time ago, an Evil Queen tried to kill a young Princess named Snow White. (1) She was jealous of the young girl’s beauty and goodness.(2) Snow White escaped into the woods and found safety with Seven Dwarves.(3) They love and protect her from harm.(4) In return, Snow White cooked and cleaned for her new friends.(2) Every evening, they danced and were merry, never dreaming that the Queen was still plotting to harm the Princess. One morning, an old woman (5) offered her a big red apple. Snow White innocently took a bite – and fell to the floor. The jealous Queen had disguised herself and poisoned the Princess. The sad Dwarves placed the lovely girl(2) on a golden platform and stood watch over her. One day, a Prince rode through the woods. He saw Snow White and knelt to kiss her.(6) Her eyes fluttered open and she knew at once he was the Prince of her dreams!(7)”

(1) Violence in the opening line. Also, women in Disney stories are always enemies, never friends or allies. Mothers, especially, are either dead or Evil.
(2) Snow White is valued only for her beauty, goodness, sweetness, and domestic abilities. The Queen’s jealousy of Snow White’s beauty encourages girls’ obsession with appearance, and competitiveness amongst one another.
(3) Message = “Women are your enemies, but you’ll be safe alone with seven strange men in the middle of nowhere!” It’s the direct opposite of the truth.
(4) Message = Snow White needs to be protected because she’s too weak and helpless to take care of herself.
(5) Demonization of older women
(6) Promotes sexual assault. A man finds an UNCONSCIOUS WOMAN (aka a woman who is UNABLE TO CONSENT) and kisses her.
(7) And of course, she likes it!

Partial text of Cinderella story:

“There was once a young Princess named Cinderella whose wicked stepmother put her to work as a servant. Although she worked hard, Cinderella never complained. She was kind to all the mice and birds and never gave up on her dreams.”

Again, it’s a woman, a mother, who is the Evil one.
The message this story sends to young girls is: Even if you are horribly mistreated/abused, suck it up and don’t “complain!” Don’t dare have enough self-worth to realize, ‘hey, I don’t deserve this,’ or seek help. Just be unfailingly gentle and kind to every living creature, and dream dream dream, and maybe someday your Prince will rescue you.
This story very clearly depicts abuse as acceptable.

Full text of Beauty and the Beast story:

“One day, a young girl named Belle was taken prisoner by a Beast in an enchanted castle. The Beast seemed fierce and cruel, but the other members of the household [anthropomorphic furniture, it must be clarified here] became Belle’s friends. The Beast grew very fond of Belle, and wanted to please her. He invited her to dance with him under the stars. Belle realized that the Beast had a kind heart and began to enjoy his company, too. One of the men who wanted to marry Belle was a selfish man named Gaston. When he learned of Belle’s feelings for the Beast, he gathered the townspeople together to kill him. Gaston and the Beast fought on the slippery roof of the castle. It was a fierce fight. As the Beast lay dying, Belle realized that she truly cared for him and whispered the words ‘I love you.’ Suddenly there was a flash of light, and the Beast was transformed into a handsome young Prince. Their love had broken the spell!”

This is the story I find most appalling and that chills me to the bone.
Let’s re-cap, shall we? A woman is kidnapped by a cruel, fierce man, who, BLESS HIS POOR SOUL, is really so NICE once you get to know him! He wants to “please” his victim, so does he let her go? Noooo, he dances with her under the stars, and of COURSE the grateful woman realizes how NICE her abuser is. Why, she learns to ENJOY being his prisoner.
Meanwhile, Misogynist #2 is pissed that Misogynist #1 is trying to claim HIS woman. He wants to conquer (ahem, “marry”) her, so let’s see, how shall he go about making that happen? Be kind to her and invite her to spend time with him so they can get to know each other? Of course not! Her feelings for him, or consent to a relationship, are irrelevant. No, he will claim her by murdering the person he believes she loves the most. It doesn’t matter that this would upset her, because like we’ve established, her feelings and thoughts aren’t worth shit. So, Misogynist #1 and Misogynist #2 violently fight for their prize. It would be absolutely unthinkable for the woman to choose neither violent, controlling man (that just doesn’t happen in the Disney world!), and she has no friends or support system – save the anthropomorphic furniture – so she chooses Misogynist #1, whom she has at least become familiar with after spending so much time with him – being his prisoner and all. She tells him she loves him, and POOF! he turns into a handsome, youthful Prince and they live happily ever after. (If he’s young and gorgeous, he totally can’t be abusive, right? Right!)

This is the story of a domestic abuse victim. Belle is kidnapped and held prisoner by an admittedly cruel, fierce man, who maintains her isolation from friends and family and potential support systems, and yet he is portrayed as the poor, misunderstood hero of the story, worthy of Belle’s compassion and love. When he transforms into a “handsome young Prince” after Belle declares her love for him, this wrongfully teaches girls (that is, tells girls the LIE) that abusive men just seem that way, but deep down they’re not, and that if you just LOVE THEM ENOUGH, the Prince within will be freed! If the man remains abusive, it’s your own fault for not forgiving him, not giving him more chances, not loving him enough. It’s victim-blaming; it puts the onus of responsibility on the woman.
Often, the general public’s attitude about domestic violence is, “Why doesn’t she leave him?”, when of course, the correct question is, “Why doesn’t he stop abusing her?” If anyone’s wondering where this victim-blaming attitude about domestic violence comes from, look no further than the popular media little girls are being brainwashed with at the highly impressionable age of 2 or 3 years old. (I discovered this book while providing childcare for a girl who just turned 3, actually. The book is one of her favorites). In recent years, scientists have discovered that humans’ neuronal development is most crucial, rapid, and malleable between the ages of birth and 3, that “how children function from the preschool years all the way through adolescence, and even adulthood, hinges in large part on their experience before the age of three” (p. 6, Starting Points for Young Children, Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1994). The information we are feeding to these rapidly developing, highly malleable brains matters greatly, and there is no excuse for reciting propoganda that primes them to submit to abuse.

Why was it even written? Why was it published? Why is it distributed? Why do adults buy it for young girls? Why aren’t we enraged and protesting?

my perspective/way of life in a nutshell:

"feminism, to me, has never meant the equality of women with men. it has meant the equality of women with our Selves - being equal to those women who have been for women, those who have lived for women's freedom and those who have died for it; those who have fought for women and survived by women's strength; those who have loved women and who have realized that without the consciousness and conviction that women are primary in each other's lives, nothing else is in perspective. hetero-relational feminism, like hetero-relational humanism, obscures the necessity of female friendship as a foundation for and a consequence of feminism." (a passion for friends, by janice raymond, p. 13, 1986)