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Girls need — and want — strong fictional role models just like boys do.

May 5, 2011

Katie Stuart as Meg in the 2003 TV version of A Wrinkle in Time.

I am stunned by the results of a new study finding profound gender bias in children’s literature. If there was any place girls have a strong and persistent presence, I would have thought it was in books written for kids. Apparently that’s not true.

When I cast my mind over the field of children’s literature, it seems well populated if not to say dominated by strong female characters. Sure, there’s Huck and Tom, and Mowgli, and Jack Hawkins, and Travis, the poor kid who loses his dog at the end of Old Yeller, and Jody Baxter, the boy who loses his deer in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, and Marcus Yallow in Corey Doctorow’s Little Brother, among many other boy characters in classic and contemporary books.

But they are well balanced by the presence of powerful girl characters, from Snow White and Cinderella to Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Mary in The Secret Garden, Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, Bobbie in The Railway Children, Velvet Brown in National Velvet, Anne in Anne of Green Gables, Sara in A Little Princess, Laura in Little House on the Prairie, Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Judy Blume’s Margaret, Alice of Wonderland fame, Pippi Longstocking, Katniss in The Hunger Games, and almost everyone in Little Women.

And yet the results of the new study, led by FSU sociology professor Janice McCabe, seem “irrefutable,” as The New York Times reports. Surveying some 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000, the study finds 57 percent have lead male characters to only 31 percent with female protagonists. The Times presumes the remainder are animal characters of indeterminate gender.

Even animal characters, in those books where gender can be ascertained, skew male. Nearly one forth of such creatures are male, while only 7.5 percent are female. “Among Caldecott winners, only one winner has a central female animal character,” reports The Times, citing Mother Duck, in Make Way for Ducklings.

Things evened out substantially during the politically correct 1990s, according to the study — but only for human characters. Animals remained mostly male. The researchers sniff out a conspiracy, charging that publishers “intentionally” use animal characters as a way to “avoid the problem of gender representation.”

Ooookaaaay — I’ve been with you up to this point, Prof. McCabe, but I’m not so sure about that last allegation. After all, publishing is an industry in which women are well represented. Many editors, authors and illustrators are women. And of course, half the children reading books are girls.

If there is an intentional plot to sneak male characters into children’s books in animal drag, it’s a big mistake, not to mention a dereliction of cultural responsibility. The thinking, I assume, would go like this: Girls will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls, therefore we’d better have lots of boy characters.

Why is this important? Being neither a scientist nor an academic, I can only offer anecdotal evidence, but I can tell you that my three daughters, now grown, were ravenous for strong female characters in the books they read and the TV shows and movies they watched.

I will never forget coming home from work one day in 1992 to find the three girls, then ages 10, 7 and 6, playing Star Trek: The Next Generation, pretending to be characters from their favorite TV show. Only one problem: The show featured only two female crew members in the principle cast.

My children solved this by making up new characters, both heroines and villains, complete with futuristic names and elaborate Star Fleet rank. Charmed no end by their creativity, as you can imagine,  I was also struck by how great their need for strong fictional female role models.

I hope I don’t sound sappy when I say that our writers, our publishers and our general culture has a duty to provide girls — of all ages — with just those kind of characters.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean Piccoli permalink
    May 6, 2011 7:28 am

    And don’t forget Eloise, who combines rich-girl entitlement with a resourceful, independent spirit.

    Another plucky heroine I like is, alas, not on a show that children should be watching, HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones.’ But Arya Stark is one tough kid. The scene that closed episode 3, where she gets her first sword fighting lesson while dad watches, is amazing.

    For girls around 15 and up (boys, too), I recommend the female protagonists of William Gibson’s ‘Pattern Recognition’ and ‘Spook Country’ – smart, hip, cool, and ironic in a self-protective way that affirms their humanity.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 8, 2011 4:50 pm

      The girls in Cory Doctorow’s near-future sci-fi, like LIttle Brother and For the Win, are always strong and resourceful, too.

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