Children’s picture books may seem to be the last place where gender stereotypes are present. However, stereotypical messages are evident in picture books and as a result, our children may be limited and restricted to mold into these stereotypes.
Gender stereotypes have always been a part of any given culture. In our culture, it is seen virtually everywhere we go; our schools, playgrounds, work places, homes, and even in picture books for children. Children are constantly developing and absorbing messages that society throws at them to better understand the world in which they are a part of. They constantly interpret the social messages they receive and try to mold themselves to fit into that norm. So what messages are they receiving from their books? Families, schools, teachers, and friends all influence children, but books are another important factor that alters their way of thinking. It implicitly gives children messages of what their gender roles are and gives limitations to they are capable of. Not knowing their full potential, these messages can stunt the growth of young people’s dreams and manipulate their minds to believe that they must act within their “given place” in society. The articles discuss the popular stereotypes and images the children receive from picture books and emphasize the importance of differentiating the books with those stereotypes for the good of our children.
The most common gender messages that children’s books give are the emphasis of traditional roles of men and women. Girls are always shown as passive and boys are always shown as being active. In “Female representation in Children’s Literature”, Teya Cherland states that we are bombarded with gender messages from birth. We are taught what is appropriate and what is not. Even at an age when children are not able to talk, parents decide what toys to get them depending on their gender. Boys get trucks and super heroes while the girls are given Barbies and dollhouses. However, much of our knowledge of “appropriate” gender roles is interwoven with sexist stereotypes. Cherland states that, “these stereotypes blur the perception between what is real and what some would like reality to be.”
In Josie’s Gift by Kathleen Long Bostrom, many gender roles and stereotypes are apparent. To briefly summarize, this story is about a girl who lost her dad and is facing her first Christmas without her dad. She dreams of receiving an expensive blue sweater for Christmas that her mom cannot afford. Memories of past Christmases with her dad make her sad until she sees others who are more unfortunate than her.
The beginning of the story starts by emphasizing this mysterious gift she has to have. It goes in depth about her feelings toward this gift; she just absolutely has to have it. After much buildup and hype about this gift, it is a mere sweater. But it is not just any sweater; it is a sweater with twelve shimmering buttons! The narration goes on for lengths about her interests in shoes, elegant clothes, sequins, rubies, emeralds, and fancy dresses with purses to match. She dreams of wearing a hat with silk flowers stitched to its brim. She pretends to dance in spike-heeled shoes and fantasizes about having those shoes in each color. In the illustrations, she does not look any older than eight or nine. Just these couples of pages alone in the beginning of the book give girls the message that this is what girls should be like; in love with clothes, shoes, and accessories.
In many other books, boys dream of becoming an astronaut, scientist, policeman, or other “masculine” occupations. In this book, the Josie’s only concern is obtaining these fashion items. This may seem insignificant or far-fetched to some, but this type of message sends to girls, the role expectations of females. Cherland states, “It is vital to understand the messages that children’s literature sends to them about the role expectations of females in order to understand how they view real life.” The repeated messages girls receive at an early age will alter and manipulate their minds, and they will be seeing the world with lenses that were created for them through stereotypes.
There is no question that the frequency of female characters has increased from the past. However, the roles that these female characters play remain very traditional. Cherland argues that the frequency of these female characters is irrelevant when the only roles given to them are the same passive roles we have been complaining about. In Josie’s Gift, there are many female characters. Josie, her mother, and her brother are all main characters. However, Josie’s mother is illustrated on almost every picture doing kitchen work or some type of “female” role.
Although her father is deceased, he is brought up constantly throughout the book. The messages that a reader can receive from this story is that life is miserable without your father, mothers cannot afford to buy you things, fathers make the holidays fun, and that mothers cannot resolve your problems. Even in the end when Josie’s problems are resolved, her mother receives no credit for her resolutions. Her mother says at one point, “Christmas is not about what you want, but what you have.” This is a line that helps Josie through her obstacles. However, she tells strangers that it is her dad who has said this to her.
Angela M. Gooden, author of the article “Gender Representation in Notable Children’s Picture Book”, agrees that females are being portrayed in a narrow and biased way. Assumptions are made about each gender and stereotypes are evident in many picture books. As mentioned above, Josie’s desire to have all the fancy dresses, shoes, hats and purses is an example of a typical stereotype. Many girls her age like dolls, but they also like other toys, playing outside, playing sports, and other “non-girly” activities. Gooden stresses the significant effect of books on children, and how their minds may be shaped by them. “As they develop, children look for structure in their lives and are driven by an internal need to fit into this structure.” Therefore as children continue to develop, they begin to acquire their own stereotypical ideas of what it means to be a girl or a boy.
In the book Rereading America, an article written by Aaron H. Devor goes in depth about our knowledge of gender in our society. In “Becoming Members of Society: Learning the Social Meanings of Gender”, she states that children learn their culture’s definitions of gender and gender identity at the same time they learn what gender behaviors are appropriate for them. In Josie’s Gift, the father is given the image of a strong, tall person. He sits on his “big” chair, his laugh fills the whole room, the little boy snuggles in one of Papa’s “big, strong” arms. Mama rocks next to him in a little chair Papa made for her. Also mentioned in Rereading America, men in our society take up more space when they walk, when they sit, and whenever they can find a chance. This is one of the masculine traits of men, while women take up less space, close their legs when they sit, and make small, “feminine” gestures. Little details in children”s books show much stereotypes of gender roles and traits in which our society is molded into.
I believe that no matter how hard we try, our culture is too deeply embedded in the ideas of femininity and masculinity. I think that it is especially difficult for us to completely eliminate the gender stereotypes because of the media that constitutes a bulk of our culture. The American culture is bombarded with advertisements and models that constantly reassure and confirm the stereotypes of females. Explicit messages are easier to weed out but when it is implicitly planted in children’s books, our stereotypes are harder to omit.
Children learn and develop their values and beliefs of their culture through stories and books. When they are repeatedly given stereotypical messages, their choices of what they want to become or accomplish is limited by these gender stereotypes. The biased views of themselves and those around them, prevent children from doing activities that best suits their personalities and capabilities.
Guidelines have been made in an effort to eliminate sexist roles in children’s books. They sought to encourage a healthier development for both boys and girls. Not surprisingly, even after these guidelines were established, gender stereotypes and biases continue to appear in children’s picture books. This evidently shows how deeply rooted our stereotypes lie within our culture. Our ideas of “femininity” and “masculinity” have undoubtedly seeped so deep into our culture that it seems almost incurable. How are we to resolve this matter when our mentality on these stereotypes have been buried and fixed into our society for so many years? It has been embedded in our culture for too long of time that it is unyielding.
“Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt” by Jean Kilbourne expresses her concerns about the common objectification of women in the media. Advertisements and our popular culture give young women stereotypical messages about their gender. Kilbourne believes that the problem lies with our society’s thinking that it is normal. People who create children’s books are adults who are part of this society that revolve around stereotypes. One can then easily make the assumption that their cemented ideas about the world is in one way or another, transferred into the books they write for children.
Children’s developing concepts of themselves as individuals are bound up in their need to understand and fulfill the expectations of the society in which they are a part. Our notions of what it means to be female or male are socially constructed. Children’s books which take part in such stereotypes not only prevents and limits the children, but they automatically transfer our society’s stereotypes onto them without giving them a chance to interpret the world as they grow. Although common sense tells us that there are obvious differences between males and females, culture and cultural myths shape the roles men and women play in our public and private lives. We must learn to take caution in passing onto our children, the difference between one’s biological identity and the conventional patterns of behavior we learn to associate with each sex.