Children’s picture books are, by design, simple straight forward stories that beat you over the head with their messages. Given that their audience is typically learning language, culture, and the basics of how to behave in society, this really shouldn’t surprise us. But in the desire to simplify the story, do picture books teach children stereotypes? In this piece Stephanie Medley-Rath answers this question and discusses how stereotypes are widely used in picture books.
As a parent of a preschooler, I read a lot of children’s picture books. My poor child, however, has a sociologist for a parent. I’ve stopped reading books mid-story due to not only gender stereotypical1 depictions, but downright offensive gender depictions and explained to my daughter why the book is problematic. In Otto’s Trunk, the mother elephant literally becomes a household appliance. She is shown using her trunk to vacuum, while the father elephant is shown reclining and watching television. Mother elephant is wearing a slip and has on bright blue eye shadow. Before you pass off this portrayal as just an outdated book, the book was published in 2003.
In addition to being a sociologist, I’m a smarty pants. When a picture book starts to look like is revving up it’s sterotype engine, I just change the gender of the characters on the fly. For instance, in Tyrannosaurus Math (2009), the protagonist is a boy dinosaur who excels at math and his sister is indifferent to the subject. Of course, his sister ends up in a jam and he uses math to rescue her. She responds, “Who knew math could be so useful?” Instead of a book that portrays math in a positive way, the author resorts to stereotypes about who is good and natural at math (e.g., boys) while the girl dinosaur only understands math as important when it is used to rescue her by her brother. In my version, all the dinosaurs are girls (much easier to keep track of my edits mid-story) and no one is indifferent to math.
Even when obvious gender stereotypes are not present in children’s picture books, gender markers remain. Gender markers are those things we used to identify a person’s gender (e.g., style of dress). In books with people, gender is demonstrated by the names of the characters, how they are dressed, and how they are portrayed (e.g., girls need rescued by boys). In books without people, that is, with animals, gender markers remain and gender stereotypes persist. What surprised me most about reading children’ts picture books is how ingrained my own assumptions about determining gender are. I caught myself referring to “genderless” animals with male pronouns despite my training as a sociologist and identity as a feminist. I have made a conscious effort to refer to genderless animals as boys and girls, instead of just boys. I began engaging my daughter to determine what genderless and nameless animals should be called after noticing her referring to genderless animals as he or she. I asked her why she thinks an animal in her picture book is a boy or a girl.
Children’s picture book illustrators overall have done an excellent job of not making animals overtly male or female with stereotypical imagery (e.g., adding a pink bow to a girl animal’s fur). What they have done instead is made the gender markers subtle. In the words of my four-year-old, “the girl animals have eyelashes.” The girl dinosaur in Tyrannosaurus Math is purple and has eyelashes, whereas the boy dinosaurs are either blue or orange and do not have eyelashes.
I’ve challenged my daughter’s belief that the animals with eyelashes are girls and the animals without eyelashes are boys by pointing out to her that daddy, in fact, also has eyelashes just like mommy does. I should know better than to reason with a four-year-old, but I persist.
What makes gendering animals in children’s picture books even more interesting is that male and female animals in real life typically have distinct sex-markers, such as horns or colorful feathers. In other words, if children’s book illustrators relied on how animals look in real life, they would have little need to distinguish the girl animals from the boy animals with eyelashes or other gender markers, such as hair bows.
- What is the difference between a gender stereotype and a gender marker? Give an example of each that is not used in this post.
- Go to your school’s library or a public library and find 3 children’s picture books that have animals as the characters instead of people. Read the books and analyze the images for gender markers. What patterns did you find? Why do you think your findings confirm or disconfirm the author’s argument?
- Children’s books have long been a favorite source of data for sociologists. They have been used to study not only gender, but also environmental messages and workplace segregation. Using the 10 books you selected in the previous question, what other themes or messages emerge related to concepts you are learning in introduction to sociology? Discuss how race, age, ability, sexual identity, and other features of stratification are used in the books.
- Children’s picture books are a tool of gender socialization. How do the messages in these books support other tools of gender socialization, such as messages from schools, families, or religion?
- Stereotypes are oversimplified beliefs about a social group (e.g., women are emotional). ↩