In the past it had been rather difficult to find non-stereotypical characters in juvenile literature, but recently there have been some improvements in children’s books. Recent studies have shown improvement in children’s books on many levels, such as more positive females characters. These changes are due in part to criticism publishers and authors have received from concerned parents.
“Fracturing” is one contemporary option of changing and improving fairy tales. Feminist updates of fairy tales focus mainly on gender representation and exposing the gender ideologies that the original tales have perpetuated. Active, resourceful female characters take the place of the highly criticized “passive heroines” and male heroes. The focus on physical beauty is moderated; extreme violence or cruelty that is not essential to the plot is omitted. For example, Babette Cole has reversed gender roles by featuring an active, female character in her fractured Cinderella-tale Prince Cinders (Putnam).
Literature that portrays males and females with positive characteristics, both traditional and reverse-stereotypical, can give children of both genders useful role models to emulate. Literature provides a basis for children to imagine all the different possibilities ahead of them, so the best books are universal. Both girls and boys should read about excellent heroes and heroines.
One study of preschool children, has confirmed the theory that children enjoy gender-reversed stories. Apparently the children showed more aversion to stories in which characters of the opposite sex did traditional, gender-stereotyped things, than they did to those stories in which characters of either sex did reverse-stereotypical things.
Some social scientists are opposed to using reverse-stereotypes in children’s literature, because it would “idealize ‘feminine’ boys and ‘masculine’ girls”. Others believe that is exactly the point and that the real problem is with connotations of the terms “feminine” and “masculine”.
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “feminine” as: “of women or girls; having qualities characteristic of or suitable to women; gentle, delicate.” Synonyms of include: soft, tender, fair, modest, compassionate, protective, refined, and polite. Whereas “masculine” is defined as: “male; of men or boys; suitable to or having qualities regarded as characteristic of men; strong, vigorous, manly.” Synonyms listed include: virile, courageous, potent, forceful, aggressive, bold, confidant, resolute, self-reliant and honorable. These words not only make positive qualities such as courage or strength seem uncharacteristic of girls, but it also puts undue pressure on young boys to be aggressive and powerful.
Instead of categorizing different personality traits as “masculine” or “feminine,” parents can simply separate qualities from flaws. For instance, timidity (which is really just a euphemism for “fear”) would be discouraged in both boys and girls. Parents should push young girls to strive for traditionally “masculine” qualities, such as courage or strength. “Female” traits such as kindness and nurturance would, in turn, be regarded as positive traits available to members of either sex. Confidence, motivation, responsibility, initiative, honesty, and perseverance are all qualities that are not really gender-specific and should be promoted in all children and adults.
According to Augusta Baker, Coordinator of Children’s Services at the New York Public Library, a good book is one that “latches onto a child and won’t let go.” To encourage early reading, she proposes that children should be exposed to books that are easy to hold, easy to read, easy to understand, and exciting. However, there are other matters to consider when choosing appropriate literature for impressionable children. Reading materials – books, textbooks, periodicals and other literature – must be reviewed and analyzed for stereotypes and sexism as well. When selecting picture books, both the text and the pictures must be analyzed; the illustrations are just as important as the words in telling the overall story. The right children’s literature can help to combat the gender bias and generalizations that are so prevalent in our culture.
The authors of Gender Positive! A Teachers’ And Librarians’ Guide To Nonstereotyped Children’s Literature K-8 (McFarland and Company, Inc) have devised a list of the conditions that a book should have, which includes balance in the number of females and males shown as main characters; females and males portrayed in a variety of occupations, including nontraditional and reversed gender roles; portrayal of females in active, dominant and capable roles; and portrayal of females with desirable traits. Textbooks, biographies and historical fiction should present contributions to society by both males and females.
Kathleen Odean, author of Great Books for Girls (Ballatine Books), said that she looks for books about girls who are “creative, capable, articulate, and intelligent”; girls who “face the world without timidity”; girls who don’t wait for a male to rescue them.
Children’s literature is gradually improving, but many parents, educators and school librarians still do not know that these positive books are out there. Parents can educate the educators and teach the teachers. Parents should make it known to their children’s teachers that they do not approve of books that promote sexism or other prejudices. Parents can recommend books about intelligent, resourceful, active female characters, as well as biographies of important women in history. It is not easy to argue with a school’s timeless curriculum; teachers and administrators may resist criticism, so persistence is key.
While there have been substantial changes to children’s literature as a whole, there is still much work to be done. Female representation, while improved, is still far below that of males, and stereotypical female characters still continue to be found. In the meantime, there is something parents can do to combat the destructive messages in some of today’s children’s literature.
Call attention to sexism when you see it, and explain to children that there are many roles open to women today. Certain books, like I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl! are so outdated that they can be used as teaching tools; to show examples of sexist beliefs that are no longer true. When stories with strong female characters are hard to find, substitute female names for male names. Conversely, substitute male names for females, in order to show male characters in dependent, sensitive or nurturing positions.
Books About Children’s Literature
- American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, by Anne Scott MacLeod (University of Georgia Press).
- Inside Picture Books by Ellen Handler Spitz (Yale University Press).
- Girls, Boys, Books, Toys: Gender in Children’s Literature and Culture, by Beverly Lyon Clark and Margaret R. Higonnet, eds. (Johns Hopkins University Press).
Books About Folk and Fairy Tales
- The Uses Of Enchantment: The Meaning And Importance Of Fairy Tales, by Bruno Bettleheim (Alfred A. Knopf).
- From The Beast To The Blonde: On Fairy Tales And Their Tellers, by Marina Warner (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
- Breaking The Magic Spell: Radical Theories Of Folk And Fairy Tales, by Jack Zipes (University of Texas Press).
- Don’t Bet On The Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales In North America And England, by Jack Zipes (Methuen).
Recommended Children’s Books
- Gender Positive! A Teachers’ And Librarians’ Guide To Nonstereotyped Children’s Literature K-8, by Patricia L. Roberts, Nancy L. Cecil and Sharon Alexander (Mc Farland and Company).
- Once Upon a Heroine: 450 Books for Girls to Love, by Alison Cooper-Mullin and Jennifer Marmaduke Coye, eds. (Contemporary Books).
- Great Books for Girls: More Than 600 Books To Inspire Today’s Girls and Tomorrow’s Women, by Kathleen Odean, ed. (Ballantine Books).
- Tatterhood and Other Tales, by Ethel Johnston Phelps, ed. (The Feminist Press at The City University of New York).