Most Children’s Books Are Still about White Boys?

In her blog post published in Huffington Post, writer Soraya Chemaly cites a 2011 Florida State University (FSU) study that found 100 years of gender bias in children’s books. The FSU team analyzed nearly 6,000 books published from 1900 to 2000 – which makes it the most comprehensive study of 20th century children’s books ever undertaken in the U.S. – and found clear bias towards men and boys as lead characters. The post gives some core findings from the study:

“A girl’s imagination and literary life would be a stark and barren place if she didn’t learn early on to read books about boys, put herself in boys’ shoes and enjoy them. As with other aspects of socially sanctioned behavior, children’s ability to¬†cross-gender empathize¬†is a one-way street — girls have to do it and boys learn not to. People are married to enduring ideas about ‘otherness’ when it comes to masculinity and a big part of being a ‘real boy’ is disdaining stories, books, movies, and games … about girls.”

“Researcher Isabelle Cherney found that half of boys ages 5-13 picked ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ toys equally… unless they were being watched. They were especially concerned about what their fathers would think of them if they saw them. Over time, boys’ interests in toys and media become more rigidly masculinized, whereas girls’ stay relatively open-ended and flexible. Think of the implications of storytelling on that pattern and what it means for social skills development, adaptability, work-life issues and more.”

Ms. Chemaly argues that media that distorts reality in this way hurts everyone. She says:

“Boys aren’t responsible for the perpetuation of media injustices or their effects. The problem is not boys, but cultural habits that disproportionately favor them.”

“As children grow up, girls’ media marginalization becomes more acute and racialized. We seem incapable and unwilling to deeply consider the societal effects of dysfunctional, stereotype-plagued media. Without fail, when I talk or write about this and focus on girls, the first response I get is ‘What about the boy crisis?’ It’s remarkable. So, what about the boys who are over-represented in media as valued and worthy, albeit, too often, hyper-masculinized? I think that while benefits can accrue to them as a class, by imparting a sense of confidence and entitlement, the effects on individual boys can be awful.”

Ms. Chemaly’s final point is golden:

“We are a storytelling species, and symbolic representation and visibility are crucially important to the way we structure society. Exposing children to diversity in media encourages them to learn about people who are “different” and to understand why that difference isn’t the foundation of hierarchy, but community.”

Because a person’s genitals do not determine their behavior, their upbringing does. Because we’re not just girls and boys or women and men, we’re people.

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