Of course, it is part of our language to refer to the unknown in the masculine. I hadn’t reflected upon it much before, but I soon began to notice that every bird, squirrel, spider, slug and cat we saw as we encountered them on various walks and hikes around our neighborhood were referred to, almost without exception, as “he” or “him” by all of the adults present, including myself. No one gave it a second thought.
Out of curiosity, I began charting the books we owned as well as those I checked out from the library. This wasn’t a scientifically random study or anything, but I found that for every female in children’s literature, there were, on average, two to three male characters sharing the pages with her. If the roles of mothers and grandmothers were excluded from the female list, that number doubled!
So what does this mean (if it means anything at all)? The more I considered it, the more profound and important it began to seem.
Children learn by imitation. This is a basic tenet of modern psychology and an important part of Waldorf education. Children learn and grow by imitating the adults in their environment that they love and respect. (They likewise, but to a lesser degree, imitate their friends and siblings and any person who randomly makes a strong impression upon them.) The cultural knowledge and behavior of children also comes from the activities and impressions that influence them on a daily basis. Books and stories, for many children, are an integral part of modeling morality, basic behavior and gender roles. So what happens consciously and unconsciously, especially for small girls, when they are so under-represented in the books they read and love?
As I started researching this topic, I came across this article by Manjari Singh (which can be read in full here):
Numerous studies analyzing children's literature find the majority of books dominated by male figures. For example, Ernst (1995) did an analysis of titles of children's books and found male names represented nearly twice as often as female names. She also found that even books with female or gender-neutral names in their titles in fact, frequently revolve around a male character. Many classics and popular stories where girls are portrayed usually reflect stereotypes of masculine and feminine roles. Such gender stereotypes are prevalent not only in mainstream children's books but also in Newbery and Caldecott medal winners. Children's books frequently portray girls as acted upon rather than active (Fox, 1993). Girls are represented as sweet, naive, conforming, and dependent, while boys are typically described as strong, adventurous, independent, and capable (Ernst, 1995; Jett-Simpson & Masland, 1993). Boys tend to have roles as fighters, adventurers and rescuers, while girls in their passive role tend to be caretakers, mothers, princesses in need of rescuing, and characters that support the male figure (Temple, 1993). Often, girl characters achieve their goals because others help them, whereas boys do so because they demonstrate ingenuity and/or perseverance. If females are initially represented as active and assertive, they are often portrayed in a passive light toward the end of the story. Girl characters who retain their active qualities are clearly the exception (Rudman, 1995). Thus, studies indicate that not only are girls portrayed less often than boys in children's books, but both genders are frequently presented in stereotypical terms as well.
Many researchers and authors argue that readers identify with characters of their own gender in books. Therefore, the relative lack of girl characters in texts can limit the opportunity for girls to identify with their gender and to validate their place in society.
The manner in which genders are represented in children's literature impacts children's attitudes and perceptions of gender-appropriate behavior in society. Sexism in literature can be so insidious that it quietly conditions boys and girls to accept the way they 'see and read the world,' thus reinforcing gender images (Fox, 1993). This reinforcement predisposes children to not question existing social relationships. At the same time, however, books containing images that conflict with gender stereotypes provide children the opportunity to re-examine their gender beliefs and assumptions. Thus, texts can provide children with alternative role models and inspire them to adopt more egalitarian gender attitudes.
Gender stereotypical roles are constraining to both genders. Just as girls are trapped in passive and whiny roles, boys and men are rarely described as people demonstrating emotions of sadness and fear, having hobbies/occupations that are not stereotypically male and in roles where they aren't competing or meeting high expectations. These stereotypes limit boys' and girls' freedom to express themselves (Fox, 1993; Rudman, 1995) and pressure them to behave in ways that are 'gender appropriate' rather than ways best suited to their personality.There is much that I do to ensure that my daughter grows up in an environment of freedom. The way we play, the way we create, the absence of media and adult influences in her life are all a part of just allowing her to become herself without many external dictates. These days when I tell stories or perform puppet shows for Naiya, nearly all the characters are female. Likewise, when I refer to critters and furry friends we spot on our outdoor adventures, they’re all “she” or “her”. (Since everyone else pretty much exclusively uses the masculine pronouns I figure together we’re creating a balance that is more accurate.) What though of our love of books? It’s not that this issue hasn’t been addressed. We have come across a number of really great collections of tales of powerful, mischievous, adventurous girls and women (though these are mostly for older children). But they are certainly the exception and they’re marketed as just what they are. What hasn’t really shifted is just a general inclusion (without specific marketed mention) of more girls (and more bold and active girls) in mainstream little stories. Even our favorite nighttime reading (written by a wonderful Waldorf teacher) contains the ratio of feminine to masculine characters I mentioned above.
I’m not sure what to do with this knowledge. I have mentioned these statistics to friends of mine and nearly everyone is surprised at their own unconscious creation of a world that is inaccurately 70 - 80% male. I guess I’d just like to spread a bit of awareness. Perhaps together, we’ll alter our biases just a little at a time and, in so doing, help our daughters (and sons) see and live in a world less shackled by our own limiting vision.