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Princesses, Pigsties, Pirates and a Publishing Problem

2011 May 18

Today’s guest post came winging over to us from Libby, who runs the blog TreasuryIslands, which you should read ‘cos it’ll charm your socks off.

Very quietly, in April, a study was published that found that in American children’s books published between 1900 and 2000, female characters were under-represented by a ratio of 1.6:1. Not much happened. Then, at the beginning of this month, the Guardian wrote it up, and the Daily Mail tried their best to misrepresent it, failing to note the criteria used, representing the research as if it had been conducted in the UK, and generally being, well, a bit Daily Mail about the whole thing.

Book cover from 1916, About Harriet by Clara Whitehill Hunt. showing a dark-haired little girl in a white dress with a yellow balloon in a yellow hatTwo things then happened. The lovely lovely Daily Mail comments section went mad with people declaring (presumably based on the many years of research that each of them had done) that the results were clearly rubbish and anyway a bit of sexism never did me any harm now get in the kitchen and put my tea on. The Guardian‘s commenters largely ignored the piece, or said ‘no shit, Sherlock’ and went back to what they were doing before. So far, so par for the course.

But this lack of inquisitive attention is wrong for two reasons: first, this is a massive undertaking, so, y’know, kudos; secondly, these findings are Important. Important enough to use a capital ‘I’: at a time when children are developing their own gender identities, their literature both represents and defines what is expected of them. We need to know what those expectations are; the expectations that come not from our own choice of books for our children, but from what the literary establishment deems ‘good’ award winners are – rightly or wrongly – arbiters of taste, gatekeepers of acceptability. So when a study comes along that pays particular attention to, amongst other things, a century-worth of Caldecott Medal winners, we should be sitting up and taking notice.

Children’s books, and books in general, are not here-today-gone-tomorrow entities; they persist. In short, voices from both the distant and recent past are telling our children that women are simply not as important as men.

I’m not going to blather on about why it’s important for the message of gender of equality to be strong in the cradle and the classroom, nor why the repression of female characters in children’s fiction reinforces patriarchal gender systems, because if you’re over at BadRep you probably already know (and if you don’t, plenty has been written on the subject before).

I am going to blather on about why on earth this disparity between the genders hasn’t changed very much in a century.

So, let us return to the statistics. Since the early 1970s, studies have repeatedly found girls and women to be under-represented in children’s fiction, and this latest one is no different. It finds that in central roles male characters have a representation of 57 percent, and female characters only 31 percent. Significantly, it notes that “no more than 33 percent of books published in a year contain central characters who are adult women or female animals, whereas adult men and male animals appear in up to 100 percent”. You can get a free PDF of the whole study, by Janice McCabe, Emily Fairchild, and others from universities in Florida and Indiana, here or read the abstract here.

cover art for Princess Pigsty by Cornelia Funke showing a small blonde girl sitting happily next to two giant pigsNot only are there fewer female characters in books in the first place, but “reader response research suggests that as children read books with male characters, their preferences for male characters are reinforced, and they will continue reaching for books that feature boys, men, and male animals”. This disparity of gender representation is made even more significant when we learn that boys redefine female protagonists with whom they identify as secondary characters1 and recast secondary male characters as central when retelling the same stories2. Educators, too, make a distinction between the genders when choosing appropriate literature for their classes, opting for stories with male protagonists more frequently than female even when their self-reported politics would suggest they do otherwise. 3

It is worth mentioning at this stage that the numerical representation of the genders and the stereotypicality of the behaviours those genders present are separate issues, and while the latter is fascinating in all sorts of ways, it is a large enough arena of study to warrant a separate post.

Children’s literature is particularly sensitive to sociopolitical forces. It’s probably not surprising, then, that this study finds spikes in the parity of gender representations coinciding with the second – and third – waves of feminism, so the books published in the 1930s-1960s show less gender parity than those published before and after, and more equal representation of the genders in books published after 1970.

Take this graph – Ratios of Males to Females, Overall Central Characters, Child Central Characters, and Animal Central Characters across the full set of 5,618 books the study analysed, spanning a century from 1900-2000:
Graph from the study showing bar charts, Ratios of Males to Females, Overall Central Characters, Child Central Characters, and Animal Central Characters, Full Set of Books, 1900-2000

These peaks and troughs in the equality of gender representation paint a worrying picture. When the feminist movement is active, female and male characters do move towards a parity of representation. But when feminism goes off the boil, so does gender equality.

What does this mean for the futures of feminism? Are we destined to keep pushing the message, safe in the knowledge that it will be quickly unlearned if we stop? We cannot rest on our laurels. The third wave feminist movement has, arguably, made feminism more accessible, and this can only be a good thing. But history teaches us that we need to take the waves out of feminism, to keep working, to question inequality whenever we see it mindful that old habits die hard.

“Ending discrimination”, says Kat Banyard in her book The Equality Illusion, “will require a no less than a total transformation of society at every level: international, national, local and individual.” Our children’s books are an indication of this, and a litmus test by which progress can be measured.

You can find more musings on various aspects of kid lit over at my blog TreasuryIslands, including an ongoing series on feminism for beginners with heaps of recommendations. Meanwhile, here are a few of my fabulous feminist favourites.

Totally awesome feminist children’s books:

Princess Pigsty by Cornelia Funke, illustrated by Kerstin Meyer, translated by Chantal Wright
Isabella doesn’t like being a princess. She doesn’t like being waited on, she doesn’t like smiling all day and she doesn’t like her pretty frocks. She’s had enough. Throwing her crown into a pond, she awaits her punishment from the king, but when he sends her to live in a pigsty, the results are far from what he expected…


Captain Abdul’s Pirate School by Colin McNaughton

Pickles is a pupil at pirate school. A reluctant student, Pickles learns how to talk like a pirate, make cannon balls, fight and get up to all the mischief expected of a pirate at sea. Leading a mutiny against the teachers, Pickles shows bravery, cunning and compassion.

Only on the last of the book’s 32 pages is Pickles revealed to be a girl named Maisie.

Cover art for Give Us The Vote - a green-tinted photo of Dora Thewlis being arrested by two policemen, with the title overlaid in red scribble font

Katie Morag Delivers the Mail by Dr Mairi Hedderwick

With a little help from her dungaree-wearing, tractor-driving granny, Katie Morag delivers the mixed up post on the Scottish island where she lives. She’s a great young heroine with a seriously badass gran.

Give Us The Vote! by Sue Reid

Based on the true story of Dora Thewlis, 16-year-old suffragette. A Yorkshire mill worker, Thewlis took part in a mission to break into the Houses of Parliament in early 1907. She was arrested and imprisoned, a move which found her on the front page of the tabloids nicknamed ‘the baby suffragette’. Part of the My True Story series, Give Us the Vote! is an excellent lesson in first wave feminism.

Libby earned her feminist stripes interning for the Fawcett Society where she was horrified by most of the stories she heard. An accidental activist, she is a regular contributor to BCN, the UK’s only 100% bisexual publication. Her latest project, TreasuryIslands, is the home of her other passion – children’s literature.

Libby is very proud of her bad reputation.

  1. a finding by Elizabeth Segel, whose 1986 work is referenced in the study. []
  2. Bronwyn Davies noted this in her 2003 book Frogs and snails and feminist tales: Preschool children and gender, and it’s also referenced. []
  3. Deborah A. Garrahy’s 2001 study “Three Third-Grade Teachers’ Gender-Related Beliefs and Behavior” is worth a look for more on this, in The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 20 No. 1, pp. 81-94. []
10 Responses leave one →
  1. Freya permalink
    May 18, 2011

    I just wanted to chime in with another awesome feminist children’s book: The Wrestling Princess (and Other Stories) by Judy Corbalis. It has some fantastic heroines (some princesses, some not) who see nothing weird about wrestling, fighting dragons, driving forklift trucks or piloting helicopters. Worth a read if you can track down a copy!

    • May 18, 2011

      Oooo, I’ve not come across that one, but I do like her novels. *runs to Amazon*

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    May 18, 2011

    I don’t understand the graphs, and wonder whether you could explain them. Is a tall bar closer to gender equality than a short one, or vice versa? I suppose I’m asking what the numbers in the vertical axis mean.

    • Rob permalink
      May 18, 2011

      The graphs are the ratios of male to female characters. So the number on the Y axis is the number of male central characters for every 1 female central character. A value of 1, the dotted horizontal line, would be equal. Taller bars mean more male central characters.

    • May 18, 2011

      No problem.

      The graphs represent the ratio of male to female characters. The vertical axis is number of male characters for every one female character (depending on the title of the graph). Ideally all the bars would stop at the dotted line, meaning a ratio of 1:1.

      So, for example, the fourth graph shows that in books published between 1960-69 with animal central characters there were three male protagonists to every female one.

      At least, that’s how I understood it. I do hope I haven’t got it terribly wrong!

    • Miranda permalink*
      May 18, 2011

      Sorry the numbers are so small! Editing fail, pic came out a bit small there!

  3. Vee permalink
    May 18, 2011

    The graphs show the ratio of male:female characters, so should be read as “For every one female character, there are [this many] male characters.”

    The horizontal dotted line represents a 1:1 ratio where there is an equal number of male and female characters (note how the bars are closer to the dotted line during the 1920s and 1990s). The higher the bar, the more males to females, and the greater the gender disparity.

    Hope this makes sense!

  4. Miranda permalink*
    May 19, 2011

    Children’s books, and books in general, are not here-today-gone-tomorrow entities; they persist.

    Just wanted to say that I think this is an *excellent* point.

    One of the reasons I like TreasuryIslands so much is that it calls to my nostalgia for the books I loved as a child. Books *stay with you*. So this is very important.

    One book which stayed with me was Rita the Rescuer, little girl turned SUPERHERO.

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