Thursday, 30 January 2014

Do The Boys Get All The Fun? By Pippa Goodhart

No they don't, but they just might get more than their fair share when it comes to picture books.
 
In early November I was emailed some questions by illustrations student Harjit Kaur.  She specialises in picture books, and was asking questions to do with her dissertation.  I answered her questions about why I might choose to use animal characters rather than human ones, whether or not publishers had a preference between the two options ... and then I was completely halted in my tracks by this question:
 
'Does the gender disparity in anthropomorphic characters in children's picture books make you less inclined to having female protagonists?'
 
Well I have to admit that I hadn't noticed any gender disparity in anthropomorphic characters, but Harjit kindly sent me links to some learned academic papers discussing exactly that.  Those papers went into complex detail about the dominant/subservient roles of male and female characters, geographical origins of different gender trends, the influence of the picture book examples chosen on young children's developing perceptions of the different genders, and so on.
 
My own perception of current children's books had been that we'd got the balance about right in the picture book area, although I very much dislike the present trend for pink fairy princess girly books as something quite separate from the snot, underpant and sometimes violent 'boys'' books in the book formats that come after picture books.  Surely we do better than that in picture books?  So I decided to do a small, and not very scientific, experiment.
 
I simply went through the first hundred picture books reviewed online by Books for Keeps.  Some of those books had no lead character, or the sex of the lead character wasn't clear in the review or cover artwork, in which case I left them out of the count.  But for the hundred with a clear lead character the results were -
Male lead 68%
Female lead 32%
 
That's quite a difference.  But, perhaps more interestingly, the split between male and female anthropomorphic characters (I'm including robots, monsters, teddy bears and yetis here!) were even more startling.  Removing human characters, we get the following neat percentages -
Male anthropomorphic lead characters 80%
Female anthropomorphic lead characters 20%
 
My flabber is truly ghasted by those figures!  I'd no idea.  So, why do we trend so heavily towards making animal or alien or toy characters male?  Is it a problem?  If so, why?
 
I'm glad to say that my most recently published picture book features a female anthropomorphic lead ... and the one I'm working on has a female alien, thanks to Harjit!
 
 
 
Little Nelly's Big Book

 

33 comments:

  1. My flabber is truly gasted too which goes to prove how deeply entrenched these gender roles are in our psyche. We didn't even notice the influence. My only concern is that publishers may not be 'ready' for gender role reversal. They may think they are, like we did, but deep in their psyche would they reject such a ms because it didn't 'feel' right? I can feel a campaign coming on! And I'm so glad you included yetis!!

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  2. And I should have included pencils and sausages too ....! Now why do we naturally think of those as male, eh?

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  3. Great post, Pippa. This is something that I've become more aware - and conscious - of in the last year or so, particularly as I now have a boy and girl of my own. I don't mind there being books which particularly appeal to 'girly girls' or 'boysy boys' (?!), but I do think diversity and equality is an issue. It's very interesting, though, that boys should be over-represented in terms of characters while some argue that they're under-represented in terms of appeal! (See http://coolnotcute.blogspot.co.uk/?m=1 )

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    1. I agree that there's a place for books that particularly appeal to most boys or most girls. In fact I wrote a review of a book here that discusses just that - http://awfullybigreviews.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/the-fairytale-hairdresser-and.html But I think that the danger is when books become off-putting to the less obvious sexual match, and that's what can alienate readers.

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  4. This is fascinating, Pippa. I was once told by marketing folk that girls have no problem reading books about boys, but boys resist reading books with girl main characters. Now, I've no idea what's true and what's not, but I tend to think that if this statement has any truth in it, it's not the children making this choice, but the parents who buy the books for their children. If this IS a prevailing marketing belief (and I don't know if it still is), and since authors are encouraged to create what sells, it might contribute to the figures.

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    1. I've come across, and agree with, that business of girls not minding to read about boys, but boys being more against reading about girls. Why is it, I wonder? Are boys less secure in themselves, somehow? And how far is because that is what adults serve them up with bookwise, rather than a natural choice? I don't have the answers!

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    2. What happens if a girl carries a football? What happens if a boy carries a purse. I think there's a lot of social expectations, pressure, and training we don't really think about from a young age. I have been seen as cool for enjoying football. My husband almost refuses to carry my purse.

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  5. I agree entirely on the subject of pink versus snot, Pippa, for any age group... and I, too am surprised at the balance and gender difference you found. Just a thought, though, and this is being devil's advocate, here, perhaps some writers of anthropomorphic characters don't actually think of them as either gender, but they have to write 'he' or 'she'... And another point... I, too, did a survey for my MA and this was on boys' and girls'(aged 7-11) reading habits. I found overwhelmingly that the majority of girls who did the survey said they would read books with boys as the protagonist, but the majority of boys said they would NOT read books with girls as ditto. Does this mean, for good or ill, that books with male protagonists have a wider appeal?

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  6. I think that's true, Jill, and maybe it is something we just have to live with. After all, it means that girls end up more widely read and balanced than boys...hm, so maybe not such a good thing after all, but still something that may never change.

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    1. I wonder if it's true in the stories from other cultures and times? If so, then I'd be more inclined to believe it was just the way that things are, and something that won't change. Does anybody know?

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  7. I wonder - has any author been asked to change the gender of their character? It may be that it's nothing to do with outside influences, and authors are unconsciously making these decisions over and over again. Fascinating topic.

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    1. I haven't been asked to perform a sex-change in either direction on a character, but I'm interested to know whether others have .....?

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    2. Interesting post Pippa. If you haven’t seen it already, you might like to read Eileen Browne’s “Two to One” article in this edition of Write4Children (http://www.winchester.ac.uk/academicdepartments/EnglishCreativeWritingandAmericanStudies/Documents/w4cJune2013Diversity.pdf).
      While it’s clear that female characters are greatly under-represented in picture books, I think picture books content is biased against boys in other ways and (as Michelle has already pointed out) have written about this issue at some length at coolnotcute.com.
      I’ve been asked to change the sex of my characters on several occasions, starting with my very first picture book, Fox’s New Coat. In my original draft, the squirrel that owned the clothes shop was female, the mole digging the garden was male and the owl that supplies the knitting needles to knit Fox a new coat was female. I was asked to swap the sex of all three characters to counter sexual stereotyping, which I was happy to do in that instance as I didn’t think the changes had a significant impact on that story’s appeal.
      However on another book, when I was asked to make the main character, a train driver, female for the same reason, I resisted the change on the grounds that stories about trains typically appeal to boys more than girls and boys would find it easier to identify with a male character. As I’ve argued elsewhere, while I’m all for challenging sexual stereotypes, the traffic is largely one-way for books with sex-typical appeal and I don’t imagine that Katharine Holabird was asked to consider changing “Angelina Ballerina” into “Andrew Ballet Dancer”.”
      I’ve recently had a story about a fearless young girl who sees off an alien invasion accepted by a publisher on condition that I change the heroine to a hero. Apparently the publisher already had a lot of books featuring heroic girls on their list. I was happy to make the change this time, as again I didn’t think it would have a significant impact on the story’s appeal.

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    3. The article you reference is really interesting, Jonathan, and makes the issue seem truly alarming. I do think you're right about the issue being seen one way; that the stories with male lead characters are served-up just as good picture book stories for ALL children whilst the pink and frilly ones seem to be just for girls. That's surely the product of a society that labels pink as the girly colour whilst at the same time feeling that boy territory is also open to girls? So, yes, I do think that maybe it's the boy readers who, ironically, miss out in all this. Thanks for your interesting points you raise.

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  8. I have also heard the theory that girls will read books with a male lead, but boys won't read books with a female lead. No idea if it's true.
    My main character in my picture book series is a female human and she is portrayed as a capable business woman. Boys love the books in schools and if I do a reading in a school, boys will line up to buy a copy and have it signed. However, if I'm signing at a festival or book shop, parents will often steer their sons away from the books. One mother told her son he wasn't allowed it because it was a 'girls' book'. It's a real shame.

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  9. That's really interesting ... and sad, Abie. But I can believe it all too well. I've found similar things. Is it that parents are scared of their boys becoming too unmanly? Very odd when you think about it.

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  10. Interesting stuff, Pippa. I think that Jill Atkins point about anthropomorphic characters being given gender because they are required linguistically to have one is a good one. Maybe we should write in German ;-)
    It does seem that male has become the default gender though. Making the main protagonist female is seen as 'making a point' somehow whereas making it male isn't, it's just not even noticed.

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    1. Yes, that 'making a point' by putting a female into roles recently automatically given to males can be done too much. The silly thing is, we shouldn't be needing to over-think all this; we should just naturally reflect a society in which 50% are of each gender.

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  11. Hi Pippa, I've been told by an editor I met with that parents are less likely to buy a picture book for a boy if the protagonist is female, but they don't mind buying books with boy protagonists for girls. So it's happening very early on. If parents weren't doing this, then we might not have quite so many boys choosing not to read books with girls as protagonists later on. But when it comes to anthropomorphic characters, where you can't tell the gender from looking on the front cover as easily, it seems like publishers are missing a trick not to have more female characters. I also think that sometimes it is seen as making a point by having a character be female and the easier option -for a publisher- to have it as a boy, UNLESS it's very specifically geared to a 'girl's market'. So for those that are not geared to either, they probably feel like it's a safer bet to go with a boy. Which is a shame. From the conversations I've had with people in the industry, I'm not surprised by this but I'd be surprised that the books I've come across are quite so biased, but maybe they are! I'm going to check... Thanks for this.

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    1. All good points. It'd be interesting to have a publisher view on this. Are they, I wonder, steered by those all-powerful Sales Departments when it comes to such matters?

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  12. Fascinating. I never noticed, maybe because my children are boys. Going back to look at my manuscripts. . .

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    1. I hadn't noticed either, Wendy, and am looking at myself in a new light now!

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  13. Go, Pippa! I just finished illustrations for 3 board books which have animal characters that the publisher asked me to keep as gender-neutral as possible, but I have a few mss of my own with female leads and will work a little harder now to get them published!

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    1. The idea of gender neutral characters is attractive, and then children can identify them as they choose, but I think it could only work in the simplest of books. Hope those female-lead stories get published, Julie!

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  14. I am currently working with students in a school while creating my new picture book called Shimmerling. I read them the ms and showed them the storyboards and they asked me, "Is the Shimmerling a boy or a girl?" And I replied that it could be either, and then asked them what they thought? I had a split room with some thinking it's a boy and some thinking the Shimmerling is a girl.
    But, what's interesting to me is that some boys were saying that it's a girl and some girls were saying it's a boy. And when I asked how they made that conclusion, they had very specific reasons, it wasn't that they just wanted the Shimmerling to be the same gender they are.
    I believe gender restrictions are placed on children by adults, and then of course, children follow suit. Boys will read stories about girls, IF they are given the opportunity. I'm starting to see that boys have a lot of societal standards regarding what is appropriate for them, just as much, if not more so, than girls. I hope this changes soon, and I believe it can if picture books lead the way. But, if we keep following the thinking that 'boys won't read books with girl characters, but girls will read books with boy characters,' we are really doing a disservice to our children and our world.
    Thanks so much for this post. I think it's a really important subject to be addressing in kid lit.

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    1. That's really interesting. So it does seem to be an adult hang-up that we're imposing on our children, and particularly on boys. Perhaps somebody ought to write on the subject for parenting and teacher magazines or blogs? Most of us (and I do include myself) simply aren't/weren't aware that we are steering children in these ways. Thanks, Andrea.

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  15. Interesting data! I wonder what the results would be for books in America. I feel there are a lot of female protagonists in pbs.

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    1. It would be really interesting to do a comparison with US publications, and with other countries too. Anybody need a topic for a thesis?!

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  16. Yes, very interested to read this thread. Like Clare, I was once specifically told by a publisher that they preferred picture book characters to be male because parents/grandparents of a little boy were unlikely to buy a book featuring a girl character.

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    1. I don't think I've never been told that by a publisher, but how interesting that some of you are having that experience. Publishers, what do you say to that?!

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  17. Just been reading your blog and all the comments, Pippa. So interesting. I was once asked to change two female characters in a picture book to a male and a female, to widen the audience. I'll admit I'd never thought of picture books being male gender biased. Your mini survey really surprised me. In fact, my uninformed gut reaction was that there were more books with feisty girl leads (eg Clarice Bean and Olivia). It's the 5-8 year old market that I'd thought was seriously and distastefully gender stereotyped (and we writers and illustrators perpetuate this because that's what can be sold to publishers. Ordinary publishers are businesses, not tools of social change.

    I agree with comments that in a way it's very young boys who are being left out the most as nowadays girls are seldom told a young picture book is too 'boyish', but a boy will be told a book is too 'girly'. Yet all the young 'fan' letters I had for a young reader for 5-8 year olds, 'Cinderella's Wedding', were from boys. I've never figured that out!

    I suspect this stereotype pushing is partly because adults want their children to fit in at school (and life) because they're afraid of bullying. It's safe to be part of the norm, even though parents buy picture books about doing different and being true to yourself (as long as it's not wearing sparkles and pink dresses if you're a boy). Oh, such mixed messages and it's tough being a parent.

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  18. Fascinating discussion - which I missed while otherwise occupied. I've tried calling my animal characters 'it' but it never feels right, somehow. We NEED them to be anthropomorphic, and for that they seem to need a gender.

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  19. So glad I found this thread (thanks Fen!) - this was the topic of my Publishing MA dissertation, gender depiction in UK picture books. Although, Pippa, to answer your question about US books, the answer is that a wealth of research has been done since the 70s, and they also have a massive gender skew. Most interestingly, the bias is MUCH more pronounced in books where the characters are animals, than where they are human. I suspect this is, as some have said above, because we see male as the 'default' gender, so supposedly genderless characters still get the 'he' pronoun.

    It's great that we're gradually becoming more aware of gender visibility and stereotyping as an issue, and a few people have asked to read my dissertation. I've uploaded it to a 'blog' (just for the purposes of the download), so you can read about it at: http://genderinpicturebooks.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/download-the-dissertation-here/.

    This is a public version where names of publishers and agents have been removed to protect their privacy, and where the major statistical analysis has been removed to prevent readers from dying of boredom. If anyone is keen for that level of detail, feel free to email me (address is on the blog).

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