Sexist Children’s Books

Pre-motherhood, my experience of children’s books (since being read them or reading them myself as a child) was limited. I worked as a temp for a couple of weeks at Macmillan Children’s Books – my first ever job in publishing – and then much later I worked on Disney books at Parragon for almost a year, so you could say I’ve covered the two ends of the market. Since going freelance, I’ve worked on teen fiction, but nothing for younger kids, and it’s come as something of a shock. Don’t get me wrong, there are some lovely, lovely picture books out there, but it is boldly apparent that a massive proportion of them perpetuate sexist stereotypes and favour male characters over female.

Let’s take The Gruffalo as our first example. All of the characters are male. Why? There is no necessity in the story for the characters to be male. The drawings wouldn’t even need to change – we have a fox, an owl, a snake, a mouse and a fictional creature. All the first three of these characters are doing is behaving like predators, and female owls hunt as much as male owls, as far as I’m aware.

Don’t get me wrong, The Gruffalo is a brilliant book. It’s clever and witty and has a very satisfying conclusion. But I find myself changing the sex of half the characters when I read it to my daughter, because I don’t want her to feel excluded. Because the reason all of these characters are male is because the default in our society is male. Still. The female only tends to exist in relation to the male. If there is no absolute necessity for a character to be female, then generally it isn’t.

What is particularly infuriating is when all logic would suggest the character should be female. This is the case when dealing with farm animals. Look at Duck in the Truck. The characters here are a duck, a sheep, a goat and a frog. Now, ask any farmer (and, if you read children’s books, you’ll know that farmers are always male), and he’ll tell you that ducks are kept, in the most part, for their eggs. You’d have trouble getting eggs out of a drake. And, as a friend of mine pointed out, the book is not titled Drake in the Truck, anyway. ‘This is the drake driving home in his…’ Hmm… Stumbled at the first hurdle, there. And why, Mr Farmer, do you keep goats? For their milk, you say…? Well, isn’t that funny…? You see my point.

I was at Windmill Hill City Farm with my daughter yesterday morning, and we were looking at the pigs. There was a woman and her toddler standing next to us, and she was talking to her son about what the pigs were doing: ‘How many pigs can you see? Look at him! What colour is the patch over his eye? He’s having his breakfast, isn’t he? Can you see him eating that straw?’ etc etc. The pig in question had two very prominent rows of nipples on her underbelly. So to talk about animals as male all the time is not only perpetuating the default as male norm, but it is actually misleading. It’s just wrong.

And so, Dear Zoo gets the sex-change treatment, as does The Three Little Pigs, as do many Dr Seuss books; Hansel and Gretal find their roles being reversed and don’t get me started on dinosaurs… If you were to read children’s books about dinosaurs, you’d be forgiven for believing that they didn’t come with female versions. If you can think of examples to prove me wrong, please let me know – I want to buy them for my daughter. And if you can think of examples where female animals are not shown to be such by either a) wearing a skirt or dress or having a bow of some kind in their hair or b) having prominent eyelashes that the male version doesn’t have then I promise I will send you a prize of some sort.

In the meantime, I’m going to set about writing a story about a female farmer. And then I’m going to write about the female dinosaurs and where they have all been hiding for so long.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Sexist Children’s Books

  1. Liz Cornwell

    Some interesting points and observations – maybe that’s why the dinosaurs died out, if they were all male they would not have been able to reproduce!!

  2. I’ve just come across this post after searching for children’s books with female characters. Thank you so much for putting this into words – it really gets my goat (as it were) too. I also change the gender of lots of characters when I’m reading to my son – especially in the Elmer stories which seem to be all-male as a default. To redress the balance, I usually pick up the Usborne Appletree Farm stories, where the farmer is at least female, even if she doesn’t do much farming; the How to Hide a Lion books by Helen Stephens; or The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson (the snail is female, although not the whale). There are lots more great suggestions on the Mighty Girl website, but sadly it’s US-focused and some of the recommended books are a bit issue-led rather than great pieces of storytelling. I’d love to know if you found any more, including some for 4- and 5-year olds.

    • Thanks for this comment! It’s been ages since I’ve updated my blog, but it’s good to know people are still checking in. The Snail and the Whale is a great suggestion to add to the list, and I love Helen Stephens, too! I’d also recommend the Emily Brown books by Cressida Cowell, which are totally brilliant and just right for 4-5 year olds. My daughter’s now 6 and we’ve just started Harry Potter (not brilliant on the gender balance, it has to be said), so she’s obsessed with magic, and we’re balancing out the boys of Hogwart’s with The Worst Witch, which seems to be going down very well too. I have the same frustration with the Mighty Girl website – it’s great, but really, really US-focused. I wish there was a UK equivalent…

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