Tag Archives: gender

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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My Feminist Leanings

I’ve had a feeling for some time now that there is a shift in mood about feminism, equality and gender discrimination but, over the past couple of months, voices are rising and – I hope – being heard. I have been banging on about this stuff since I was a teenager, so I am both relieved and excited to discover that other people feel the same way.

Rather than going on here about my own thoughts and ideas here, which could turn into a rather long post, I just want to mention two campaigns that I have been following recently. The first is No More Page Three, organised by Lucy Holmes (#nomorepage3 / you can sign the petition here: http://tinyurl.com/9mt5j89), which is petitioning the Sun to drop the topless photos of young women that it features five days a week. It’s just plain bizarre that page three still exists in a daily, family newspaper, and the Sun‘s response to this polite request to put a, frankly, outdated and inappropriate practice to bed (so to speak) just highlights the fundamental sexism and misogyny that exists within the tabloid press. (You can read more about that at http://inadifferentvoice.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/wimmin-know-your-place). Apparently, when asked for a response on the campaign, the Sun said that there are more important things to be concerned about in the world. Yes, there are. So why don’t they put an article about these more important things on page three? Perhaps it could even be written by a woman.

The other campaign I want to mention is the Everyday Sexism Project (http://www.everydaysexism.com), which I have been following on Twitter (#everydaysexism). This is basically a simple forum for women to document examples of sexism that they encounter, whether that be something apparently minor or more serious examples, such as rape or assault. It’s fascinating and heartbreaking and reading it makes me physically shake with anger. So many of the examples are familiar and most women will recognise at least some the situations from personal experience and – as is so often the case – will also have brushed such experiences off as one of those things, or not worth complaining about, or will have felt themselves somehow to blame, or – if they did say something – will have been told (sometimes by their own friends and family) not to make a fuss.

The links between these two campaigns need little explanation. It is the mentality that says women’s bodies are there for the titillation and entertainment of the public – even when you don’t ask for it; even at eight in the morning with your coffee when you just want to read the headlines – that leads to the assumption that it’s okay to grope a woman you don’t know in a bar or in the street or on the Tube. It is this mentality that makes people say a woman is ‘letting herself go’ if she chooses not to wear make-up because she likes to have an extra ten minutes in bed or prefers comfortable shoes that don’t shorten her tendons and crush her toes. It is a subtle, creeping mentality that seeps into the consciousness, to a greater or lesser degree, of anyone who is not vigilant against it.

Campaigns such as No More Page Three and the Everyday Sexism Project are important and vital if we are ever to live in a fair and balanced society. These campaigns are good for women, but they are also good for men who, let’s not forget, also suffer from the inequalities that exist between the sexes. I encourage anyone reading this to show their support. It’s time for us all to show our feminist leanings.

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