Where Are the Girls in Children’s Lit?

When people chide me for being a night owl, I blame Tolkien. I was only 11 when I pulled my first all-nighter, but I was driven to stay up till I finished The Lord of the Rings. By the time I reached the end of his 1,000-page saga, however, a part of me felt a little left out by his relative lack of relatable female characters. Still, growing up, I hardly felt bereft of admirable, accessible, female literary protagonists. In my picture books, I enjoyed Madeline, Edith the Lonely Doll, and an array of fairy-tale heroines. As I grew older, I loved Harriet from Harriet the Spy, Meg from A Wrinkle in Time, and Charlotte the spider from Charlotte’s Web, to name just a few.

Consequently, when I learned of a sweeping new quantitative study on gender representation in 20th-century children’s books, I felt optimistic about what the findings might show–especially for the second half of the century.

At the same time, some nagging doubts unsettled me.  As a teacher, librarian and member of a children’s literary award committee, I have periodically heard people echo the common wisdom that girls will read books about boys, but not the other way around. I have also on occasion cringed to see this belief influence someone’s choice about what book to read aloud, assign or honor with an award. So, despite my initial high hopes, I approached this study with mixed expectations.

The findings were, in a word, grim!

In every area the study looked at, male characters outnumbered female ones.

This study, just published in the sociology journal, Gender and Society, examined gender representation in approximately 5,000 books published between 1900 and 2000. Researchers pulled titles from three main sources:

  • Winners of the Caldecott Award (given for excellence in picture books)
  • The Children’s Catalog (a broad spectrum reference book, once frequently used in library collection development)
  • Little Golden Books (yep–you know the ones–sold mostly in grocery and drug stores)

For consistency’s sake, the researchers selected preschool-to-third-grade-level books from all three sources, then compared the gender of central characters. Male title characters outnumbered their female counterparts by a ratio of 2:1. Overall, males were central characters in 56.9 percent of the books; females, in only 30.8 percent.

Doesn’t add up to 100, you say? That’s where animals characters filled in the gap.

Unfortunately, the animals had their own gender issues: Of the gendered animals who were central characters, 23.2 percent were male, compared to only 7.5 percent who were female. Moreover, the authors noted previous research indicating that this gap may be compounded by readers’ tendency to impose a male identity on animals if their gender is unclear in the story.

Perhaps the biggest surprise however, was the lack of linear improvement for the second half of the century.

Instead, the study found shifts correlating to periods of heightened feminist activity. Consequently, progress was strong during the second wave of feminism in the 1970′s. The authors attribute this improvement in part to a widely distributed quantitative study funded by the NOW Legal and Education Fund, which helped expose the disparity to publishers, educators and parents. Additionally the researchers expected to find backlashes to feminism and did discover that disparity was greatest from 1930-1960, ” precisely the period following the first-wave women’s movement.”

Although the number of female characters never fully caught up with the number of males, the researchers discovered, “a significant trend toward parity,” from 1990-2000–except in the case of those darned animals!

The authors have stern words about the societal implications of their findings:

Recent studies continue to show a relative absence of women and girls in titles and as central characters…Theoretically, this absence reflects a “symbolic annihilation” because it denies existence to women and girls by ignoring or underrepresenting them in cultural products. …  As such, children’s books reinforce, legitimate and reproduce a patriarchal gender system.

Despite these bleak findings, an updated study for the new millennium could possibly paint a more uplifting picture from a feminist standpoint. Perhaps new research might even show that the “symbolic annihilation of women,” has, at least for now, been derailed. 

While the researchers ambitiously sampled 5,618 20th-century children’s books, 21,878 were published in the United States in 2009 . With so many books being published these days, picking a representative sample group for an updated study would be especially important. A new study might include more award-winners. The authors focused on only one award, the Caldecott, in the belief that award-winners, “are not necessarily the most widely read books, nor are they likely to be representative of children’s books.” But awards do significantly influence which books remain in print, are sold at book stores, collected in libraries, and put on school reading lists. An updated study might consider the Newbery, as well as newer influential awards such as, the Pura  Belpre Award (established in 1996 for Latino/Latina writers and illustrators), and the Coretta Scott King Award (established in 1982 for African American authors and illustrators). These awards have helped promote greater inclusiveness in the literary world.

At the same time, an updated study might veer away from examining titles. Counting characters in titles seems at best problematic, and at worst misleading. For example, a new children’s book by Rita Williams-Garcia (which won both a Newbery Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award) presents the story of three African American sisters who travel to Oakland in the summer of 1968 to reconnect with their negligent birth mother. Once there, they are embraced by the Black Panther community. The story explores the struggles of these girls as they come of age in an adult, white, male dominated society. All of these intersectional themes would be lost in a tabulation based on this book’s title: One Crazy Summer.

Finally, while quantitative analysis helps show where there’s smoke, additional qualitative analysis would help find where there’s fire. To really gauge how literature affects children’s perceptions of gender, the type of representations they encounter, not just the number, must be considered. A larger number of female characters who promote stereotypes, for example, would not help raise anyone’s feminist consciousness. Unfortunately, the murkier more subjective area of qualitative analysis does not easily lend itself to a largescale study. Some of the questions that would make qualitative research tricky, include:

  • Are the central female characters empowered or do they reproduce stereotypes?
  • If they are not empowered, could this be because the book exposes injustice towards women?
  • Is there a conflicting subtext? Literature is complicated. From a feminist angle, it’s often revealing to note not only the traits and behaviors of female characters, but also whether these traits are ultimately punished or rewarded. A book that creates martyrs for example, can function implicitly as an anti-feminist cautionary tale, even if its intended message is pro-feminist.
  • Is there character growth? If not, even positive portrayals can become  stale conventions (e.g. the wise old healer woman, or the precocious young girl who always has the right answer or snappy come-back.) Female characters who exhibit relatable human flaws and developing maturity tend to be the ones who feel more realistic and inspiring.

Finally, deciding what constitutes a stereotype can be highly subjective because as our cultural norms change, what we perceive as breaking those norms changes also.

Children’s literature both reflects and shapes our wider societal values. Hopefully, both the number and type of representations children increasingly find in their books will inspire them to imagine a more equitable future for everyone.

Photo from Flickr user andy_carter through Creative Commons.

Comments

  1. There are more female characters in children/young adult literature than ever before. The YA genre is divided between girl characters like the one in Twilight (passive, romantic, spineless but that is just my opinion) and the one in The Hunger Games (fighter, self-sufficient). I think it’s a great time for female writers and their female characters.

  2. I do have a personal experience to share that is on a positive note. I have 3 granddaughters ages 10, 7 and 5. They are all big readers (except the 5 year old who is just learning, but likes to be read to). I was putting away their books, which were left all over the house and I started to notice the similarities in them. I’d say 98% of all of their books, plus the ones they check out from the library had positive female protagonists. I had been aware that they were didn’t want to read books about boys which were “boring” and “dumb” since they were all little tiny kids.

    I was so pleased to see that they were currently reading stories about girls who conquered an issue or issues in their young lives, who were considered courageous, smart, and good kids to hang out with. A study should be done for pre-teen age girls, like ages 8-14. It is at that time that they can start to reason, think about the story, and how it may relate to them. It can help them to see that nothing is impossible for girls to achieve. They have the ability to really empathize and walk in the shoes of the female protagonist at those ages. I am not too discouraged about the study as I think my gkids are a prime example of what girls today are reading. I noticed at the library in “their” section that most of the books were about influential girls. I have to admit, though, that as the gma, I have tried to instill feminist views in them for years, while trying not to appear to be a “man-hater”. Gentle persuasion, if a little subversive at times!

  3. I am a nanny and noticed this while reading books to the kids. I would do a few of things about this. 1. I would change the gender of some of the characters to be female while I read books to the little ones. Max of the wild things would become Maxine, or Max for short, etc. 2. I would talk to the kids (some as young as 1 1/2) about the lack of female characters in the books and point out things like, all the doctors in this book are men, but women can be doctors too. I have been a nanny for the same family for almost four years. Now the 5 year old boy will point out the lack of females, he stands up for equal gender rights on the playground, and tells me things like “It’s okay for girls to like dinosaur books and it’s okay for me to like princess books.” So until we get an equal representation of female characters, let’s talk to our young children about equality! they get it!

  4. Tamora Pierce is an excellent author for young adults. All of her protagonists with one exception are fiercely independent, smart and very strong female characters. I completely recommend them to anyone with daughters. Depending on maturity level I would say start them at around 10 years.

    It is a sad truth though that there are just not enough of these strong female characters out there, I find myself disappointed every time I babysit my nieces and the only stories they are interested in are Barbie books and Cinderella, because that is what is frequently readily available.

    • I absolutely agree about Tamora Pierce! She was my favorite author when I was younger because her female characters were so strong and interesting. She’s still one of my favorites. I am curious about which character is the exception, though.

      • One of the main characters in the… oh god, I can’t believe I forget the name of the series, I loved it. Circle something? The series with the four kids who have really strong different types of elemental magic, and learn to control it and save everything. That one! :)

        One of the four is a boy, Briar. He does plant magic. I think he’s the only male main character in any of her books. Presumably, Tamora Pierce figured it would have been unlikely that four kids with insanely rare magic would have all been girls. (Or possibly that suggesting magic was the preserve of women only was a bad idea!)

        I moved on from Tamora Pierce to Anne Bishop’s Dark Jewels books when I was about 13. WILDLY inappropriate at that age. But I loved it. And hoo-ee, talk about your powerful female characters! The Sabirel/Lirael/Abhorsen series by Garth Nix was also fantastic; female necromancer, fighting for good, what could possibly kick more butt?

    • I agree with you , Cait! I’m a public librarian and mother of three—my oldest is a 10 year old boy who is an avid reader. The article mentions the platitude that boys won’t/don’t read books about girls. But I want to more easily be able to recommend great books with great girl characters to boys as well.

      What I find is that many (not all)of the great books about girls are also about their “girl-ness”—great plot but also loads of introspection and self-awareness about their girlhood. Not so compelling a read for my 10 year old boy who likes fast-paced adventure! Whereas girls who want fast-paced adventure can find it in books whose characters are male. It seems that the default character is male for people, not just animals! It seems that if there is no reason for the character to be female, it is male. I find the same thing for race/ethnicity. My youngest child is a 3 year old black girl (the rest of the family is white). I’m tired of picture books that have black characters focusing on their blackness—(not that we don’t want and need those…just not only that!) Token girls, ethnic minorities and disabled people still abound. Fisher-Price’s Little People characters are a classic example–the smart leader is the white boy, the bossy white girl is always learning to self-improve, the black boy is NOT the leader and is a musician and magician, and the Asian girl is the ultra emotional animal lover. Ugh.

      • “I find the same thing for race/ethnicity… I’m tired of picture books that have black characters focusing on their blackness—(not that we don’t want and need those…just not only that!) Token girls, ethnic minorities and disabled people still abound.”

        I have loved books since I first learned how to read them. Now, I am a 24-year-old African American and I embrace my culture, but growing up, I stopped reading books featuring black children because they all seemed to “focus on their blackness”. At the time, I did not have a way to define my reason, so I am glad that you brought this up. I really hope things change by the time I have children. If not, I’ll just write stories for them.

  5. Ann Wagner says:

    The findings of this study seem surprising to me, but maybe that’s because lately I’ve been seeing and reading a lot of books where the main character is a strong girl, or a girl who develops and acquires strength. I agree with Ms. Allan, that another updated study would be useful, one using the awards lists and criteria she suggests. It would, as mentioned, be very important to know what sort of character the female character is, rather than just counting how many female characters appear. Is she a strong character? A stereotype? A fully-drawn character? These things matter.

  6. A study of books released since 2000 for the preschool and primary grades would be very valuable. I’m sure it would show an improvement in the number and quality of female characters, but I fear that the impact of such a change (if it, indeed, exists) might be lost on half the population.

    Although not rigorously scientific, I did a quick study of online recommended reading lists for boys. I found that the vast majority of titles (upwards of 90% on average) featured male protagonists. If boys are not encouraged to read stories about girls, how will they ever come to understand that girls are just as adventurous, strong, and capable as boys, and that stories about girls have value? Yes, they may encounter some girls acting in non-stereotypical ways in real life, but they also need to see girls taking on important roles in the fictional worlds that fuel their imaginations.

  7. I have one author for you; Terry Pratchett. His Tiffany Aching books are fantastic for all children, but have a strong, believable central female character. Start with ‘The Wee Free Men’.

  8. Considering that male authors are probably more likely to write about male characters and vice versa, I would like to see a comparison of the numbers (30.8% female characters) to what percentage of the authors of the same books are male or female. I would expect these numbers to be quite similar, so the numbers aren’t really that surprising to me. Also, I wouldn’t hold it against Tolkien for not including many female characters – he lived in a time when women stayed at home and men did all the ‘fighting’. His writing reflects that.

    What I find more interesting is why a contemporary author like JK Rowling would choose to write about a boy wizard instead of a girl. I often wonder if Harriet Potter would have been as successful. As for books with strong, young female protagonists, I think Philip Pullman has done a great job. “His Dark Materials” is an excellent series of books, one that I will definitely encourage my kids to read.

    As for the above-mentioned Twilight, I agree with Ashley. Those books are horribly anti-feminist and I sure hope they’ll be forgotten by the time my daughter is old enough to read them.

    • Interesting fact from Oprah’s televised interview with Joanne Rowling: In her personal life she does not, nor has she ever gone by J.K. Her publishers suggested she use her initials lest prospective boy readers be turned off because she was a woman.

    • Cecelia says:

      I have to say, Harry makes choices that I don’t see a girl making (this coming from someone who was aprox. the same age as Harry all through the series). 11 year old me would point out that he just could have done something less crazy, and Hermione would then point it out later. At the age that the characters are at a boy provides more humor and makes more slightly regrettable choices that girls are less likely to make. YA books depend on those awkward moments that boys seem to accumulate.

      The lack of female characters in younger children’s books is noticeable though, the librarian at the school I work in is always conscious of that and her recommended books are nearly always a 50/50 split between female and male protagonists.

    • Arlene Z says:

      At least Hermione in Rowling’s books gave girls someone to emulate — she was clearly the brains of the outfit. What greatly disturbs me is that the films (with predictable male directors and their entrenched ideas and attitudes) turned the chubby, freckled redhead with the brains into an anorexic waif who happily shuts up and takes second place to Harry in all the films following the initial one.

      Why did Rowling not stand up for Hermione, and why was everyone else not objecting to this downgrading of Hermione’s importance?

  9. The minority of female lead characters in children’s lit is one reason that it’s important to supplement great books (which might not have any strong females in them) with contemporary media like New Moon Girls (full disclosure, I’m the founder) – girls are all the leads in our fiction and non-fiction.

  10. YA books are thankfully heavier on strong female protagonist from Scout in To kill a mockingbird to Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger games. For the younger set Scholastic has a series of books on the real lives of true Princesses from many diffrent cultures. But I have noticed the lack in books aimed at the youngest children. My daughter is 3 and much prefers the storys I make up about a little girl dragon to any ‘yucky boy story.’

  11. It may also bear mentioning that as it is in all the arts, male artists/writers are the norm; they are taken more seriously at pursuing the calling of such craft, and as such, proliferate and exist in higher numbers. (See Linda Nochlin’s excellent essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”) Perhaps this is part of the underlying reason for the higher numbers of male protagonists in the YA titles.

    As women artists/ writers are taken more seriously and demand more emotional and physical support (household and childrearing duties) from their partners/ spouses, we shall see higher numbers of female writers/artists creating more works with strong, non-stereotyped female leads.

  12. Fyre Chylde says:

    This is a fascinating article, and the comments recommending books for girls are great. My cousin, to whom I’m close, has two girls, ages 4 and 1 1/2. For the past 5 years, I’ve been pulling my hair out when I try to buy gifts for them. So, I’m glad to know my book choices will open up as they grow.

    I agree with the author that something like this is difficult to study. I’m glad they tried, because it did reinforce what I see on library and bookstore shelves. However, I hope that, if future studies are attempted, there will be more break-down according to race/ethnicity as well as gender. I hear from the African American, Latino and Asian-American feminist communities that getting adult fiction/non-fiction published is tough enough. I can’t imagine what it must be like with children’s and YA fiction.

  13. Melissa says:

    I would love to see this further analyzed by race. Go into almost any book store or library and all the books in the kids section that have people, will have white people. I actually have been in multiple stores where I really do mean ALL. It’s incredibly frustrating.

  14. My almost 8yo loves Rick Riordan’s new series The Kane Chronicles (1st book is The Red Pyramid) The main characters are a brother and sister team and 2 chapters will be in her voice and 2 ch in his, throughout the book. She also really liked the Percy Jackson series and there were strong female characters in that as well.

    My daughter just told me there are very few books about girls. What we would BOTH love to see are more adventure books, where there is a girl hero – and better yet a girl posse to back her up. Many books seem to have one strong (or at least decent) female role, but at a ratio of about 5 male:1 female.

  15. papermageling says:

    I grew up on Tamora Pierce, Diana Wynne Jones, and Patricia C. Wrede. All of those authors are very good about having strong female protagonists. Their protagonists often face dumb expectations and don’t let them slide. Diana Wynne Jones female characters are the least pushy, but they are still believable and she doesn’t idealize submissiveness (unlike that unfortunate book, Twilight, which I would never hand to any young girl).

  16. I’ve heard about an author, Michael Lopez. He wrote a fantasy children’s book, Zoey Le Mar and the Veil of Fear, about four multicultural preteen girls who deal with magic, monstesrs, and mayhem. It’s a great read.

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