Why are gender issues crucial in children’s books?
Children’s literature plays a crucial role in the development of gender identity of girls and boys. This has been demonstrated by many studies that have also highlighted that children’s books often represent and reinforce sexist and gender stereotypes.
A stereotype is the belief that all the people of a group behave in the same way, without considering individual features among its members. More specifically, sexism is grounded in a stereotyped representation of men and women. Gender-based stereotypes work as culturally and socially constructed cages; they attempt to force individual characteristics into two polarised categories (male and female) in a hierarchical relation, and, in so doing, to influence people to behave according to rigid social expectations.
Traditional models of representation of gender identities are still predominant in many European countries, thus causing and reinforcing gender inequality and violence. Many studies have shown that children tend to accept automatically the models that are presented to them and to identify with characters that belong to their gender group.
Current gendered trends in children’s literature
By creating editorial projects that are strongly gendered, children’s literature has lately targeted girls and boys differently. A recent trend consists in the creation of different, often stereotyped books and series for boys and girls. Generally, there are more numerous and varied books for girls and several of these include also positive role models and representations. These recent publishing trends can be explained with the fact that studies have shown that statistically girls read more than boys. Conversely, the published material for boys is more limited, both quantitatively and qualitatively.
As a result, children’s literature reinforces a rigid opposition between genders, fostering binary and conventional models. Traditionally, the portrayal of girls follows the old division between “angelic” and “wicked” women. Thus, girls are mostly depicted as beautiful, kind, delicate, sweet, fearful, affectionate, emotional, and caring, on the one hand, and jealous, whiny, and spoiled, on the other. Their actions and behaviours conform to the three-fold imperative to be good-looking, obedient, and caring. On the other hand, boys are generally afforded more options: they can be strong, brave, disobedient, resourceful, selfish, adventurous, boisterous, reckless, and self-confident. They enjoy greater freedom in roles and behaviours, which tend to portray them as assertive, confident, and bold. Female characters’ roles are confined to those of mothers, grandmothers, teachers, ballerinas, princesses, fairies, and witches and even when women work, they take care of the house and the family. Male characters perform instead a wider range of roles: they are fathers, grandfathers, magicians, wizards, engineers, police officers, house builders, painters, musicians, fire-fighters, directors, doctors, bank clerks, actors, scientists, captains, explorers, detectives, etc. When they come home from work, they are tired and have to rest, sitting comfortably in their own armchair.
The following table summarises the stereotyped opposition between genders found in children’s books:
It is therefore essential to support gender-positive children’s literature, by proposing books with characters that break gender stereotypes, both for girls and boys.
There are still important differences on how European countries are dealing with gender identities in children’s literature. Where gender equality is more respected, the production of gender-positive children’s literature is more widespread. But in several countries the dissemination of this kind of literature has just started.
Why is G-BOOK important? How can it contribute to overcoming stereotypes?
The project originated from the awareness of the above-mentioned crucial role that children’s literature plays in the acquisition and evolution of children’s gender identities. Studies have demonstrated how young generations tend to acquire gender models and roles presented in the books they read, often assimilating them uncritically. Although there has been a growing development of a literary production that is aware of gender issues and seeks to challenge gender stereotypes, such production is distributed unevenly among European countries. Moreover, it is often relegated to a sort of ‘niche’ and does not reach the majority of children.
In this context, children’s literature should contribute to:
- Help children identify and overcome stereotypes;
- Offer them a variety of gender models and identity representations, all equally worthy and acceptable;
- Make children free to imagine themselves according to their personal tastes, preferences, interests, attitudes, and abilities;
- Educate them to respect, appreciate, and value differences – be they cultural, religious, physical, or related to gender and sexual orientation.
The books included in the G-book bibliography aim to promote gender positive children’s literature in terms of roles and models, a literature that is open-minded, plural, varied, free from stereotypes, and that encourages respect and diversity. One of the challenges of the project is to overcome the binary division between books targeted to boys and books targeted to girls. This can be done by offering a wide range of texts for both girls AND boys that show them many different gender models of their same sex as well as of their opposite sex. These books will foster and increase children’s critical thinking, helping them feel that they are not trapped in cages and models: they are free to choose who and what they want to be and, in so doing, they will be able to let others experience the same freedom.
Suggested reading and resources
- Bambine e ragazzine tra letteratura e società (Liber 82 – 2009, pp. 17-35).
- Stereotipi sessisti (Liber 93 – 2013, pp. 34-41).
- VV, Sguardi differenti. Il punto su sessismo, gender e alienazione genitoriale, Foggia, Casa editrice Mammeonline, 2016.
- VV., Questioni di gender (La ricerca 9 – December 2015).
- Belotti Gianini Elena, Dalla parte delle bambine, Feltrinelli, 1973.
- Belotti Gianini Elena, Sessismo nei libri per bambini, Milano, Dalla parte delle bambine, 1978.
- Biemmi Irene, Educazione sessista. Stereotipi di genere nei libri delle elementari, Rosenberg & Sellier, 2017.
- Chabrol Gagne Nelly, Filles d’albums. Les représentations du féminin dans l’album, Le Puy-en-Velay, L’Atelier du poisson soluble, 2011.
- Connan-Pintado Christiane, Gilles Béhotéguy (eds.), Etre une fille, être un garçon dans la littérature pour la jeunesse, Bordeaux, Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2014.
- Connan-Pintado Christiane, Gilles Béhotéguy (eds.), Etre une fille, être un garçon dans la littérature pour la jeunesse. 2 Europe 1850-2014, Bordeaux, Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2017.
- Quante donne puoi diventare? Guida alla decifrazione degli stereotipi sessisti negli albi. Città di Torino. http://www.comune.torino.it/politichedigenere/bm~doc/guida-alla-decifrazione-degli-stereotipi-sessisti-negli-albi-illustrati.pdf
- Immaginario di genere (Liber 113 – 2017, pp. 42-51).
- Lipperini Loredana, Ancora dalla parte delle bambine, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2007.
- Lyon Clark Beverly, Margaret R. Higonnet (eds.), Girls boys books toys, Baltimore and London, The John Hopkins University Press, 1999.
- Questioni di genere (Hamelin 29 – October 2011).
- Pace Rossana, Immagini maschili e femminili nei testi per le elementari, Roma, Presidenza del consiglio dei ministri, 1986.
- Porzio Serravalle (ed.), Saperi e libertà 2… Vademecum, Milano, Associazione Italiana Editori, 2001.
- Porzio Serravalle (ed.), Saperi e libertà: maschile e femminile nei libri, nella scuola e nella vita, Milano, Associazione Italiana Editori, 2000.
Italian Existing Bibliographies on Children’s Literature and Gender
Tu, di che genere sei? Storie del maschile e del femminile nei libri per bambini e ragazzi.
- Chi sono io? Identità, cambiamenti, crescita, autonomia.
- Come tu mi vedi: diversità, maschile e femminile, corpo, amore, famiglia.
Tu, di che genere sei? Storie del maschile e del femminile: un percorso bibliografico per bambine e bambini della scuola primaria.
Tu, di che genere sei? Storie del maschile e del femminile: un percorso bibliografico per ragazze e ragazzi della scuola secondaria di primo grado.
Biblioteca intercomunale di Vezzano Padergnone e Terlano, 2013.
Pari opportunità e differenze di genere. Bibliografia a cura della Biblioteca dei Ragazzi e delle Ragazze del Comune di Bari
Narrativa a tematica di genere per l’infanzia e l’adolescenza. Città di Torino
SCOSSE. Leggere senza stereotipi [http://www.scosse.org/leggere-senza-stereotipi/] (Online catalogue)
Fierli Elena, Giulia Franchi, Sara Marini, Leggere senza stereotipi. Figurarsi il futuro. Osservatorio sull’editoria per l’infanzia 0-6 in Italia e all’estero, Cagli, Settenove, 2017.
Leggere differenze. Biblioteca Sala Borsa Ragazzi, Bologna
Calpurnia e le sue sorelle. 11 febbraio giornata internazionale per le donne e le ragazze nella scienza. Biblioteca Sala Borsa Ragazzi, Bologna
Sebben che siamo donne… Il Novecento attraverso ritratti di donne italiane. Biblioteca Sala Borsa Ragazzi, Bologna.