Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Big, Bad Book Review

    As promised, I reviewed the children's books we own based on gender representation. Why, you ask? Because media literacy is important to me. Because the types of media kids are exposed to shape their perception of what the world is "supposed" to be like and how people look and act. Because when that perception is limited to very strict gender roles and ideas, children don't get to experience the full range of their personalities. Because children learn to see anything outside their experience as "other" and if this isn't challenged as they grow up, can lead to some very problematic ideas and assumptions. That's why.  I ended up including 86 books in all after the rest failed to meet my initial criteria that we'll go over in a second. I'll first go over my inclusion criteria, methods, and variables and then move on to the results. Finally I'll discuss what this means in terms of parenting and strategies for mitigating some of my findings. I'll also include some recommendations for some of our favorite gender inclusive books.

    But first let's address the limitations of the information. I'm sure there are more than I'll mention explicitly, but let's at least talk about some major ones. I make some assumptions about the intent of the authors. For example, when I talk about gendered illustrations, I assume that the people in pink dresses were intended to be female. It is possible that the author was being very inclusive and actually intended those children to be male or transgender or some other expression, but given the overall tone of the books and the gender representation, I felt safe in my assumptions. Second, our book collection is not representative of all the books that exists. I get that. Furthermore, since Perrin is male, the books we were given may be skewed towards male characters due to the underlying gender assumptions of the people who bought them. Third, there is a lot of gray area in some of the variables. For instance, I don't include all the background characters, only the ones that either speak or have names. But we will get more into that in the discussion of variables....So let's get started!

Inclusion Criteria
    My inclusion criteria was pretty simple- it had to be a young children's book (so no chapter books) that had some kind of narrative. I did not include simple books that were only pictures or named objects. There had to be some degree of dialogue or interaction between characters. Like I stated before, that ended up being 86 books. There were definitely elements to some of the excluded books that were gendered and offered up discussions of representation, but for the purpose of comparing them to the rest of the books, it didn't make sense to include them.


# of Female and Male Characters Named- Pretty self-explanatory. Because these are children's books, I was fairly liberal with what I considered to be a name. For example, I counted "Mommy" and "Bunny" as being a name if it was referring to a specific character. For this and the next variable, I cut off the count at 3. So if there were 5 named males, it was still recorded as 3. I did this because the only books where this occurred were in a select few where a group of characters was acting together. The higher counts weren't really affecting the gender representation and I didn't want the large numbers to skew the results.

# of Female and Male Characters Speaking- Simple and I used the same count method as above. There was a lot of overlap between these two categories but because I was not including background characters, I wanted a fairly general criteria for which characters I did include.

#of Ambiguous Characters- I also included a count for characters that were not expressly identified as male or female. In some cases the look of the character was overtly feminine or masculine, but if they were not directly identified through gendered pronouns I counted them as ambiguous. The most interesting example was Green Eggs and Ham. Neither character is ever referred to as a specific gender, although most people I know refer to them as male. One is named Sam, but that's a fairly gender neutral name.

Gendered Illustrations- I used a simple dichotomous variable to identify which books relied on gendered illustrations. Examples include all female characters wearing bows and dresses or only female characters having eyelashes.

Franchised Character- I made a note if the character was previously established from something like a movie or parent story. For example, the Cat and the Hat was not, because the extensions of the character came after the book being reviewed. However, Clifford was, because it was also a character from a TV show. This went into to how I determined the next variable.

Gender Swapping Possible?- I determined whether or not it was possible to change the gender of the characters without it affecting the plot line of the story. If the cow in the story needed help getting milked, it wasn't gender swappable. Or if the character was previously established as a specific gender in some other genre, it was not gender swappable.

Bedschel Test- The Bedschel test was originally used to rate movies for gender diversity and representation. A movie (or in my case, book) passes if there is more than one female character, the female characters speak to one another, and they speak about something other than a male character. There is also an additional criteria of the female characters having to be named, but I used the less strict version for my purposes. I noted if the book passed outright, but if one of the characters was ambiguous and you could make the assumption they were female and it met the other criteria, I gave it a provisional pass.

Main Character Sex- I also noted the sex of the main character. Some books had two main characters of different genders, and some had a main character with an ambiguous gender, so there ended up being 4 different categories.

Non-human Character- This was more for curiosity's sake, but I noted how many of the books featured some non-human character (Animals, monsters, muppets, e.g.) This goes back to the idea of gender swapping and the choices made by authors.

Father/Mother- Finally I noted which books featured either a mother character, a father character, or both. If there were illustrations with a mother or father figure in the background, but they didn't meet my initial character criteria (named or speaking), I did not count them.

     Ok, here is the good stuff. Most of it was pretty expected and also a little depressing. For starters, only 4 books passed the straight up Bedschel test. That's only 5%. If I included the ones that past provisionally, it only bumped it up to 9%. In addition, only 10% of the books had a female main character. Thirty percent had either an ambiguously gendered character or both, meaning 60% of the books featured a solo male character. Which is kind of odd considering that 73% of the books were gender swappable, meaning that the story wasn't dependent on the main character being male. Heck, 83% of the books featured non-human characters which I would assume leaves a lot of wiggle room gender wise.
     When we look at the characters in general, only 34% of named characters were female and 34% of speaking characters were female. In addition, 31 books featured a mother while only 16 featured fathers. If we looked only at those books that featured a sole parent, 25% of the fathers were the only parent while 61% of mothers were the sole parent.
     Finally, 40% of the books featured gendered illustrations in which characters were drawn to display gender over realistic depictions.

    Let's start with the good news- 22% of the books have ambiguous main characters, meaning there isn't really any focus on gender, which is nice. In addition, 73% of the books were gender swappable, so even though there seems to be a tendency to default characters as male, it's easy to read the characters as female to balance things out.
    However, when we talk about representation of female characters, it's a little more bleak. The fact that there were only 9 books with female main characters was a little depressing. Even more so that in the books that did have female characters, those characters were in more supportive roles, thus resulting in the lack of Bedschel Test passes. And average occurrence of female characters was only 34%, period. I was surprised to find that one of the biggest perpetrators of female exclusion was none other than the beloved Dr. Suess. Despite most of his characters being made up fantasy creatures, the pronouns were almost always male. Even when they weren't, they were left as ambiguous. There was extremely little female representation.

In the book "The Day the Crayons Quit", all of the crayons are left genderless (which makes sense) except Orange and Yellow, which are defaulted as male. 
Another ridiculous example I found was in the Chick N Pug book. Despite referring to a future of egg laying, the baby chick was given male pronouns. Sorry, but male chickens don't lay eggs. I ended up redacting this book.

This chick is male in the book. Female erasure, plus a jab at domestic labor?
    The other trend that I noticed and had to go back and recode later on was the depiction of parents. Going through the books, there was obviously way more mothers included than fathers. But after coding what I realized was that when fathers were included, it was usually in combination with mothers. In contrast, mothers were more often portrayed as the sole parent. This is troublesome because this creates a situation where fathers are seen as part of the family unit while mothers are seen as the default caregiver. That shafts both the role of the father as parent and the role of the mother as literally anything else.
The "Bunny Book" is one of the few books that recognizes male parents and actually presents it as the career choice of this bunny. 

     So the big takeaway from all this was that there is a huge gender discrepancy in these books. Despite it being unnecessary, a huge emphasis is put on gender in children's book, but that emphasis steadfastly favors male characters over female. Children reading these books are getting exposed to the idea the males drive story lines, go on adventures, and do a large number of things while the females do very little at all. It also means female children are having to learn to identify and empathize with the opposite sex, which is a good thing. However, male children are not getting that lesson in reverse and are instead seeing themselves as the norm, the default, and the standard.

    So what can we as parents do? Well a good start is seeking out books with female main characters or characters that don't fit into traditional gender roles. You can also look for the books with gender ambiguous characters, since that seems to be somehow easier (Is it really easier for a character to be genderless than to be female? Is the feminine side of the spectrum that low down on the list?) Once again, I include gender ambiguous to be any character that is not expressly identified as male or female. I do not include style of dress and hair. I don't want Perrin to think you can assume someone's gender by their appearance or that there is one way to be a boy and one way to be a girl. Another thing you can do is to simply swap the gender of the characters. There are lots of books we have that have male characters but I simply change the pronouns as I read the books. Sometimes I even switch them back and forth each time I read the same story. Or you can take the emphasis off gender by using neutral terms like "child" and "person" rather than "boy/girl" or "man/woman".

This is an example of where I use "child" instead of "girl" or "boy" when I read. 
   Another idea that works a little better as the kids get older is to engage them in critiquing. Asking "Why do you think only the girls have eyelashes? All people have eyelashes!" or "Why do all the boys have short hair in this book?", "Why do you think books never have boys wearing pink?". Just opening up these kinds of questions and conversations can help children to see these books as being non-representative of the world around them and are a great introduction to media literacy.

Some gendered language in Dr. Suess. Despite few female characters and almost none that are named or speak, he still manages to use hyperfeminine tropes. 

This book read "with the heart of a dinosaur, he shouldn't cry" which is bullshit, so I changed it. 

Books We Love

   Here are some of our favorite books. They are by no means perfect, but they do help give a little balance.

Dinosaur Kisses by David Ezra Stein: This book features Dinah, a female dinosaur. She tries to learn how to kiss, but instead ends up stomping and whomping and chomping everyone. It's a simple board book, but it's nice to see a female character portrayed as being physical, clumsy, and rambunctious.

Rawr by Todd Doodler: Ok, so we like dinosaur books. This dinosaur book uses no gendered language at all, although the illustrations are gendered (all the girls in dresses, all the boys with short hair). The main character is a dinosaur that is bigger than everyone else. However, we learn that even though the dinosaur is big, they can still be gentle, helpful, and kind.

Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime by Myra Wolfe: This book features a family of pirates, so that's always cool. Charlotte is the child and she decides that going to sleep is for land lubbers, so she decides to stay up all night. She is described as "hearty" and having "formidable oomph", which is a nice change of pace from the usual adjectives describing girls.

Baby Badger's Wonderful Night by Karen Saunders: This is a father and son story; the father badger takes his baby into the forest at night to show him all of the sights. It's nice to see a father as the parent of focus, especially in a story that is tender and sweet.

Why Won't the Dragon Roar? by Rosalyn Rosenbluth and The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf:
Both of these books challenge the hypermasculine norm. In these stories, the main character is a male dragon and bull, respectively. But he doesn't like to engage in the typical male behaviors of those around him. The dragon doesn't like to roar and Ferdinand doesn't like to fight. Instead they like to spend time with their friends and smell flowers.

And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson: This book is based on a true story. It follows two penguins in a same sex relationship and how they hatch an egg to have their own baby that they raise together. It is a little hit or miss in that it definitely seems to portray opposite sex relationships as normal and the two penguins as "different", however it's a good conversation starter and a really sweet story.

Green Start Books (various authors): These books are some of our favorites. Many of them were left out of my analysis as they weren't narrative based, but we love them all the same. They are introductions to different aspects of environmentalism- gardening, animal habitats, recycling, etc. The illustrations are bit gendered, but otherwise gender isn't addressed at all. The illustrations are very cute and the simple sentences make these concepts accessible for even young kiddos. They are also made from recycled materials and include a back section with tips for activities and life style changes.