This piece was also published on the Huffington Post
It’s amazing how much routine sexism we regularly feed our kids via their reading material. Strange as it may seem, research suggests that a female has a greater chance of securing a seat on the board of a Fortune 500 company, in Congress or in the Senate than she does of appearing as a main character in a children’s book. When they do appear, if they’re not carrying wands or broomsticks, or attempting to marry unelected future heads of state, female characters are usually sidekicks or help-mates.
Take Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men books, childhood favourites of mine. As the series title suggests, their world is as exclusively male as a frat house or a submarine, a science fiction-style dystopia in which all the women appear to have been wiped out. Although in an environment in which each man possesses just one emotional characteristic (Happy! Grumpy! Forgetful!) the absence of women, with their bleeding and complexity, may well be for the best.
Banished from Mr Men world, Andrea Dworkin style, the females of the ‘Men’ species apparently formed their own nation state in the early eighties, providing the various settings for the ‘Little Miss’ books. But any thoughts of the establishment of a radical feminist utopia stop there. Apart from the infantilising honorific they have collectively adopted (Little Miss? Really? Am I the only one who has a problem with this?) and their vaguely demeaning character names, Miss Chatterbox, Giggles, Ditzy et al, when presented with the central dilemma driving their respective narrative arcs, (Little Miss Giggles finds herself unexpectedly unable to giggle) the first thing they tend to do is to seek the advice of one of their male counterparts (“so she went to visit Mr Strong, to see if he could help.”) The Messrs Men then rescue the situation, and restore giggles, chattering and ditzyness all round.
On the Island of Sodor, where Thomas the Tank Engine lives, females exist, but the glass ceiling hangs low. All the senior positions are occupied by men, (I suspect, but can’t prove, nepotism.) No matter what their qualifications, there is little prospect of an Annie or a Clarabel ousting a Gordon or a Percy from the top spots, no matter how many times Silly Old Gordon demonstrates his basic incompetence by getting stuck in a ditch, they must still smile sweetly, and chug along a modest six feet behind their bosses, as befits their gender.
Females fare little better on Sesame Street, the old school hipster franchise, apparently responsible for America’s deficit, that has spawned a huge range of children’s books. Despite its impeccable ethnic diversity and meticulous representation of all strata of society via the children featured on the television show, its puppet elite is apparently impenetrable for female applicants. In the spin-off books, occasionally a female puppet called Zoe makes a brief appearance to fix her hair bows or remark on how pretty butterflies are, but the big guns (you know who you are Elmo, Big Bird and your macho fraternity) make sure that the puppet top spots are reserved for the boys.
The gentle old school books have the screamingly obvious gender roles- The Tiger that Came to Tea, with the breadwinning father and the mother at home, up to her eyeballs in domestic drudgery and still having to feed unexpected and ravenous feline callers. Richard Scarry’s quaint housey books, depict father and son kittens relaxing on the sofa discussing affairs of state, while mother and daughter kittens clean the kitchen.
It’s not just me and my joy-crushing feminist ways. Research published last year suggests that characters in children’s books are overwhelmingly male, and this is particularly true when they are non-human, and supposedly neutral. The reporting in the press of the study attracted the usual range of livid commenters below the line, taking time out of their busy schedules to compose thoughtfully worded comments about how “NONE OF THIS MATTERS SO WHY ARE WE TALKNG ABOUT IT?” many of them presumably still smarting about the demise of black and white minstrel shows and golliwogs.
Does it matter that children’s books are sexist? I guess that depends whether you think that either a) children and/or b) equality, matter. I do, but then then I’m the kind of powerfully annoying mother who says brightly: “or maybe it’s a woman!” every time my son points out a man driving a truck in a book. Any thoughts?