Young children are surrounded with language and pictures that constantly impact their development and idea of gender stereotypes. Children’s literature has been one of the primary avenues exposing gender stereotypes which is either challenged or reinforced through children’s books. Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men (Kari, 2019) and differs from the biological category of sex as sex involves genetic differences. Identity is defined as being our deeply held, internal sense of self as masculine, feminine, a blend of both, neither, or something else (Spectrum, 2019). Both gender and identity can be seen in Jayneen Sander’s Pearl Fairweather Private Captain as well as Whitney Darrow Jr’s I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m glad I’m a Girl! This essay highlights the notion that children’s literature over time has adapted to today’s changing society and that negative stereotypes have been decreased and instead have been replaced with literature that empowers young individuals and assists them to combat challenges regarding gender expectations. The essay will also place emphasis on how gender stereotypes are reinforced in some children’s books and how they are challenged in others through the comparison of the two children’s books selected.
Gender stereotypes in children’s literature were more prevalent in the 1960s-70s. Due to the world’s views continuously evolving – it is almost impossible for children’s literature not to change also in order to adapt to the worlds shifting perspectives. It is evident that the prevalence of gender stereotypes in children’s literature was more common in this time period. An article by Sharyl Peterson found that during this period, children’s literature portrayed females as being passive, dependant and incapable, whereas males were shown as being active, independent and skilled (Peterson, 2006). The children’s book I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m glad I’m a Girl! By Whitney Darrow Jr reinforces gender stereotypes as it explains the different roles that males and females play within society. This is shown when Darrow states “Boys fix things, Girls need things fixed, Boys are doctors, Girls are nurses” (Darrow, 1970). Thus revealing that females were portrayed as being subordinate whereas males were shown as being superior. It is also important to keep in mind that the book was published in 1970 which suggests that individuals in the 70s conformed to the gender stereotypes and it wasn’t as controversial as it is in the 21st century.
Gender stereotypes in children’s literature often shapes career choices. The idea of males being the more dominant and capable gender is reinforced through Darrow’s book when Darrow exclaims, “Boys are policemen, Girls are meter maids, Boys are pilots, Girls are stewardesses” (Darrow, 1970). This sends out a clear message saying that women are incapable of doing a man’s work such as a pilot or a policemen and are very helpless, whereas boys are represented as helpful individuals. The diction within the story is also very demeaning as Darrow states “what boys are” and “what girls are” which essentially leads to young children thinking that they have a limited number of things to be when they grow up, toys they can play with and the clothes they can wear. The story exposes the fact that although there are many books that are breaking away from stereotypes, there are also many that still conform to them.
The prevalence of gender stereotypes in children’s literature has decreased over a period of time. As aforesaid, many modern day authors have begun breaking away from stereotypes and have started challenging them. This is apparent in Jayneen Sander’s Pearl Fairweather Private Captain which educates children on gender equality by portraying a female as a pirate which is often seen as a male character. The book was published in 2016 which suggests that over time, gender expectations has lessened and women are finally being portrayed as strong, independent women.
This is solidified through an article by May M who examined illustrations of 25 books in the 70s and noticed that 21 books showed women wearing aprons, whereas males were involved in more active roles. In comparison to children’s books published in the 1960s-70s, the roles have reversed in the 21st century and women are shown as independent and are participating in male-dominating roles.
Children’s literature has incorporated books that encourage gender equality. This is seen in Sander’s book which promotes gender equality as it displays a brave, fair and strong female captain who has a diverse crew of twenty-four women. The fact that the male roles are taken place by women, can be inspiring and uplifting as a pirate is generally a male role as seen in Melinda Long’s book, How I became a Pirate as well as Dave Berry’s, Peter and the Starcatchers. This will therefore result in women feeling the confidence to partake in a male dominated role. Jackelyn Ho confirms the increase of women employed in male dominating roles when she states ‘Over the past ten years, the proportion of female leaders in the workforce has increased by an average of just over two percentage points among the 12 industries we studied” (Ho, 2019). Not only have females taken over male dominated roles, but males have also taken over female-dominated roles and this has been shown in children’s literature through books such as Ballerina Nate by Kimberly Bradley which tells a story of a young boy who loves dancing but is continuously being told that “Boys don’t dance” but pursues ballet anyways. The breaking of gender norms here allows young children to know that it is alright to not limit yourself just because of society’s expectations.
Males are often viewed as the antagonist within children’s literature and females are viewed as weak. Although females are highly empowered in Sander’s book, it also seems as though the males within the book are the enemy when they attempt to take over Captain Fairweather’s ship. This is apparent on page 10 when Captain McCross, the antagonist exclaims, “Give me your ship! But I want none of your useless crew” (Sander, 2016, p. 10). The word choice ‘useless’ is patronising as Fairweather’s crew consists of all women which sends a message to young children that females are useless. This part of the book also singles out males as the bully which enforces the negative stereotype of a bully being male. The idea of women being useless is reinforced to a major extent within Darrow’s book when he states “Boys invent things, Girls use what boys invent” (Darrow, 1970). This ultimately degrades women as they are seen as incapable and helpless. It is clear that there are negative aspects regarding gender stereotypes shown between both males and females within children’s literature.
Gender stereotypes in picture books affect the development of gender identity in young children. Gender identity is defined as our internal understanding and our identification of our gender (Spectrum, 2019). Picture books offer role models for young children in explaining expectations for feminine and masculine behaviour. Gender stereotypes ultimately restrict children’s potential to develop, whereas non-sexist books can form positive changes in self-concept, attitudes, and behaviour (Narahara, 1998). The two books discussed highlights this statement as Darrow’s book reinforces gender stereotypes and Sander’s book challenges gender stereotypes. This can confuse young children as they may experience pressure relating to gender identity. Leaders and Psychologists support that gender stereotyping in children’s literature have harmful effects on children’s view of women’s roles (Gooden, 2001). Therefore, illustrated books such as Captain Pearl Fairweather that views women positively can be utilised to remove these stereotypes as it encourages women empowerment and gender quality. However, books such as I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m glad I’m a Girl! Detriments young children’s gender identity and limits their potential to grow.
In summation, both Whitney Darrow’s I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m glad I’m a Girl! And Jayneen Sander’s Pearl Fairweather Private Captain exposes the idea that children’s literature consists of books that either reinforce the idea of gender stereotypes or challenge it. However, it is important that authors assist in encouraging other writers to steer away from gender stereotypes to allow children to feel empowered and not feel obliged to take on specific gender roles. It is clear to say that the roles played by males and females have changed in a subtler way over the years and girls are now being seen in more active roles, whereas boys are occasionally viewed as passive dependant, but no less active than 50 years ago.