Five years ago there was a study into the gender of characters in children’s books between 1900 and 2000. It turned out central characters were 1.6 times more likely to be male, and twice as likely to feature in the title. Female animals got an even more raw deal; male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year. Female animals took centre stage in only 7.5%.
Ok firstly, this sounds like a pretty awesome study to be a part of. If I could get paid to read Beatrix Potter every day for a week, that’d be great. Secondly, if I was Jemima Puddleduck at this moment, I’d be pretty hacked off. (Quacked off?)
I was a massive reader as a kid. Every summer there was a library reading drive where you could write your reviews on a leaf, fish, star or butterfly and you got a certificate if you read six. If they’d have given me a certificate for every six books I read, I could have covered my whole bedroom door. I thought they were going to kick me out for unfair usage.
It’s only looking back I realise the massive gender bias I was subject to. Every fairy tale female was in search of a prince. Mummy was home cooking while Daddy went to work. Enid Blyton had Janet, Barbara and Pam covering for the boys as they had adventures that were just too dangerous for girls. The Babysitter’s Club only had one teenage boy in it (although he was only an associate member, because it was all a bit awkward having him at the meetings if they happened to use the word bra.)
More recently, things may have moved on a bit but there are still a lot of female sidekicks, and some well-intentioned attempts at getting young girls interested in STEM careers have been soaked in sexism – take a bow Barbie...
“I’m designing a game that shows kids how computers work … You can make a robot puppy do cute tricks by matching up coloured blocks!” Good show crashing that glass ceiling down, but Barbie goes on to admit: “I’m only creating the design ideas … I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” Then Barbie crashes the computer - Steven and Brian have to fix it. Silly Barbie, step aside, let the boys do the tough stuff, thank god they were here, pillow-fight instead anyone?
I’m not saying let’s make every mummy and daddy working parents with a mix of childcare and after school club, because it would make Peppa Pig a rough read. I’m not saying we make Hermione head of the Quidditch team even if she doesn’t play, in the interests of positive discrimination. We needn’t emasculate Thomas the Tank Engine by insisting Annie and Clarabel try to pull him despite having no engine of their own.
Just how about a little more thought from authors and publishers on how their characters fit into stereotypes? The author of Barbie the Computer Engineer herself admitted it was unconscious. “If I was on deadline, it’s possible stuff slipped out…” We’re all victims to the status quo a little bit; it’s a matter of pushing back.
I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise on my own failings, because as I finish writing this I’m reminded of a book I wrote for my godson when he was five: ‘Samuel Snail’s walk in the rain,’ with only one female animal character. I guess I’m one of those that need to have a word with themselves, and this weekend Lois Ladybird is getting her own anthology.