Content Analysis and Gender Stereotypes in Children's Books

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article deals with gender stereotypes in popular children's books. I propose an exercise in which students use content analysis to uncover latent gender stereotypes present in such popular books as those by Dr. Seuss. Using a coding frame based on traditional gender-role stereotypes, I assign students to small groups who then undertake a close analysis of selected children's books to see whether or not traditional gender-role stereotypes are apparent. Students examine the text, symbols, characters, use of color, and major themes in each book. In this article, I briefly review the theoretical underpinnings of the exercise, offer a brief summary of content analysis, and outline the delivery of the exercise, its learning goals, and major discussion points. Through a take-home assignment, students are asked to articulate the manner in which gender stereotypes may be perpetuated by the media. Additionally, students are encouraged to think about the ways in which their own gender identities have been shaped by the media. Actual student comments are used throughout to highlight the major discussion points.

One of the most difficult tasks we face when teaching introductory courses in sociology is convincing students that society plays a large role in directing their behavior and shaping their lives. Students steeped in the ideologies of individualism and meritocracy much prefer to view their behavior as a matter of choice and outcomes in life as congruent with their unique talents and skills. For instance, when it comes to gendered behavior, many students are inclined to believe that differential outcomes in life for women and men are due to natural or innate differences (particularly differences related to biology) rather than the processes of socialization and social forces which might be suggested by using their "sociological imagination" (Mills 1956).

Thus, students must learn to identify themselves as members of various social categories, including categories related to gender, social class, or race and ethnicity, and to think about the ways in which their lives have been shaped and influenced by membership in those groups. Perhaps the most basic social status is that related to gender. Society maintains a different set of normative roles for women and men, and requires of them different responsibilities and kinds of work. One's expected opportunities and outcomes in life correlate strongly with gender.

One method of helping students learn about gender stereotypes and getting them interested in sociology in general is to use the tools of qualitative analysis (Walzer 2001). The exercise described here consists of a content analysis of children's books which contain many common stereotypes related to gender. Almost any type of children's book can be used. Students perform a content analysis of gender messages in the books by using a coding frame specifically developed for the purpose. Using the techniques described here, students read and examine the books and record their findings, paying particular attention to characters and themes that are stereotypical.

First I discuss theoretical background to the exercise in relation to language and gender codes. Next, I briefly review the literature related to gender stereotypes in children's books and review the learning objectives of the exercise and what previous learning students should have mastered in order for the exercise to be effective. This is followed by a brief review of content analysis. I then discuss the exercise delivery and some instructions on how to carry it out successfully. Finally, I bring up some useful points of discussion that can follow the exercise. This article contributes to the present literature on gender stereotypes by presenting actual student observations and reflections.

THEORETICAL BACKGROUND

Language sets the stage for the development of self-conscious behavior and thought. Through language and interaction, children acquire a social self (Mead 1934). …