Academic journal article Journal of Children's Literature

The Gendered Portrayal of Inanimate Characters in Children's Books

Academic journal article Journal of Children's Literature

The Gendered Portrayal of Inanimate Characters in Children's Books

Article excerpt

THE ISSUES ASSOCIATED with gendered characters in children's books first gained attention in the 1970s. F rom their examination of award-winning children's books in the United States, Weitzman, Eifler, Hokada, and Ross (1972) found that male characters were not only disproportionately represented in the books but were shown engaging in more exciting, adventurous activities than female characters. Since this seminal research, multiple studies have been conducted on gender stereotypes in children's books, and these studies have yielded similar findings regarding the portrayal of male and female characters. In a review of 200 children's books published since 2001, it was found that, compared to males, females were more likely to be shown indoors, portrayed as nurturing, and employed in traditional female occupations (Hamilton, Anderson, Broaddus, & Young, 2006). This situation is problematic given that children learn about the world through children's literature; when children's books reinforce gender divisions in society, children come to see these divisions as normal (Crisp & Hiller, 2011; Kortenhaus & Demarest, 1993; McCabe et al., 2011; Tepper & Cassidy, 1999). Bian, Leslie, and Cimpian (2017) point out that when girls internalize gender stereotypes, it may discourage them from pursuing certain careers based on the belief that such careers are the province of males.

Although there have been numerous studies on stereotypical gender portrayals of male and female characters in children's books, the extant research has focused almost exclusively on human and animal characters (e.g., Clark, Guilmain, Saucier, & Tavarez, 2003; Grauerholz & Pescosolido, 1989; Hamilton et al., 2006; Weitzman et al., 1972; Williams et al., 1987). Our study extends this research base by examining gender-role portrayals of main characters that are anthropomorphized inanimate objects, such as trucks and bulldozers, as well as nature-based entities, such as trees and clouds. For convenience, we refer to nonhuman and nonanimal characters as "inanimate" for the remainder of this article. The research questions we sought to answer in this study were as follows: (1) Do gendered inanimate characters in children's books perpetuate stereotypical gender roles? (2) How are inanimate objects portrayed when they are male characters? (3) How are inanimate objects portrayed when they are female characters? (4) Are there differences in the representation of male and female inanimate characters compared to male and female human and animal characters?

Children become familiar with book characters through films, television shows, and other aspects of popular culture, such as theme park rides, video games, and toys. Books featuring anthropomorphized inanimate characters that children recognize through television shows and films, such as Thomas and Friends (PBS Kids) and Cars (Disney Pixar), are often highly desired by children. Caregivers and teachers are likely to select these books based on children's interests without considering underlying messages. Alternately, they may choose picturebooks with nonhuman characters specifically to avoid exposing children to typical gender-role character portrayals. It is therefore important to examine whether gender stereotypes are, in fact, perpetuated through children's books that feature inanimate characters or whether such books are able to transcend traditional gender-role portrayals.

Background

The rise of the women's rights movement in the 1970s led researchers to examine how gender stereotypes in society were perpetuated through the education system (e.g., Sharpe, 1976). The transmission of gender stereotypes in children's literature thus became an important area of study. Content analyses of books based on numbers of male and female characters and differences in the way these characters were portrayed became a popular way for researchers to determine gender inequalities in children's literature (Marshall, 2004). …

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