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Children’s Media Is Chauvinistic–Geared Toward Men

May 11, 2011
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It’s a tired old song, one replayed again and again in country music: I want to be a man, how to be a man, what men do, stand by your man, blah, blah, barf.  No one was happier than I to see Carrie Underwood with that bat in her hand.  But, what isn’t that publicized is the manner in which this chauvinistic behavior starts out, with chauvinistic little boys trained to be chauvinistic men who perpetuate this sick dogma ad nauseum, starting in children-based media.

My daughter has complained for some time about the lack of girls in leadership or accomplished positions:  in Highlights, the stickers of accomplishment all feature boys.  The captions feature boys.  Stories about women are those who have survived hardship, not those who have simply succeeded through the course of a normal childhood.  Disney has stories of damsels in distress, and stories of women wanting to get married (obviously fiction, if you check out this post: Women Don’t Want to Get Married and Have Kids Because It’s Too Much Work–Who Is Surprised) that are written by men.

In fact, I puke every time a story comes up about Harry Potter, the ultimate boy-glorification ritual now on the big screen!  Let’s glorify the kid who has no parents, the boy who makes good despite a dearth of functional adults, no real emotional ties, and some killer family baggage. Snooze. Or, we could celebrate Huck Finn, who started on his awe-inspiring journey to a surely productive adult life by sitting on a raft in a river full of racist bile.  Goody, can I have another bedtime story, Momma?

Or, we could look to Hemingway for inspiration:  the misogynistic alcoholic who loved to write about women as if they were controlling and issue male-ideology at the same time.  A winner of a personality there, the raging abusive drunk, and a prolific writer, speaking to the generations of men who longed to hit women and feel powerful over them because they were such utter failures at life themselves and had to write their own best story?  Perhaps we could look at Steinbeck, famous for portraying women as man’s worst downfall. Steinbeck, that prince of a man, who left his first wife who supported him through his initial failed writing ventures, and then Steinbeck married wife 2 who was much younger.  Glory Days! Steinbeck was foiled in his fantasy by that wife2, who determined that she didn’t want to be married to him after he left her for years to be a war correspondent, and divorced him, after which Steinbeck, the world’s worst observer of human behavior fell into a deep depression.

Funny that, he never understood why his relationships with women failed.  Gosh, golly, gee whiz, I don’t know why leaving the woman who supported you while you were a poverty-stricken failure to be with a younger woman whom you left to go “cover” war, didn’t work out.  See any patterns in that leaving bit? No worries, though, because these are “defining” male writers, and exemplary human beings, no? At best, Steinbeck and Hemingway were self-elected victims to the madonna/whore complex with women, centering their works around women who were never what their male protagonists wanted.  At worst, much of America’s “literature,” now defining children’s lit has been based on misogynistic works by drunken and abusive addicts.

A new study points out what little girls have known for a long time: they are tired of princess stories, and all stories are basically boy stories. And when it comes to animals, most often all of them are male, like Lion King, Kung Fu Panda, Rio, Pooh, Clifford, Calvin and Hobbes, while inanimate objects like “The Little Engine That Could” and Bob the Builder, Thomas the Train, Cars, etc. seem exclusively male.

From Winnie the Pooh to Peter Rabbit to Clifford the Big Red Dog, male characters dominate kid literature. And a new study finds that gender equality in children’s books hasn’t necessarily improved over time.

Kids’ stories over the past 100 years have featured male characters in the title nearly twice as often as female characters, and male main characters outnumber female main characters by 1.6 to 1, the researchers found. The representation of girls seems to fluctuate along with the larger culture, with more female characters during times of feminist activism and fewer during times of anti-feminist backlash.

Whether a child is reading about Curious George or Curious Georgina might seem unimportant, but study researcher Janice McCabe said that books and other media are one way that children learn early lessons about gender.

“The patterns that we find in children’s books support the belief that female characters are less important or less interesting than male characters,” McCabe, a sociologist at Florida State University, told LiveScience.

Those patterns may extend beyond children’s stories. One analysis, released by researchers at the University of Southern California in April, found that there were twice as many speaking roles for men in the 100 top-grossing films of 2008, with only 33 percent of speaking roles going to women. [Read: Disney Princes and Princesses Still Slave to Stereotypes]

Boys and girls

McCabe’s study isn’t the first to find a gender gap in children’s literature, but earlier research focused on small samples of children’s books, she said. For the current study, published online March 31 in the journal Gender and Society, McCabe and her colleagues analyzed 5,618 books published between 1900 and 2000. The books, intended for children up to third grade, included Caldecott Award-winners, Little Golden Books and books from the “Children’s Catalog,” a librarian’s reference. (The Association for Library Service to Children awards the Caldecott Medal to one children’s book each year.)

Books published from the 1930s to the 1960s were the most unequal, which corresponds to a time of re-entrenched gender roles in society, McCabe said. Children’s books in the 1990s had an almost identical gender ratio to children’s books in the 1910s.

One of the biggest surprises, McCabe said, was that animal characters showed an even greater gender gap than human characters. For human characters, 26 percent of books had a boy as a main character and 19 percent featured a girl. In books about animals, 23 percent featured male main characters compared with only 7.5 percent featuring female main characters.

“We don’t know for sure why that’s going on, but it seems like it’s more acceptable to have that inequality there for animals than it is among humans,” McCabe said…

The next step, McCabe said, is to look closer at the content of the books to see if not just the prevalence, but the roles and interactions of male and female characters change over time. McCabe is also researching gender gaps in children’s television.

“Other studies have shown patterns of male-dominated characters in cartoons, video games, G-rated films and coloring books,” McCabe said. “It goes beyond children’s books to other media as well.”

My daughter rejected the princess role at three: “Princesses have to wear itchy dresses.  I want to be witch…”  She says she won’t wear Wonder Woman costumes: “Those red boots are embarrassing, Mom. You wear them.” Well, red boots like that were designed for adult women, after all, not little girls, as were Wonder Woman’s attire choices.

I suspect that a huge problem with this is the domination of the field by male editors who push male-dominated stories.  Sure, some of it may be written by male-worshipping women, like Rowling, but who drives most of its promotion and production?  Men.

Even female fiction at the adult level, tends to have women in supporting roles–male detectives and smarter female civilian partners who judge their man’s attachment by how “angry” he gets when she comes into harm’s way.  The southern female mystery genre is chock full of this bullshit.

While it’s no surprise that barf-inducing male characters like Harry Potter, who takes over the traditional female witch role, will get to glorify the perpetuation of the foolish male driven to succeed (we all know Hermione is the smartest of them all, but still in that, alas, support role) that we need to keep in mind women like Agatha Christie, books about Nancy Drew, movies like Home on the Range, that demonstrate that we females are half the species, and our little girls deserve their heroines too.

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