Gender-Busting one Bookmark at a time

By Jo Bartosch, 11th October 2015

Why do publishers do it?

There’s no cabal of plotting patriarchs working with publishers to devise ever more ingenious plans to keep women in our place, it would be much easier if there was. The society we live in has rigid gender divisions, and those who want to make money exploit these.

Why sell one book that can be shared, when you could sell two? Advertising exists to solve the problems it creates and it’s possible to view the phenomenon of gendered products for children in the same way. There is a subtle suggestion that parents are being remiss in their duties if they don’t subscribe to this. I’ve known many parents immediately rush out to paint bedrooms either pink or blue depending upon the sex of their child, as if somehow in not doing so they’re being damaging or neglectful.

In addition to this, children building their identities and trying to make sense of the adult world are incredibly susceptible to the notion that some colours, clothes, books and toys belong to them and others don’t.   Girls are encouraged to reject everything masculine and boys anything feminine in order to fit in; this does not lead to well-rounded children. Those selling gendered books, toys and clothes ruthlessly exploit this vulnerability and it must stop.

Thanks to campaigns such as #Pinkstinks, #lettoysbetoys and #letbooksbebooks some of the more progressive publishers and retailers seem to be getting the message. I know one of the books we targeted was an Usbourne publication and I’m delighted to say they got in touch to say that their new stock is not explicitly gendered.

Why gender stereotypes are a problem…

There is hard evidence that links characters and role models in children’s fiction to their aspirations. Whilst the UK struggles to fill roles in the expanding engineering sector we’ve a huge pool of untapped potential that’s being wasted as girls are being fed the message that STEM is no place for a woman. The Girl Guides 2015 Girls’ Attitudes Survey showed that girls between the ages of 7-10 would describe themselves as ‘caring, helpful and shy’ whereas the adjectives they chose for boys were ‘strong, brave and adventurous.’ Only 3% of girls between the ages of 7-10 would consider a career as an engineer. This gender disparity continues into adulthood, with only 13% of jobs in STEM being occupied by women. These patterns are both reflected by gender stereotypes in children’s literature and also in part created by them.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with being caring, being brought up to please others can be deeply damaging. We should also be applauding our girls when they are ‘strong, brave and adventurous’ and our boys when they are ‘caring, helpful and shy.’ Interestingly, tomboys such as George from The Famous Five or Minnie The Minx, are still better represented and accepted in children’s literature than feminine boys. Walter the Sissy is hardly a sympathetic character and it seems stereotypically feminine behaviour in boys is deeply threatening to our conservative society.

It might seem extreme, but there is a very real link between the gender roles society imposes upon children and gendered violence. In culture where ‘being a man’ is rejecting everything that is deemed feminine, and the hyper-masculine archetype of the soldier is held up as an ideal, it is perhaps not surprising that so many men are violent towards women. Unpicking gender stereotypes isn’t an idle academic pursuit, it is a matter of life and death.

Complimenting little girls on their clothes and appearance is almost a social reflex, but the incessant focus of girls’ appearance is incredibly damaging. With an epidemic of eating disorders and self-harm we should be celebrating female characters in children’s literature who do more than sit around, look pretty and get married off.

Children’s literature is just one of many examples of a sexist culture reflecting and replicating itself; we have a duty to ask for more for our children.

We’re under no illusions that this small action will be the trigger for a genderless femtopia, though if it makes parents, children and publishers question the stereotypes behind the stories that’s enough for us.

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