It's no surprise to learn that there is a gender bias in children's literature, even if it's reported in Medical News Today as a 'new finding'. Here's an article from 1976 on the same subject.
It's a concerning issue, because children don't necessarily have the defences adults build up against any old idea. I don't mean to say they have no judgment at all because in my experience it's surprising how much children are able to judge ideas and see through bad ones. (And of course it's also surprising how many adults are completely incapable of judging ideas and seeing through bad ones!)
All the same, there is quite a lot of truth in the following statement (quoted in this article): "Everything we read ... constructs us, makes us who we are." It's one of the great strengths of literature. Literature opens our eyes to see what it's like in someone else's head. I think it's a fundamental part of learning empathy. But I do believe that it's also one of the dangers of literature. Children assume that what they read is how the world is, or even worse, how the world should be. Just as a teenage girl watching movies, TV and reading magazines might be overwhelmed with the message that she isn't pretty, skinny or cool enough. Or just as an adult music fan in the 21st century might look at mainstream bands and assume that women are allowed to sing and look attractive but they can't be very good at drums or guitar. It's the messages that come to us subliminally that are hardest to shake.
I don't see this as always a feminist issue, or a political correctness issue. Many of the subliminal messages of literature would be rejected by feminists and non-feminists alike. Even the modern anti-feminist movement would look askance at some of the lessons taught by fairy tales - The Princess and the Pea, for example, seems to teach that there is an actual physical difference between royalty and commoners and that, if you're not a 'real' princess, you're simply not special enough. I also seriously doubt that anti-feminists would agree with the message that women who attain power or influence in the real world are automatically cruel or manipulative and that they always corrupt and emasculate men (i.e. Hansel and Gretel's stepmother, Cinderella's stepmother, every single stepmother ever known to fairy lore). And I don't think they would agree that a girl must be radiantly beautiful in order to be worthy of love.
So - we should think very carefully about these issues (especially if we have children or are in charge of children). And yet I feel strongly against the rabid censorship of literature. I hesitate against throwing away old, well-told, legendary stories simply because they feature characters or ideas we see as less modern or less progressive. Firstly, children should be allowed to understand their culture and their past. Also, if feminism really is about equality and diversity, we as feminists should allow that some stories will have boys as heroes and that in some stories women will come across as weak. It's a reality of everyday life that there are different types of personalities among both genders. All we ask is that there is a more even spread. It would be nice to see more:
- heroes who are girls and do cool things. For example - Jane and the Dragon. Matilda. The Ordinary Princess. And so on.
- Groups of formerly male-dominated character types who have got more than the one 'token' female in them.
- Powerful or intelligent women who aren't villainous or manipulative.
I've always wanted to write a children's book one day. These are things that I will be mulling over. For now, though, I have a question for those of you who have kids or who look after kids on a regular basis. Does this kind of thing trouble you at all? How do you make sure your kids are learning that the lessons you want them to learn?