02 March 2010

Picture Books and Gender Propaganda

by Carrie Bailey

Possibly because we believe the stories read in kindergarten to be so formative or maybe because we’ve never came to terms with our own gender issues, the writers of children's picture books have broken into this area of the market with new classics.  Often titled something to the effect of: “The Princess that Slayed the Dragon by Herself” or  “No Pretty Necklaces for Sara,” which first debuted sometime when my parents were still making their own clothes.
I can assure you, as a former librarian, that children do not check these books out when left to make a decision on their own.  Grubby little girly hands reach for anything pink and pretty.  In the same instance, boys slightly more grubby hands grab “Trucks, Trucks, Bugs, and Animals with Big Teeth,” or the every popular “GRUNT: 100 Sound Effects.”  I spent years corralling three and a half foot immensely strong willed people into queues in a crowded mobile library to learn the fine art of checking out-or “renting” as the most recent generation terms it.

There, I came to accept that no matter where the library traveled, we never featured enough pink, glitter, or juvenile royalty to assuage the younger female picture book crowd.  

As a woman myself, I firmly hold that I am equal to any man but not necessarily that any man is equal to me, own personal interpretation of Feminism.  I also acknowledge that a great body of research addresses the mechanisms behind genderization to completely contradictory conclusions.  Fortunately, I'm not concerned.  By the way, I was joking about the Feminism thing.

I love kids for the little readers they are and I have observed these tyrants decimate book carts in the time it takes to blink your eyes twice.  Left behind are always a few bewildered looking kids standing, starring at the undesirable books.  On numerous occasions I consoled a kindergarten girl, abandoned by her friends each bearing a version of “The Pretty Pink Princess and her Purple Glitter Pony." The pathetic looking child stood opposite a book featuring a heroine in a yellow dress.  Princesses wear pink.  This point cannot be argued.  Without a princess book, this girl was not a princess herself.

Side Note: If you ever find yourself in this situation, please don’t try to make the girl like yellow.  Resort to lying.  Tell her all famous young pop singers wear yellow.  Wink and tell her it’s the new pink.  Then leave; because in 5 minutes sixteen of her classmates will be back having returned their books and needing books featuring yellow dresses.

Well-meaning parents mistake the importance of the princess and dragon years when they mistake it for a time to train a girl to love pinstripes and briefcases sans sequins and faux fur.  Yet oddly, we almost never encounter books titled “Bob: Fashion Designer” and “The Adventures of Ben the Male Nurse.”  Writers aim their propaganda at girls and parents who succumb deny their daughters both self-expression and the ability to exercise their own choice rather than sow the seeds of their future liberation.  Hmmm. 

As hard as it is to permit it sometimes, kids need to select their own books.  It’s the sense of ownership and enjoyment in early reading experiences that set the stage for life long readers.  So, when your tomboy reaches for “101 Fart Jokes,” just remember that this-this book choice-is a phase, but that reading is a life long passion. 


  1. You've touched on a fascinating aspect of how books can influence children into developing socially accepted gender attributes without even realizing it. Is it healthy socialization or propaganda? Clearly, the literature geared towards children reinforces the gender roles they are expected to display as adults. As pointed out, when left to their own devices, they will pick that which interest them; not that which pleases their peers, teachers or parents. A maladaptive gender rift consequently develops wherein, as adults, men and women are not as empathetic to each other because, in growing up, gender segregation via such books made it impossible. What if, as children, boys and girls learned more about each other through literature; the similarities and the differences of their psyches. As adults, would that not foster a better understanding of the opposite sex? Men need not be from Mars and woman need not be from Venus.

  2. Oh, I am so very with you on this one.

    Something I meant to mention in the article, but didn't get around to doing so, is that the 5-6 year old crowd actually prefer non-gendered picture books as their all time favorites.