On Picture Books and Patriarchy

By McKenna Middleton

In my childhood, the only compensation for the fateful call for bedtime at 9 p.m. was my bookshelf. Filled with stories big and small, books held the key to new worlds, but also gave me tools to interpret the social sphere in which I was situated. While some of the morals in those children’s books are obvious – be nice, don’t tell a lie, etc. – others were more skillfully veiled.

When I think back to some of my favorite stories from that time, most of them feature not humans, but animals (Frog and Toad are Friends, The Berenstain Bears, etc). What could books with animals rather than people have to teach me about my place in the world?

According to research from Janice McCabe, a professor of sociology at Florida State University, one lesson children’s books with animal characters reinforce is gender norms. A survey of children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 revealed that male animals were central characters in over three times as many books as female animals. The fact of the matter is, if the characters in these stories are animals, we really shouldn’t even be able to notice this imbalance.

Yet, what often happens with anthropomorphism – the attribution of human characteristics to an animal or object – is an application of gendered stereotypes. For example, if a pig with a pink bow appears on a page next to a dog with a top hat, most readers would ascertain that the pig is female and the dog is male. But how could one possibly make a distinction with such certainty based on such little descriptive information?

The issue is not just that female animal characters in books are depicted as essentially different and marked by a bow, dress, the color pink, or long hair, but that male animal characters often don’t come with these kind of gender markers at all. Yet, we still identify them as male, suggesting that the default for any sentient being is male, and it only becomes female when given some type of specified marker. Not only are book authors/illustrators/publishers responsible for this discrepancy, but so are adults who assign male pronouns to ungendered animals in books when they read aloud.

“When [my daughter] hears story after story in which everything from the skyscraper to the very hungry caterpillar is called ‘he,’ how can she help internalizing the idea that to be male is the rule and to be female is the exception?,” writes Jennie Yabroff, guest columnist for the Washington Post.

In my years of listening to bedtime stories from my parents, I never once questioned that pink or a bow meant a girl and any animal without such a distinction was male. These internalized gender stereotypes stayed with me throughout my childhood and often dictated the ways I saw not just the characters in my books, but also the way I perceived the behavior and appearance of others and myself.

Just think about the ways society encourages us to talk about women that don’t adhere to these types of stereotypical gender markers: tomboy, lesbian, and everything in between. In other words: a woman who doesn’t know her place and is unwilling to adhere to the idea that she is inherently lesser than and different from the “default” male distinction.

There is nothing inherent about the color pink or a bow that makes something feminine. Despite this fact, it is undeniable that these gender markers affect they the way children gather information about their place in the world.


McKenna is a junior majoring in journalism and Spanish.

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