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.

On Siri and Sexism

The cliche, “Behind every great man is a great woman,” usually evokes images of John and Abigail Adams, Odysseus and Penelope, Michael Scott and Pam Beesley. In contemporary times, this patriarchal expression really could apply to all of us.

Most of us carry around our own personal assistant wherever we go. Is this assistant some unisex, gender-neutral being that gives a healthy androgyny to the underappreciated work of an assistant, thus breaking down gender norms? Unfortunately, no.

Although voice activated operating systems such as Siri (Apple), Alexa (Amazon), and Cortana (Microsoft) claim to be ungendered – Siri, for example, will say “I have no gender” when you ask if it is a man or a woman – the default voice on all of the most popular digital assistant systems is clearly female.

Here is an introductory list of three ways these personal digital assistants fall short of advancing gender equality:

  1. Women are not objects.

The creation of a feminine digital assistant simply contributes to the anachronistic tradition of objectifying women by giving things like ships, islands, forces of nature, and now technology feminine pronouns. Since they are given names (Alexa, Cortana, Siri) and voices that are typically associated with the feminine, these digital assistants are an undeniable objectification of women despite their creators’ claims of ungendered associations. Most individuals even reference these digital assistants with female pronouns like “she” instead of “it.”

  1. Respect should always be a priority.

The simple, direct commands necessary to activate a digital personal assistant is certainly efficient. I think we need to question how this uninhibited giving of orders while expecting instant gratification will affect the non-digital world, particularly how we speak to women and people in service positions. For example, if a user wants Alexa to stop playing music, they must say firmly “Alexa, stop.” I can only hope that with the advance of technology, gentler tones and language will be the preferred form of communication with digital assistants lest certain curt behavior carry over into communication with actual human beings.

  1.  Women need a say in the way they are represented. The Wall Street Journal reports that women comprise, on average, less than 20% of technology jobs at major tech companies. Furthermore, 47% of women in the tech world reported having “been asked to do lower-level tasks that male colleagues are not asked to do (e.g., note-taking, ordering food, etc.)” – tasks often associated with personal assistant work – according to a survey of several hundred senior level women in the tech field conducted in 2015. To be clear, there is nothing inherently inferior about administrative work. It is an essential component of any successful business. The problem lies in the disproportionate number of women (According to CNN, “secretary” has been the number one job for women over the past 60 years) in the field and the systematic degradation of pink collar jobs.

It takes less than 10 minutes to change the voice on your digital assistant. I challenge you to join me in diversifying the digital assistants in our lives, breaking down gender norms, and challenging the “default” objectification of women that society offers.