Reading Between the Lines

New study examines sexism in children's literature

The Mouse and the Motorcycle and James and the Giant Peach may seem unlikely obstacles to social change. But three decades of study suggest these and several other much-loved children's books contain sexist language and gender stereotypes, a cause for concern given books' influence on children's perceptions of the world.

Not to worry. Researchers also point to a number of books, such as Alice in Wonderland and Ramona Quimby, Age 8, which they say portray men and women with more equality.

Or do they? Maybe not, according to work published by Kenyon researchers earlier this year in the journal Sex Roles. The study suggests that many of those books previously identified as being nonsexist do, indeed, typecast boys and girls, men and women.

"Children learn from many different aspects of our culture that gender is an important category," says Sarah Murnen, an associate provost and professor of psychology at Kenyon who coauthored this study with Amanda Diekman '95. "Children learn this from books that they read and from many other sources."

Early on, Murnen notes, children discover that the two categories--male and female--have very specific meaning in today's society. Hospital workers dress male newborns in blue hats and females in pink; girls are neat, boys are messy; women cook, clean, and do laundry, men work, cut the grass, and fix things.

Books and other media reinforce those meanings, the researchers suggest. Because many previous studies looked only at the number of male and female characters, it was hard to know how gender roles were played out in the characters' personalities and actions.

"Any good story will have complexity to it, even children's books," says Diekman, now an assistant professor of psychology at Miami University in Ohio. Diekman conducted the study as part of her honors thesis at Kenyon. "We wanted to know what happens when you have characters that you follow for a while."

Murnen and Diekman selected twenty books written for children in grades three through five. Half had been previously classified as sexist and half as nonsexist. Twenty men and twenty women were randomly assigned one book each to read and were asked to complete a questionnaire designed to assess such things as characters' social roles and gender inequality.

The researchers found that in a number of the books, authors had created female characters with many of the skills and careers traditionally assigned only to male characters. But boys were still boys.

"In our culture, what is male is valued more, so it is easier to see how women will benefit from changing their role," says Murnen, whose research examines how society's notions of acceptable gender roles influence behavior. "But it is difficult to see how men will benefit from changing their role."

Because such gender roles are present in society, it's no surprise to find them in children's books, the researchers say. And even though a book may include gender stereotypes, they add, it doesn't mean that parents should not let their children read it.

"But maybe you talk about it or pair it with another book that shows more variety in those roles," Diekman says. "Talking about it offers an opportunity to present things not just as they are, but also as you'd want them to be."

Back to Top