By Angela Anagnost Repke
The other day, my daughter and I sat nuzzled in the couch with a stack of books beside us. As we read “Fancy Nancy,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” I became annoyed. Yes, those books are all great—honestly, I’ll read anything to my kids as long as they enjoy it. But, as I sat with my daughter, I realized—it’s rare to find a tough, girl character in a children’s picture book. Instead, my daughter is stuck seeing docile girls wearing tutus while the boys are draped in capes and armor, saving the day. Yes, feminine books are fine when the girl is the lead character, but can’t we do better than this? Is it that hard to write a female heroine, I wondered.
Women, and girls for that matter, have had enough of being second-rate. At school, in the workplace, in sports, and even in children’s pictures books, we’re sick of seeing men with the lead roles. Recent research from Observer has shown that female characters are underrepresented in children’s books. They’re typically seen as the sidekicks—rarely playing the hero or even the villain.
As recently documented in The Guardian, “Male characters are twice as likely to be the lead part in children’s picture books and are given far more speaking parts than females.” So, our girls and boys are inadvertently seeing sexism at a very young age. One hundred of the most popular children’s books of 2017 were analyzed, and female characters were excluded from twenty percent of the books—yes, twenty percent of the books! Further, males were given the opportunity to speak 50 percent more often. This is planting the seeds in the young minds of both girls and boys that women are indeed inferior compared to their male counterparts. This means that by the time our girls get to school, they’re already accustomed to hearing the boys talk more, answering the questions, and acting as the leaders.
Even more was studied surrounding the popular books. For example, three male characters were written compared to every two female characters. Lauren Child, children’s author and illustrator, said, “We see it in film and TV as well. But it gives out a message about how society sees you. If boys get the starring roles in books – both as the good and bad protagonists – and girls are the sidekicks, it confirms that’s how the world is and how it should be. It’s very hard to feel equal then.” That’s right, girls aren’t even given the role as villain half as often as boys. Because as we all know, society wants girls to always behave well. They should be meek and quiet. It’s viewed as inappropriate if girls are boisterous and act out like little boys often do. The research went on, claiming that when the character was not a human—possibly an animal, vegetable, or other creature—the gender was 73 percent more likely to be male. Again, the boys stole the show in that arena, too.
Nick Sharratt, best-selling children’s author and illustrator, said, “Authors and illustrators have fantastic opportunities to break down stereotypes. We need to tackle these issues and at the moment it seems not enough is being done.” I couldn’t agree more.
Both of my children, a boy and a girl, have a love of reading—and I want more for them because they deserve it. The recent battle surrounding women’s roles is a fight that was made to be won. Hopefully, both this research and political climate will encourage writers to write for the future leaders of this country—the girls. Boys, too, need to see how women can be tough, resilient, smart, and lead in all aspects of life. But until children’s books become more gender-equal, it will have to be on us as parents to discuss that girls are just as able as boys to be the hero.
I simply hope that by the time I’m a grandmother, I will have the ability to choose among several books with a female heroine to read to my grandchildren—so they will see that girls, too, can save the day.
About the Author
Angela Anagnost Repke lives with her family of four in Michigan. She is a flawed mother who turns to writing to help in both her daily blunders and rediscovering herself outside of being a mother. Angela is a contributor at POPSUGAR and has also been published in Good Morning America, ABC News, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, MSN Lifestyle, Mothers Always Write, and others. She has a forthcoming essay in an anthology by Belt Publishing. Angela is passionate about the comradery of motherhood and is an advocate of moms’ night out that involves too many cocktails. She is at work on a memoir.