‘Girls can’t run fast’
When Amelia Hill’s pre-school son started coming out with ‘sexist guff’, she was determined to find story books in which the boys didn’t dominate. It turned out to be surprisingly difficult
My pre-school son and I were snuggled up, reading, when it happened for the third time. I had mentioned that our new book was written by the same author as one of his old favourites. The author was a woman and my son frowned: “But that’s not usual, is it?” he asked. “I mean, for a woman to write books?”
I was disconcerted. I had been prepared for all sorts of strange new opinions when he started reception, but this was the third time he had come out with sexist guff. How had he absorbed these sorts of ideas in his cosseted, pre-school world?
More to the point, girls now outperform boys in school and further education. If my son was going to start his school life with a tendency to underestimate girls, might that extend to him putting down their willingness to work hard? Might he also learn to despise the abilities traditionally considered to be feminine, such as cooperation, empathy and diligence, which are increasingly valued in the modern-day workplace?
Before having children, I assumed it was daughters, rather than sons, who required help to avoid the elephant traps of gender-based partiality and prejudice that the world would strew in their path. It wasn’t until I had first a boy and then a girl, that I realised reality is more complex. I still twitch with horror at the proliferation of girls dressed permanently in billowing pink princess dresses – my daughter almost exclusively wears her brother’s castoffs – but the truth is that despite their crinolines and sparkly tiaras, these princess-wannabes rampage over bouncy castles and hurtle down the steepest slides in the playgrounds just as enthusiastically as their male peers.
As a friend of mine said recently, gazing out over a back garden strewn with saccharine playthings. “I’ve given up the fight against pink. I’ve decided it doesn’t matter: my daughters are still going to be lawyers and doctors, they’re just going to collect their degrees wearing pink dresses.”
Boys, though, are another story. The gap in attainment between boys and girls in the UK is stark and starts young. At key stage 2, the gap is six percentage points. For GCSEs, the gap for five A*-C grades, including English and maths, is nine percentage points in England, and more than seven in the other three home nations.
The impact of this underachievement by boys is direct. Annually, 30,000 fewer young men than young women become apprentices and 60,000 fewer go to university – 460,000 fewer over the past decade – an underachievement that has been called a national scandal. More young men than women are not in education, employment or training. Fewer men are entering nearly all of the professions, and between the ages of 22 and 29, young men earn less an hour on average than women, in both full-time and part-time roles.
There are, of course, a multitude of ways in which parents can try to prevent their sons sliding into this slipstream. But all too soon, our influence is first diluted, then trumped by our children’s peers. Nevertheless, I’m a strong believer in the power of books to nuzzle deep into children’s heads in a way that parents and peers cannot, providing the blueprint for what is right and wrong, what is beautiful and ugly, what is attainable and what is out of bounds. Books bestow a neutral and absolute authority as to the way life is, can be and should be lived.
I have bought books to prepare my son for everything significant he has ever experienced, from his first visit to the dentist to the arrival of his baby sister. I bought creepy-monster books to satisfy his craving to be scared – and nice-monster books when that plan proved a bit too successful. I’ve bought culturally diverse books to go some way to ameliorating the predominantly white circles he moves in.
So I had already tried – and failed – to find age-appropriate, literary ripostes to the first of his earlier two sexist pronouncements: “Queens aren’t powerful,” he announced, when we were reading about the Tudors. “They just look out of windows.” Annoyingly, according to the fictional world of literature for the very young, I found this is true: at their best, queens despair over their messy princesses but, mostly, they play a silent and usually fretful, second fiddle to the king.
My son’s second declaration, however, totally blindsided me. When reading a book that featured a girl winning a running race, he protested that it wasn’t true. “Girls can’t run fast,” he insisted. Coming as it did just after a sports day at his nursery in which he had been beaten by virtually every girl in his class – and from a child whose mother is more physically boisterous than his father – this was quite an exercise in prejudice trumping reality.
I determined to stock up on books that would counter his “alternative facts”: books that showed cool-yet-ambitious boys who worked hard to achieve their dream – whether that be dragon-catching, alien-befriending or pirate-thwarting – alongside strong, courageous, funny, clever peers who just happened to be girls.
This proved harder than I expected. According to a study co-authored by Professor Janice McCabe, from Florida State University, a quarter of children’s books have no female characters. While of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Children’s Books of All Time, 53 featured female characters who didn’t even speak. It is not limited to books: across children’s media, only 19.5% of
A study found that a quarter of children’s books have no female characters
female characters have jobs or career aspirations compared with 80.5% of male characters.
Nevertheless, with a bit of effort, I found a rich seam of fantastic books featuring girl protagonists who were courageous and scrappy, ingenious and fallible. As great as these books are, however, their central character almost always has her adventures on her own or with other girls. What has been surprisingly difficult to find are books where the genders play together, without the boys dominating, outnumbering or otherwise overshadowing the girls.
Referring to her study on the dearth of female protagonists in children’s books, McCabe said: “Such findings are significant. It is a trend of symbolic annihilation of females in children’s literature, which has implications for children’s understandings of gender.”
McCabe was talking in the context of girls when she said this, and their incipient feelings of gender-based inferiority. But what about the impact on boys who read exclusively about worlds where girls are “annihilated” or dominated? As Gloria Steinem says, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”
If we want to create an equitable society in which everyone can thrive, we need to give boys more choices. Letting them develop a sense of gender-dictated birthright that will be whisked away from under their noses by highachieving girls, as surely as the tortoise triumphed over the hare, is a recipe for resentment between the sexes.
Nan Froman is a senior editor at Groundwood Books, an independent children’s publisher committed to publishing books that are difficult or potentially controversial. She thinks “gender equality in children’s books is very much on people’s radars” but acknowledges an issue with demand. “Parents of daughters may more actively seek out books that encourage female empowerment [rather than gender equality] and perhaps that is just a reflection of where we have come from as a society,” she says.
Groundwood Books is tackling the issue head on. It will shortly publish a picture book – Me and You and the Red Canoe by Jean E Pendziwol – featuring two siblings who can be “read” as being of any gender the reader wishes to attribute to them. Also on Groundwood’s list is Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, about a little boy who likes to wear the dress in the dressing-up box at school. But Froman admits, “Social justice is one of the touchstones at Groundwood, so the kinds of authors we attract and the manuscripts we are drawn to probably tend to be conscious of gender equality. This is something we are aware of in the editing and illustrating process.”
But the larger publishing houses, sadly, are a different matter. A senior editor at one, who preferred not to be identified, said, “Parents of daughters buy books that encourage female empowerment but neither they, nor the parents of boys think it’s a priority to buy books that focus on gender equality.” She also suggests there is an assumption among some publishers that it is harder work to get boys reading. Their solution, she said, is to commission and prioritise books aimed at boys that focus on simple, whiteknuckle activity and excitement, rather than risk losing their audiences for the sake of a few mildly challenging characters and friendships.
But the biggest reason for the dearth in books showing girls and boys as equal is that there is no money in it. “Publishers need a clear financial incentive to change their juggernaut-like direction of travel,” she says. “Until there’s a loud and clear call for books that encourage boys to think it’s cool to interact with their hardworking, high-achieving female peers – like there was a call for books featuring strong female protagonists – I’m afraid they’re not going to happen.”
Amelia Hill with her children