Children formulate their personal perceptions of gender based off of the culture and society surrounding them- and influencing them- as they grow. Gender stereotypes are everywhere in society, whether it be through media, people, or literature. As children grow up, they are taught to act a certain way based on their biological gender. A stereotypical male is thought to be athletic, hard-working, and charming. While in contrast, a stereotypical female would be described as emotional, fragile, and dependent. Society tells children that pink is for girls while blue is for boys, and this idea is often reflected in books marketed towards boys and girls. These stereotypes are not an accurate representation of a majority of people. Literature allows for thought provoking analysis of society- raising questions about current issues or struggles. Because of literature’s power to induce change, it is important for children to receive an equal experience through literature. However, even in today’s society, reinforcement of gender stereotypes still occurs in modern literature. This literature has the potential to influence how young boys and girls see themselves. Contemporary literature enforces gender stereotypes by placing a generalized perception of what it means to be male or female.
Children’s books are an essential part of developing children’s language skills, but they also significantly translate society’s culture to children. Dan Hade, a professor of language and literacy at Penn State, argues that “children's literature is the only class of literature not produced by those who read it,” which gives the authors an unlimited amount of power, along with responsibility, over what they create. How gender roles are portrayed-accurately or inaccurately- contributes to the images children develop of themselves and society. Literature is widely unequal from the very beginning with children’s literature. In Pat Heine’s and Christine Inkster’s article “Strong Female Characters in Recent Children’s Literature,” it comments on how books play an important role in the development and growth of ideas. Young adult literature appeals to adolescents because of its relatability and readability. However, there is often obvious gender bias and stereotyping in young adult literature.
In a Rwanda case study focusing on children’s perceptions of gender equality, both researchers and authors “…argue that the manner in which gender is represented in children's literature impacts children's attitudes and perceptions of gender-appropriate behavior in society." Not only is society constantly telling both girls and boys how to behave and act in order to conform to the patriarchy, but the literature that young children read follows storylines that reinforce the traditional gender roles that modern feminist literature has worked to eliminate.
Even contemporary literature enforces gender stereotypes by placing a generalized perception of what it means to be male or female. In Ella Westland’s “Cinderella in the Classroom,” she studies the influence of Cinderella-type fairy tales on young girls. The children were ages nine to 11, and they were able to identify the gender stereotypes. The young girls favored “upside down” fairy tales in which the hero is an independent female, while young boys favored the “traditional” fairy tales that illustrate male dominance. Cinderella-style fairy-tales promoted by American society harmfully reinforce restrictive images of womanhood and manhood. Young girls grow up to believe they must be dependent on men their entire lives while boys grow up to believe that they must be superior and dominant compared to women in order to successfully be a man. Young and adolescent men find stories with male characters more favorable due to the character’s conflicts mirroring their own. Teenage girls spend a large amount of their time trying to identify roles in which they relate while also attempting to find examples that help to define themselves. Not only do these messages shape, and/or distort the way males view females in our society, but also they can shape the way females define themselves.
Gender reinforcement in literature is not exclusive to storylines. Even the simplest of aspects may reinforce traditional gender stereotypes. The marketing of books and genres, for example, can be marketed towards a specific gender by simply using gender specific colors. Depending on the content of a book publishers tend to market it either to boys or girls. A book marketed mainly toward girls might have lighter colors and might seem like a fun, all around pleasant read. However, a book marketed toward boys might use darker colors on the cover, suggesting the storyline has darker themes tied into an adventure or mystery novel.
Book marketing also gender stereotypes the individual genres of books. For example, romance and drama are typically seen as “girly genres,” while horror and fantasy/sci-fi books are typically seen as books for males. Similarly, magazines targeted at teenage girls are full of “self-help” sections alongside fashion advice, beauty trends and column after column on how to attract the ideal boyfriend. These publications fail girls. They do little to truthfully show girls that they have an abundance of qualities to offer society other than to be attractive to men.
In young adult literature, initial descriptions of female characters are excessively including detailed narrative of the girls' physical features, often filling a full page of text dedicated to the characters physical features. This portrayal teaches young girls that the most important attributes they have are only their physical ones. An addiction critique of female young adult literature is that it is often dominated with the idea that obtaining a boyfriend is the ultimate goal though the entirety of a female's life. If the main female character does not already have a boyfriend, she works to attain one throughout the book and the ultimate achievement is to win him in the end. Even books with the main character as female, often centers around a male character.
Literature may fail girls by placing them in weak roles, but they also fail men by putting them in strictly dominant roles. As Manjari Singh states in the article “Gender Issues in Children’s Literature” that although girls are trapped in passive roles, boys are “rarely described as people demonstrating emotions of sadness and fear, having hobbies/occupations that are not stereotypically male and in roles where they aren't competing or meeting high expectations.” Singh highlights the issue that literature often assigns male characters superior leadership roles. These roles limit men by only exerting the necessity of toughness and the suppression of emotions. Literary gender roles are filled with stereotypes that teach men that they must be manly, strong, and avoid being soft. Both literature and society enforce these gender roles to prevent boys from displaying warmness, sensitivity, and weakness because these qualities are associated with femininity. These roles depicted in literature suggest that there is a distinct difference between girls and boys, whether it be colors or qualities. Philip Nel’s article “When Will the Children Be Free” he states that anti-sexist storylines should be an “American standard,” rather than exclusive to feminist literature. His opinion is that true changes starts with children, and if their literature is largely unequal then inequality will be their standard. Studies have found that children’s literature is often dominated by males. However, placing dominating roles exclusively on men truly limits both genders, and these stereotypes limit both boys’ and girls’ freedoms.
In recent years, feminists have attempted to destroy the type of fairy tale type of storylines promoted by society and literature alike. The rise of feminist literature has been favored due to its stance that gender stereotypes place restrictive roles on what it means to be a girl or a boy. For centuries, literature has assigned structured gender roles based on and morality of both men and women. When looking at the history of storytelling, literature always mirrored the morals of society. Outlined in the article “Literature and Gender,” literature has used the biological distinction of sex to construct a social distinction and definition of gender. Victorian standards of femininity mean that women were to dedicate their lives almost exclusively to domestic life, taking on the roles of daughters, sisters, wives and mothers caring for their caretakers such as their fathers, brothers, husbands and children. They were expected to exhibit modest behavior and a moral code of sexual purity, while avoiding having any immense personal desires and independently formidable opinions, especially in contradiction to the men who were seen as their “guardians.” Modern approaches to literature have often sought to reverse the male focus of literature by concentrating more strongly on women's perspectives. Roxanne Gay discusses what elements that a novel must have in order to successfully to be defined as a feminist novel. She writes that the novel must focus on equality. Literature that includes a female protagonist is to establish that a female hero is just as capable as a male hero. It also outlines that a feminist novel is not only about sex, it must also be about equal ability, opportunity, sexuality, class, and spirituality.
Literature has a lasting impact on society’s development. Literature has improved, exposed, and shaped the surrounding society. Children formulate their own ideas of gender based off of the culture and society that they live in. As children grow up, they are taught to act a certain way based on their biological gender. Society tells children that pink is for girls while blue is for boys, and this idea is often reflected in books marketed towards boys and girls. Because literature outlines human experiences, modern approaches to literature have often sought to reverse the male focus of literature by centralizing a plot line more strongly on a woman's perspective. However, even in today’s society, literature that reinforces gender stereotypes still exists. This literature has the potential to influence how young boys and girls see themselves. Cinderella-style fairy-tales promoted by American society harmfully reinforce restrictive images of womanhood and manhood. Young girls grow up to believe they must be dependent on the opposite sex while boys grow up to believe that they are somehow are superior to women. The rise of feminist literature has been favored due to its stance that gender stereotypes place restrictive roles on what it means to be a girl or a boy. Not only is society constantly informing girls how to appropriately behave in order to conform to the patriarchal society, but the literature that young children read follows storylines that enforce these same ideals of traditional gender roles that modern feminist literature has worked to eliminate. As Phillip Nel states, true changes starts with children, and if their literature is largely unequal than inequality will be their standard.
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Published by Alicia de Mello