German Study: Gender Stereotypes Stick In Children’s Literature

We know that children’s books educate, shape, socialize. And yes, according to a new study based on key words, they still assign antiquated roles and characteristics for boys and girls.

Irene CaselliWORLDCRUNCH2019-02-04

MUNICH — Boys go out on adventures to far-away lands, they are brave and strong. Girls help out their mothers at home, are sweet side-kicks for their male counterparts, and every now venture out to ride their beloved pony. These gender roles seem to be from another era, yet after analyzing the data of 50,000 children’s books in Germany, four journalists from Süddeutsche Zeitung still found the country’s children’s literature is stained by stereotypes.

Katharina Brunner, Sabrina Ebitsch, Kathleen Hildebrand and Martina Schories used the world-renowned Library for Children’s and Young Adult’s Literature at Goethe University Frankfurt to help quantify their findings. The selection covers a period of 70 years, and while it is not exhaustive, it is certainly a good representation of what is out there in the market.

The analysis looked at 1.4 million key words that characterize the books, and connected them. So, for example, the word adventure is 2.6 times more likely to appear in a book with a male leading character. Moreover, the worlds of female protagonists are usually much poorer than those of male characters. The words associated to males include foreign trips, island, danger. Those associated with girls: school holidays, animals, friendship.

“Girls receive more of a one-sided diet, too sweet, too bland, too low in calories. Often, boys and girls do not have the same rights in children’s books. And that’s a problem, because children’s books educate, shape, socialize. And they can change the world. Or could,” say the authors.

Book covers also tell a story: blue remains the main color for boys and pink for girls. In this case we may have to blame so-called gender marketing: publishers know that any product can sell well if it specifically targets boys or girls.

Children develop their idea of gender between the ages of two and three. 

There appears to be some improvement in gender equality in children’s literature from more recent years, as well as a growing number of books that talk about same-sex families and other issues that were previously taboo, such as suicide. Germany also is hardly the only country where children’s books follow gender stereotypes. A study by The Observer last year came up to similar conclusions about the UK: male characters are twice as likely to take leading roles and are given more speaking parts than females.

Lars Burghardt, a pedagogist from the University of Bamberg, told Süddeutsche Zeitungthat children develop their idea of gender between the ages of two and three, and books are one of the many ways through which they can question their surrounding world or reaffirm it. He also warns against being rigid about gender parity in literary portrayals.

“No one wants to display only politically correct books in children’s rooms. Children should be allowed to decide for themselves — even if the glittery, pink book contradicts my noble pedagogical goals,” says Burghardt. “But the variety in children’s books is important for girls to realize that they may be a good princess and at the same time a wild tomboy. And so that boys can see that they can also have long hair and cry.”

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