A Literature Review that I wrote for my LSC 557 class: Research and Evaluation. I’m posting this for Andy. I should point out that there are a lot of studies I miss in this review mostly because I ran out of time, but I tried to include the most seminal (i. e. the most cited) and a lot of the more interesting/original ones.
Since the rise of the second wave of feminism, children’s books have been a main target for research and blame in gender socialization. It is only natural to want to analyze the importance of children’s books because as research has shown by the age of three children are able to distinguish themselves from the other sex (Wasserman & Stern, (1978). While other research has shown that by age five many children have come to believe that men are the ones who go out and earn the money and women are the ones who do the housework (Schlossberg & Goodman, 1972). In other words, most of the research regarding gender and age has shown that gender roles form at a very young age. Naturally this research has important implications for librarians. Stauffer (2007) conducts an historical overview about the concern librarians have held over the decades for boys not reading “good books” stretching from 1880 to present. She claims that librarians encouraged the reading of “good books” in order to indoctrinate young boys with proper gender role and class identification, although she never quite defines or gives examples of such books and how they perform this function. Such an historical overview not only calls our attention to the way the library field has changed, but also how one of the main duties of a librarian has always been to provide the right literature to the right person at the right time.
As librarians, a great deal of our time will be spent in both selecting materials for our libraries and recommending books to patrons that will help shape their values and beliefs. It is children, especially, who happen to be in the formative years of their lives, that book selection will be of primary importance. It is from these books that they will learn many of their values, learn to interact with others, think about the world around them, and form their gender identities. According to feminist theorists, they will learn from these books the cultural attitudes surrounding their respective gender roles and even what emotions are socially acceptable for men and women in a particular society. As librarians we must find a balance between our duties to educate as custodians of knowledge and our duty to provide information of all sorts regardless of our own political affiliations; this means providing both egalitarian material and works with traditional gender roles featured in them for the patrons who seek either types of literature. Indeed, before removing all the traditional material out and replacing it with egalitarian works, it should be noted that the research has not convincingly shown on a large scale that children’s literature has a major effect on children’s views on gender roles one way or another, especially with boys. The studies in this area have been inconclusive and contradictory. Our central questions to guide this literature review will be the following: how has the depiction of gender changed over the years in young adult and children’s literature? What effect do gender egalitarianism and stereotypes actually have on the children reading and being read these stories?
The beginning of research into gender stereotypes in children’s literature begins with the seminal study of Caldecott winners, Newberry books, the Little Golden books, and etiquette books performed by Weitzman et al. (1972). Their study focused on the Caldecott winners and runners-up between 1967 to 1971, along with samples from those other aforementioned awards, in which they concluded that women are practically invisible in children’s books. They were underrepresented in titles, pictures, and as central characters. They found that one third of the Caldecott books had no women at all, and in the Newbury sample there were three males shown in the illustrations to every female. Meanwhile, Collins et al. (1984) found that books in the 80s exhibited a greater amount of sexual equality, with more females present in titles, featured as main characters, and represented in the illustrations, even while problems of underrepresentation still occurred overall.
Kortenhaus and Demarest (1993) went a different route in their study, wanting to compare the sexism in non-award winning children’s books to that of Caldecott winners featured in previous studies. They hypothesized that award-winning books were selected because they lack gender stereotypes to a higher degree than the average children’s book. In addition they broke down their study of each book by decade of publication, a pre-caution many other studies fail to take, which of course skews the results in those other studies because of the sexism found in larger quantities of older books. They found that prior to 1970, children’s literature contained almost four times as many boys as girls in titles, more than twice as many boys in central roles, almost twice as many boys in pictures, and nearly four times as many male animals as female animals. However, they also found like many other studies that children’s literature published after 1970 shows a more equitable distribution of male and female characters in all categories. This is true for both Caldecott winners and non-award books.
Turner-Bowker (1996) was one of the first to study the actual words used by authors to describe male and female characters rather than illustrations or main character status. Her sample like most other studies included Caldecott winners and runners-up from 1984 to 1994, and she had both a larger group of coders, eighteen total (compared to the one or two of most studies), to record the adjectives and a large sample population of random students blind to the hypothesis to fill out a semantic differential rating scale to rate the negativity or positivity of those adjectives. Through this process she was able to identify the twenty most commonly used adjectives for female characters and the twenty most commonly used adjectives for male characters. The researcher discovered that the adjectives used for girls/women were more positively evaluated than the adjectives used for male characters. She found no significant differences between the way female and male authors used adjectives to describe their characters. Even when overlap between adjectives that both sexes shared were removed from the twenty most common in each gender, the conclusion that female adjectives were rated more positively did not change. The researcher explains these results away by suggesting the females might be described more positively because they are fulfilling stereotyped roles in these books. However, she fails to consider alternative explanations such as the fact that men are more likely to be depicted as monsters, villains, and uncontrollably violent, which would effect the negative adjectives associated with them. Diekman & Murnen (2004) wanted to test Turner-Bowker’s suggestion by trying to find out if so-called nonsexist books and sexist books would portray similar levels of sexism in female-stereotypic domains, believing that the positive image of females in nonsexist books might be overrated due to them conforming to a traditional feminine ideal rather than being nonsexist. They looked at books feminists and reviewers had labeled as egalitarian in gender roles. The study found that sexist books more likely than non-sexist books portrayed a traditional division of labor in both male-stereotypical and female-stereotypical domains. Sexist and nonsexist books showed similar levels of sexism in female-stereotypic domestic chores and female-stereotypic leisure activities. Despite their expectations, the study found that the traditional feminine ideal was far more pronounced in sexist books than non-sexist books.
Gooden & Gooden (2001) followed up this research, but instead looked at eighty-three Notable Books for Children from 1995 to 1999 from the America Library Association website rather than Caldecott winners. This study like all the others since Weitzman et al. (1972) found that the prevalence of gender stereotypes decreased slightly but the stereotyped images of females are still significant in Notable Children’s picture books. Still, they concluded from their results that authors have become more aware over the years of gender issues when writing their works. Unfortunately this study was not entirely forthcoming about its methodology for coding.
Ly Kok & Findlay (2006) also avoiding Caldecott winners wanted to find out if gender stereotypes in Australian children’s picture books have decreased since the 1970s. Not only did they analyze each illustration to determine the frequency of male-to-female characters, and record the sex and status of the central character which is typical of most studies, but they also performed an additional procedure to assess instrumental-independent activities and passive-dependent activities using the definitions of these categories adopted from a study by Kortenhaus and Demarest (1993) to determine character traits by gender. The findings discovered that most modern Australian picture books have a high level of equality between men and women in just about every category they studied, disagreeing with the results of almost every other study on this topic. One reason for these disparate results might be that they compared their findings to 1970s studies done on American texts rather than Australian texts. Paterson & Lach (1990) also wanting a different sample than Caldecott winners decided to select half the picture books featured in The Horn Book from 1967, 1977, and 1987 for a total of 136 books. They found that male and female main characters are nearly equal in representation frequency. They found that girls are just as likely to have adventures as they are to be shown in a domestic role—a major change from twenty years ago. They point out, however, that the Horn Book selectors are likely to be sensitive to gender issues when selecting books. Narahara (1998) took a different approach from most studies. Instead of looking at award-winning books the researcher wanted to find the gender representation in the books teachers actually read. She sampled four Kindergarten teachers in an Anaheim school. The researcher selected the books by asking each teacher to submit ten books they read every year to their class from their collections. The study found that gender representation has improved from earlier studies conducted in the seventies. They found, however, that gender bias still exists: there were twice as many masculine pronouns than female nouns, pronouns, and possessives. There were more males than females in central roles in a 3:1 ratio. Male images appeared in books twice as often as female images. On the other hand, there were nearly twice as many female authors as male authors. The researchers failed to give a high enough level of transparency for their study. Since texts were not limited by date or subject it is unclear how many of these were older books, which would skew the gender representation. No information was given about the school district’s demographics whether it was predominantly middle-class or poor. So it is unclear whether this school serves as a good representative of other school collections.
Teper & Cassidy (1999) examined the differential use of emotional language by gender in children’s picture books. They wanted to measure if males and females are associated with types and amounts of emotional language since it is a common stereotype that females are more emotional than males. Instead of analyzing award-winning books, they asked forty seven preschoolers’ parents what books their children had read or were read to them within a one week period, which allowed the researchers to compile a list of books that preschoolers were actually exposed to rather than studying what book experts believed to be popular. Despite their expectations, they found males and females were associated with emotions at equal amounts.
In one of the most original studies done on this topic, Anderson & Hamilton (2005) wanted to look more specifically at depictions of fathers and mothers in children’s books rather than just broad categories of sexism. They discovered from their sample that fathers were absent significantly more than mothers and that mothers were portrayed as more affectionate nurturers. Like Teper and Cassidy (1999) they found no significant differences between the frequency fathers and mothers expressed emotions in general. They also noted there was no difference between mothers and fathers in how often they mentioned money, or were disobeyed. In fact, the study found that mothers were depicted as disciplining and expressing anger significantly more than fathers. The study concludes that mothers were shown more often than fathers as caring nurturers who discipline their children and express a full emotional range.
Of course all of this theory assumes that gender is in fact entirely or mostly a creation of cultural attitudes, excluding the possibility that what feminists define as gender may in fact be more biological and attached to sex. In fact, one major problem of the research into gender stereotypes in books is that most of the research relies on theoretical arguments about gender when explaining what effects these stereotypes might have on children rather than turning to the real scientific studies into the effects gender stereotypes in books have been shown to have on children, despite the fact that a small body of such research does in fact exist. Out of all the research just reviewed only Turner-Bowker (1996) relies on any of these studies into the effects on children. I see this as an extremely disturbing trend to rely on theory when actual research on this topic has been conducted. I hypothesize that one reason for this disconnect is that many of the studies are extremely inconclusive about the effects stereotypes in books might have, some suggesting they can alter perceptions, others suggesting they can only alter girl’s perceptions, and almost all of them saying while it might have some affect on boy’s perceptions of gender roles they are extremely limited changes.
The seminal study in this area of research was done by Barclay (1974) that showed a relatively short exposure to three fifteen-minute lessons dealing with women’s careers affected Kindergarten children’s, particularly girl’s, perceptions of women’s career roles.
McArthur & Eisen (1976) following up on Barclay’s study read to thirty two males and thirty six female children of nursery school age either a stereotype story of male achievement, a reversal story of female achievement, or a control story depicting no achievement behavior by a character of either gender. Boys persisted longer on a task after hearing a story depicting male achievement. A nonsignificant trend was found in the opposite direction for girls who heard stories of female achievement. Boys were less likely than girls to recall the female character’s behavior. Both sexes manifested chauvinistic tendencies in preferences for same-sex characters.
Flerx et al. (1976) hypothesized that children who were exposed to a program of literature depicting nontraditional gender roles would develop more flexible, egalitarian attitudes towards sex roles. They studied seventy six children aged 4 and 5, and read to them for thirty minutes a day for five days. They discovered that 4 and 5 year old males have more stereotyped beliefs than females. They found that 5 year olds and females were more favorably influenced than 4 year olds and males, respectively. One reason for the age results might be that the 4 year olds in general were found to be restive and inattentive during the stories. Within this study they performed a second experiment to try and compare the influence of books with film. In this second experiment, the findings corroborated those of the first: presentation of egalitarian sex role models in children’s books and films reduced sex role stereotyping. They also found some evidence that films had more enduring impact than picture books. However, despite some changes in the boys, most of the findings from this study suggest boys were not as strongly affected as the girls by the egalitarian treatments.
Scott & Feldman-Summers (1979) had sixty seven females and forty four males from third and fourth grade classes read a set of eight short stories during a four week period. Each story had two versions — one with a female main character and one with a male main character. Other than changes to name and pronoun the two versions of each story were identical. All the characters were depicted performing stereotypical male activities. Following these readings the children filled out a questionnaire about gender roles and what gender they felt could perform the roles of the main character. They found that female participants believed to a greater extent than did male participants that girls could emulate the main character in the stories. However, both boys and girls rated stories with females engaging in traditional male activities as favorable as males in the same situations even if they could not always believe that the average female could emulate such behavior. The researcher points out that it is not clear that these findings would generalize to males depicted in feminine roles as no books in the study fell into this category.
Knell & Winer (1979) studied ninety preschoolers (42 boys and 48 girls) by randomly assigning each child to one of four story groups where they were read four stories per a day for three days. They had a traditional group where all the stories had explicitly traditional gender roles, a nontraditional group where all the stories reversed gender role expectations for males and females, a mixed group where they read half and half, and a control group. They found that girls were unaffected by the nontraditional stories, and boys were unaffected by any of the stories. On the other hand, the study found that traditional stories served to make girls more stereotyped in their responses. There was little evidence to suggest that reading could counteract established attitudes and predispositions about gender.
Anderson, D. A., & Hamilton, M. (2005). Gender role stereotyping of parents in children’s picture books: the invisible father. Sex Roles: a Journal of Research, 52, 145-151.
Barclay, L. K. (1974). The emergence of vocational expectations in preschool children. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 4, 1-14.
Collins, L. J., Ingoldsby, B. B., & Dellman, M. M. (1984). Sex-role stereotyping in children’s literature: A change from the past. Childhood Education, 90, 278-285.
Flerx, V. C., Fidler, D. S., & Rogers, R. W. (1976). Sex role stereotypes: developmental aspects and early intervention. Child Development, 47, 998-1007.
Gooden, A, & Gooden, M. (2001). Gender representation in notable children’s picture books: 1995-1999. Sex roles: a Journal of Research, 45, 89-101.
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