One quaint afternoon, as I was spending time with my 6-year old sibling reading mindless pop comics, I was thrown into an existential dread by a barrage of her seemingly simple questions - “Why is it always the prince who fights the baddies? Why couldn’t one of Rapunzel’s friends help her escape, why was it the prince? Why did she never fight back her evil mother? Why did Snow White need the prince’s kiss? Cinderella was happy by herself, why must the prince look for her in the entire kingdom to marry her? What would she need him for?” Really, what ever stopped these princesses from kicking butts and raging wars? Why is some ‘prince’ always the hero? Why are these princesses always frail and helpless?
From the Cat in the Hat to the Very Hungry Caterpillar, Babar to Peter Rabbit, childrens’ books are dominated by male characters. The message conveyed through representation of men and women in childrens’ books contribute to what it means to be a boy or a girl and what roles are specifically played by each gender. Looking at almost 6,000 childrens’ books published between 1900 and 2000, a study at the Florida State University found that males are protagonists in 57% of children's books published each year, with just 31% having female protagonists. The lopsided numbers of males in central characters may dangerously encourage children to accept the invisibility of women and to believe they are less important than men. But guess what could be worse than the absence of female protagonists? Their pathetic portrayal!
I was once surfing through a childrens’ book about space exploration. The writing next to pictures of astronauts in their white padded spacesuits read: “Without a spacesuit an astronaut’s blood would boil and his body would blow apart.” Using ‘he’ indicates that the person inside the space suit is a man and let me tell you - for every picture, the only pronoun used is ‘he’. There is absolutely no mention of the women who were a part of the spacewalks, including astronaut Sunita Williams whose image is used in the montage. This makes it easy for children to think that women don’t do spacewalks.
On the pages of another book, I saw a female astronaut floating inside a space station and smiling at the camera. The caption read : “In zero G, every day is a bad hair day.” Now let’s be clear here. The qualifications and experience required to get astronauts to this point are extensive. Places on NASA’s Astronaut training programmes are highly competitive with thousands of applications each year. But in the book, it’s made to look like a playdate for the woman. Such cringeworthy representation of women leaves little girls with no ideals to look up to.
Gender is perhaps the most basic perspective through which children see and experience the world and their places in it. These stereotypes hold the power to influence a child’s identity by making inferences about gender. Media that conveys gender bias, gender roles or sexism have damaging effects on a child’s psyche. It lays the foundation for their lifelong values and beliefs. For example, stereotypical representations of occupations along gender lines may encourage girls towards more traditional areas of employment, ultimately leading them to not take up leadership or STEM roles. We most definitely don’t want to raise sons who feel women are inferior or daughters who think they are meant to serve.
Childrens’ brains are sponges, parents. They absorb every bit of information, media, content available to them and actively make sense out of it.
These children are agents of change. A large part of the responsibility rests on parents’ shoulders to gender sensitize children at a young age. Explain to them the concept of gender equity and equality. Let their innocent, impressionable minds not be tarred by the gender bias that has plagued us from the beginning of time. This can finally come to an end with a new generation of children taking over the 21st century!