Reading Between the LinesGAMBIER, Ohio (January 3, 2005) Children's literature has come a long way from sexist language and gender stereotypes. Or has it?
Maybe not, according to work published by Kenyon researchers earlier this year in the journal Sex Roles. The study suggests that many of those books previously identified as being nonsexist do, indeed, typecast boys and girls, men and women.
"Children learn from many different aspects of our culture that gender is an important category," says Sarah Murnen, an associate provost and professor of psychology at Kenyon who coauthored this study with Amanda Diekman, Class of 1995. "Children learn this from books that they read and from many other sources."
Early on, Murnen notes, children discover that the two categories-male and female-have very specific meaning in today's society. Hospital workers dress male newborns in blue hats and females in pink; girls are neat, boys are messy; women cook, clean, and do laundry; men work, cut the grass, and fix things.
Books and other media reinforce those meanings, the researchers suggest. Because many previous studies looked only at the number of male and female characters, it was hard to know how gender roles played out in the characters' personalities and actions.
"Any good story will have complexity to it, even children's books," says Diekman, now an assistant professor of psychology at Miami University in Ohio. Diekman conducted the study as part of her honors thesis at Kenyon.
Murnen and Diekman selected twenty books written for children in grades three through five. Half had been previously classified as sexist and half as nonsexist. Twenty men and twenty women were randomly assigned one book each to read and were asked to complete a questionnaire designed to assess such factors as characters' social roles and gender inequality.
The researchers found that in a number of the books, authors had created female characters with many of the skills and careers traditionally assigned only to male characters. But boys were still boys.
Because such gender roles are present in society, it's no surprise to find them reflected in children's books, the researchers say. And even though a book may include gender stereotypes, they add, that doesn't mean that parents shouldn't let their children read it.