Mothers and Fathers: Gender Stereotyping in Picture Books
By J. Albert Mann
A couple of years ago I was reading a blog post by a picture book writer about the journey of their latest picture book. This writer had submitted it over and over again to their editor, while the editor had continued to reject it. In the final revision, they had the idea to switch the mother to a father. The book was purchased, and it went on to win a Caldecott Honor.
This is the moment I first became interested in the representation of parents in picture books.
According to *seminal studies on gender in picture books over the last 45 years –the most glaring gender issues for parents – above and beyond overt stereotypes - have historically been: Fathers were often not present in picture books, and if they were, they were never shown in a nurturing role. Mothers were often present, but never shown in any other role but a nurturing one.
The last major study I could find taking this issue on was done in 2011. And since I felt a disconnect with what I was seeing in the industry and these studies, I decided to conduct my own study on parents in picture books. The result of which came down to this…everything has changed for fathers, but nothing has changed for mothers.
Since I’m going to cite statistics from my study, I should let you know that in an attempt to replicate the methodologies of the past studies on gender, I took on a recent full year available in picture books while choosing critically acclaimed books over bestselling books. Critically acclaimed can be translated into a starred review by one of the four largest industry trade journals.
It’s important to note that my study’s purpose was to examine these books for parental gender bias, and not for creativity in writing or art, or whether or not a story worked well, hit its humorous marks, or its emotional marks. Nor was my study’s goal to call out writers and illustrators for their individual biases. Therefore, I will not be revealing the year or the trade journal I used in the study. I would also like to LOUDLY STATE: The books included in the study encompassed a talented group of writers and illustrators, as well as a wide range of subjects and main characters. Each book revealed a unique reason for its starred review. Taken together, the stories yielded a constellation of creativity.
That said, no matter how inventive, powerful, and fun the books were, gender stereotyping of parents lived in their pages, and therefore, continues to imprint itself onto the next generation of children.
So who showed up as parents in the study?
Unfortunately, none of the books in the study included a parent with a disability, gay parents, transgender parents, foster parents, or a parent other than what appeared to be the biological parent (except in the case of one of the titles where an anthropomorphized animal begrudgingly adopts other anthropomorphized animals). Fortunately, parents of color were represented, with 56% of the books in the study featuring fathers of color and 43% of the books featuring mothers of color.
What did the study have to say about the historical problems plaguing the invisibility of fathers? Fathers are no longer invisible: Fathers showed up in 89% of the books, while mothers showed up in 68% of the books.
Now let’s dive a little deeper.
Fathers aren’t just present in picture books, they’re present and nurturing. Examining the parent/child pairings in the study, 70% featured a father/child. Of this, almost 30% showed him in a nurturing posture – feeding, clothing, putting a child to bed.
At the other end, 100% of the mother/child pairings showed a mother in a nurturing posture. Mothers are still present, but only present to nurture.
So, if a father is nurturing in only 30% of these books, what is he doing in the other 70%?
The answer: He is starring in the book with his child.
In these books, the father and child are engaged in what I call meaningfully shared activities, which I define as participating in special time together outside of regular daily activities like meals or bedtime. (On a side note, I absolutely believe nurturing is meaningful, I’ve added the word “activities” to present a separate idea.) For example, meaningfully shared activities could be a day spent in the park or an evening observing the stars, both of which were the focus of picture books in the study. In other words, when not shown nurturing their children, fathers are shown engaging in fun, playful, artistic, cerebral, and exciting activities together with their children.
I have to remind us that 100% of the books featuring a mother/child pairing, showed her in a nurturing posture. None of the books had a mother at play with her child.
The good news, of course, is that the glaring gender issues plaguing our fathers in picture books are being corrected. The bad news is our mothers are being left out of these changes.
Considering all that I’ve just said, it makes it even more disheartening to note that the children’s publishing industry is made up primarily of women. According to the Lee & Low 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey, women make up approximately 80% of the total industry. Why—in an industry made up of women—would the gender biases plaguing male parents be corrected but the gender biases against female parents go uncorrected is something no one can answer with numbers. But I won’t leave it unanswered. I believe we women are unintentionally complicit in the propagation of a gender cultural bias in children’s literature. I believe that misogyny is deeply embedded in our culture…imbedded in us.
My goal is to raise awareness of what I believe is “deep-seated socialized thinking,” so that we may change it because picture books are often the first literature shared with children, which makes it especially impactful. We are all a part of an imperfect culture, but that doesn’t mean we need to hand our imperfections on to the smallest among us. Instead, we can be aware of our imperfections and not hand them down. Imagine how much more meaningful picture books would be if they celebrated a more inclusive vision of parenting.
Did the switch in parent help sell the previously mentioned Caldecott Honor book? We will never know. But if this book had kept its mother, it would have depicted a mother at play with her child.
Anderson, David A. & Hamilton, Mykol. “Gender Role Stereotyping of Parents in Children’s Picture Books: The Invisible Father.” Sex Roles, vol. 52, Nos. ¾, February 2005, pp. 145-151. doi: 10.1007/s11199-005-1290-8.
McCabe, J., Fairchild, E., Grauerholz, L., Pescosolido, B. A., & Tope, D. “Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters.” Gender & Society, vol. 25(2), 2011, pp. 197-226.
Paynter, K. C. (2011). Gender Stereotypes and Representation of female Characters in Children’s Picture Books (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Liberty University, Virginia. http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1500&context=doctoral.
Trepanier-Street, M. L., & Romatowski, J. S. “The Influence of Children’s Literature on Gender Role Perceptions: A Reexamination.” Early Childhood Education Journal, vol. 26, No. 3, 1999, pp. 155– 159. Weitzman, L. J., Eifler, D., Hokada, E., & Ross, C. “Sex-Role Socialization in Picture Books for Preschool Children.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 77, no. 6, May 1972, pp. 1125-1150. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2776222.