Last year when I picked a copy of Cinderella for my seven-year-old cousin, he exclaimed in shock as though I’d picked pet food for him to eat. He was evidently scandalized, and fearing that his friends would bully him, said, “This is a read for girls; I prefer something more boyish, Di”. Perplexed at his reaction, I wondered what was going wrong in the way we bring our children up. If little children see books in terms of gender stereotypes we definitely need to rethink about the books we select for them.
Children are impressionable. Books are impactful. Hence it is important that we, as adults, choose for them books which live up to our aim of broadening their horizons instead of confine their possibilities. It is only regrettable that even leading bookstores often have shelves separate for girls and boys, and worse, the shelves for boys are painted blue, while those for girls are plunged in buckets of pink paint. Such separation and colour-coding is detrimental insofar as it inculcates gendered values in them. This setup subtly sends to children a sexist message that the preferences of boys are as a norm different from those of girls. It certainly relates to a larger picture shaped by patriarchy of inequality among various genders.
It was not for no reason that my cousin refused the aforementioned book. He later told me that he had read earlier the story of Cinderella. He felt that all the daintiness and lessons about being decorative that was involved in the tale, were things appropriate for girls to learn. He would like to read about adventures suited to boys- brutal quests that entail the slaughter of evil forces. Indeed, it was through other fairytales that he had been fed with gender categorization. I will not be astonished if very soon he treats the sexual division of labour as an essential norm to be followed unquestioningly.
The gendered notions that fairytales meant for children propagate are alarming. The female protagonist in Cinderella is saved by a prince. This reinforces the idea of chivalry being a laudable trait in males. Furthermore, he saves her not because she is industrious, but because she is pretty. This book successfully implies that if a woman is beautiful she may be able to escape her terrible living conditions by getting a wealthy man to marry her. Hence, it is of utmost importance for a woman to be decorative. Sigh! Cinderella is a mere instance of fairytales propagating stereotypes, the other being Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, and so on. Most of the female protagonists are either passive, or are always fainting and later rescued by brave princes from their oppressive stepmothers.
I think we should be happy that the books named above at least have female protagonists. The number of male and female protagonists in children’s fiction reveals a grim two to one ratio. Intersexuals, transgenders, homosexuals and bisexuals are happily excluded from the world of “happily ever after” that we wish to construct for children. In other words, we do not let such persons feature in the reality we introduce to our children… not even through fictional characters. This is in a way nipping the imaginative capability of young minds in the bud, and more importantly, narrowing down the expression of their sexuality and gender.
Books based on “masculine” themes such as war often have covers depicting soldiers, heroes (never heroines), while those with “feminine” themes have jackets with flowers, gems, and other stereotypes displayed on them. The motifs in colouring books are not very different. Such images sketch in the child’s mind future conventions to be followed and roles to be taken up. More care ought to be taken to avoid these manipulative marketing strategies. In fact, marketers need to be aware that if gender catergorisation is avoided, then the market for the so-called boy-themed and girl-themed books will widen considerably. Boys will comfortably read stories about princesses, while many girls who had been so long merely yielding to stereotypes, may wish to fling the restrictions imposed by patriarchy.
“If we treat children equally from an early age then they will grow up expecting to be treated equally. Instead we teach them that boys are meant to care about football (and dinosaurs and to turn away from anything ‘girly’), and girls are meant to care about friendship, emotions and looking pretty. Then we wonder why we struggle to get girls to stick with science or sport, why so many men struggle to express their feelings and why women are rated on appearance over ability as they grow up.”
-Tricia Lowther, campaigner, Let Books Be Books
Change has been brought by the Merseyside Women Liberation Movement, the Let Books Be Books campaign, et al. in obliterating the sexist implications of children’s books. However, such noble efforts have not met with particularly crowning success. Evading gendered values is not a herculean task for guardians. Grimm’s Fairy Tales is a book suggestion from yours truly to begin with. I think I am going to read it out to my cousin for a change. The minds of children are like sponges- ready to absorb anything around them. Why not offer them the best of virtues through books?