In the most comprehensive study of children’s literature during a period of 100 years, researchers recently found that:
- 57% of children’s books published each year have male protagonists, versus 31% female.
- In popular children’s books featuring animated animals, 100% of them have male characters, but only 33% have female characters.
- The average number of books featuring male characters in the title of the book is 36.5% versus 17.5% for female characters.
It’s not just the quantity, but the quality as well. Female characters, as in movies, are often marginalized, stereotyped, or one-dimensional. For example, in Peter Pan, Wendy is a stick-in-the-mud mother figure, and Tiger Lily is a jealous exotic. The animated books featuring animals are particularly subtle. Think about Winnie the Pooh—Kanga is the only female character, and she’s definitely not one of the gang.
The researchers concluded, “The gender inequalities we found may be particularly powerful because they are reinforced by patterns of male-dominated characters in many other aspects of children’s media, including cartoons, G-rated films, video games, and even coloring books.”
But, it goes beyond gender and is true of racial and ethnic diversity as well. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education has conducted a survey of all kids and young adult books published each year since 1985. Of an estimated 5,000 children’s and YA books released in 2012, only 3.3% featured African-Americans; 2.1% featured Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders; 1.5% featured Latinos; and only 0.6% featured Native Americans.
Directing, in particularly, is associated with men; the image we have of a male director with a megaphone, jodhpurs and a monocle. A director deals with three things that are generally thought to be the province of men: enormous amounts of money; advanced technology; and leading large groups of people (often male). It is not dissimilar to leading an army into battle, and we still think of our military leaders as male. But there is another way to look at it: directors are also storytellers and nurturers, qualities sometimes thought of as being in the province of women. The truth is that the skills required to be a great director are not the province of either men or women; they do not divide across gender lines. A director needs to be a leader and a nurturer, both decisive and communicative. These are qualities that can come in both male and female packages.
I can’t figure out which part of this story is the most unforgivably retro. Is it the part where the Internet is flooded by a tsunami of bickering over which political party has the “prettier” members of Congress and/or prettier voters? Followed by smug accusations of sour grapes, actual sour grapes, and finally resentful grumbling by lots of women in comfort clogs, maybe even including me. (It’s none of your business but I require them for the back support. Take it easy, I have a doctor’s note.)
Or is it the part that suggests that a key factor in the electability and, dare I say, presence of a female politician on a national stage can be dependent on something as random as the placement of her eyebrows? Are there really subtle ways in which people would consider a woman suitable for office that are rooted in their visceral reaction to the width and prominence of her cheekbones? Well, probably.
All I know is that once I finished reading the study I’m pretty sure 1970s Burt Reynolds reached across the passenger seat of his Trans Am to give me a wink and a boob honk.
Thankfully, the “sex typical” phenomenon applies only to female members of Congress. When it comes to male members of Congress, the results of the study are somewhat less conclusive. So guys, feel free to go to work on behalf of your constituents without wondering for a second whether psych undergrads around the country are hotly debating whether or not you got hit at birth with an ugly stick. Don’t you worry your pretty little man-heads about it.
The Girls on Film is a project that remakes scenes featuring only men into scenes featuring only women. Above: Fight Club.
There are female athletes who will be competing at the Olympic Games this summer after undergoing treatment to make them less masculine.
Still others are being secretly investigated for displaying overly manly characteristics, as sport’s highest medical officials attempt to quantify — and regulate — the hormonal difference between male and female athletes.
Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was so fast and muscular that many suspected she was a man, exploded onto the front pages three years ago. She was considered an outlier, a one-time anomaly.
But similar cases are emerging all over the world, and Semenya, who was banned from competition for 11 months while authorities investigated her sex, is back, vying for gold.
Semenya and other women like her face a complex question: Does a female athlete whose body naturally produces unusually high levels of male hormones, allowing them to put on more muscle mass and recover faster, have an “unfair” advantage?
In a move critics call “policing femininity,” recent rule changes by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, state that for a woman to compete, her testosterone must not exceed the male threshold.
If it does, she must have surgery or receive hormone therapy prescribed by an expert IAAF medical panel and submit to regular monitoring. So far, at least a handful of athletes — the figure is confidential — have been prescribed treatment, but their numbers could increase. Last month, the International Olympic Committee began the approval process to adopt similar rules for the Games.
There’s a lot going on here, but here’s what jumped out at us immediately: Women, particularly women athletes, are constantly told they’re not as strong or fast as men—and now that they’re proving otherwise, they’re being forced to undergo hormone treatments. We don’t think it’s a coincidence that women of color are coming under fire for this more than white women. From the article: “Lindsay Perry, another scientist, says sometimes whole teams of African women are dead ringers for men.” This is a clear example of how we’ve constructed a very particular, very narrow ideal of femininity and womanhood that devalues and casts aside black women in particular.