A child in Romania picks up free books from the pavement on World Book Day. Photo: Getty
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Why are children’s books still promoting gender stereotypes?

A good book should be open to anyone, so why do some children’s publishers restrict readership according to gender?

Why do we give books to children? Common answers to that question involve the use of words like “expand”, “open” or “broaden”, followed by “minds”, “hearts”, “horizons” or “imaginations”. Sad then, that many books for children do just the opposite; they peddle stereotypes, close minds to new experiences and offer limited horizons.

The Let Toys Be Toys campaign, which last year persuaded 13 retailers to remove “Boys” and “Girls” signs from stores, is working with Letterbox Library, Inclusive Minds and For Books’ Sake to persuade the publishing industry to drop these labels from books. The Let Books Be Books petition launched for World Book Day, 6 March, asks children’s publishers Usborne, Buster Books, Igloo Books and others to stop labelling children’s activity, story and colouring books as for boys or for girls.

Children are individuals. They should feel free to choose their own interests, not feel that they’re supposed to like or reject certain things. And anyone who chooses a gift based only on a child’s gender is making some massive, and quite likely wrong, assumptions about what that child may like.

Campaign supporters regularly share photos of “boy” and “girl” books with predictably lazy stereotypes on the cover. These are usually colouring, sticker and activity books, although “Stories for Boys” and “Stories for Girls” are also common. Classic novels, great for all children to read, are bundled together with the words “girls” or “boys” slapped on the box. Separate cookery books seem particularly ridiculous; the suggestion being that boys eat pizza and burgers, while girls prefer pink iced cupcakes. We’ve even seen “girls” and “boys” versions of The Bible.

Typical themes for boys include robots, dinosaurs, astronauts, vehicles, football and pirates; while girls are allowed princesses, fairies, make-up, flowers, butterflies, fashion and cute animals. There’s nothing wrong with these things, but it is wrong when they are repeatedly presented as only for one gender. Girls can like pirates and adventure, boys can like magic and dressing up. Why tell them otherwise? Why tell them that boys and girls should like different things, that their interests never overlap, that there are greater differences between genders than between individuals? 

It’s accepted practice to target products at one segment of the population, but when it comes to children’s books it’s morally questionable to promote gender stereotypes. Children take messages about what’s “for girls” or “for boys” seriously.

“Books should give children the chance to explore new things and ideas, and labelling books, and certain subjects, as only for one gender prevents them from doing this,” says Alexandra Strick, of children’s literature project Inclusive Minds. Her co-founder Beth Cox, adds, “These books reinforce stereotypes about what it means to be a boy or a girl, and therefore make children who don’t conform to these stereotypes more vulnerable to bullying and at risk of low self-esteem”.

The campaign also aims to raise discussion on wider issues around gender and children”s books, such as the fact that male protagonists still outnumber female characters by two to one in children’s picture books, or the belief, often expressed by publishers, that boys won’t read books with girl leads.

These issues are connected to a wider culture of inequality. The founder of For Books’ Sake, Jane Bradley, says, “From gendered children’s colouring books to chick-lit book covers illustrated with pink cursive fonts, handbags and cupcakes, the publishing industry aggressively reinforces conventional gender roles to its readers from childhood onwards. This gendered marketing normalises and perpetuates limiting, antiquated stereotypes, and we believe it’s time for the publishing industry to put it where it belongs; in the past”.

Kerry Mason, co-director of the not-for-profit social enterprise Letterbox Library agrees. “This campaign is testament to a growing voice of dissent. We have a very proud and rich tradition of children’s publishing in the UK. But increasingly, parents and teachers feel that children’s own book choices are being limited by publishers’ gendered marketing campaigns.

“At Letterbox Library, we have spent the last 30 years selecting books which give children the widest possible choices in what they read. Our selection is increasingly being threatened by a type of marketing which uses book labelling and covers which restrict a book’s readership. We simply cannot stock books marketed in this way. Gendered marketing is anti-choice and, for us at least, there really is no profit in it. Nor is there much respect for children in it!”

Join the Twitter conversation on the #LetBooksBeBooks hashtag and sign and share the petition if you agree that it’s time for children’s publishers to just let books be books.

 

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem