Popular children’s books criticized for gender stereotypes and lack of female characters

What do the Cat in a Hat, Harry the Dirty Dog and the Disney Princess series have in common? These are the most recent children’s books criticized for sexism and lack of female characters.

Books like Dr. Seuss’ classic The Cat In The Hat are a “white heteronormative portrayal of middle-class binary children” that promotes traditional gender roles, according to a new study from Edith Cowan University.

Lead author of the study, Dr Helen Adam, adds that the book is “very white and old-fashioned” with “outdated notions of family and their roles.”

The senior lecturer describes Dr Seuss’ books as “reflecting to a large extent the mainstream culture as well as outdated views and lifestyles” which “could be detrimental to equitable educational and social outcomes”.

Another review of the book is Gene Zion’s “Harry the Dirty Dog, which includes gender stereotypes and a glaring lack of female characters.

The study claims that the 1956 book shows a “bias towards male representation” by portraying 24 men in stereotypical roles such as mechanic and construction worker. He is also being targeted for referring to his main dog character using the gendered pronoun “he” and for representing only seven women.

“Boys are more often portrayed in active roles such as walking a dog, while girls are mostly portrayed passively,” she writes.

Another example provided by Dr Adam is from the Disney Princess series which shows that “girls need a man to save them and women are powerless”.

She adds: “The man is strong and he is the one who knows best… This is how we end up with some of the problems in society – look for example at Canberra – there are messages of patriarchy everywhere”.

The study saw Dr Adam check children’s books at eight daycares in Australia and the United States, where she found that 90% of those stories were told from a white male’s perspective.

“The world depicted in children’s books primarily reflects middle-class, heterosexual and male heroes and characters,” she says.

Dr Adam explains that while it is impossible to exclude literature containing stereotypes, educators should use a “critical lens” to help children “carefully evaluate books to identify stereotypes”.

You can view the full study here.


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