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Gender stereotyping in books: why it’s boys who really suffer

It’s time for another Round Robin post, and this month’s topic is: Do you feel certain genres stereotype men and women? Why do you think that happens? How do you prevent it in your writing?

round robin, helena fairfax

My short answers to those three questions are: I feel all genres are guilty of stereotyping, not just some of them; it happens because writers have been conditioned to think in stereotypes from an early age, just like anyone else, and it’s incredibly difficult to shake that off; I’m not sure I succeed in preventing stereotyping in my own writing, despite my best efforts.

Gender stereotyping in books starts as soon as children begin reading. Like nearly everyone in Britain of my age, I learned to read with Janet and John books. They featured a middle-class suburban white family, whose Daddy wore a shirt and tie and drove off to the office in his car, while Mummy stayed at home baking. Janet did sewing with Mummy, and John played football and went fishing.

You’d assume that everything has changed now, in these enlightened times, and that there isn’t such a high wall between the sexes in childhood, but you’d be wrong. If anything, I think it might be worse today than it ever was fifty years ago. There’s a campaign on Twitter called #letbooksbebooks, and you’ve only got to trawl through some of the tweets to start getting quite depressed.

How about this tweeted photo, taken in the children’s book shelves in Sainsbury’s?

helena fairfax, #letbooksbebooks

I couldn’t believe this when I saw it. What this says to children is that reading and writing are for girls (why? is it because these particular skills are associated with expressions of emotion?) and maths is a manly subject for boys. (Why again?)

Whatever the reason, I think the saddest thing about this photo isn’t the fact that it makes girls look like they’re only interested in pink princesses and are too silly for maths. A lot of girls love Star Wars, and if there’s a picture of Darth Vader on a textbook it’s not going to put them off. Far from it. Far worse is the fact that boys are brought up to think that anything associated with the female sex must be beneath them, and so they wouldn’t touch that book on reading and writing skills with a barge pole. “Girly” is a belittling term. Why do you think J.K. Rowling used her initials instead of her first name? That’s right – it’s because boys have been conditioned to think that books written by women aren’t for them, and that – even worse – they will be ridiculed if they read such books.

To my mind, the damage being done to boys in this way is far worse than the damage being done to girls. Even though it’s still hard for girls to enter areas previously thought of as for boys only, it is becoming easier, and girls are certainly not ridiculed these days for showing an interest in football or rugby.

How many boys, though, learn to knit a sweater? Dress a doll? Play netball? Read a romance novel? We need to show boys growing up that these areas that are traditionally thought of as female are not inferior. Romance novels are all about emotions. They’re about listening to others, about compromise, about relationships with friends and family as well as lovers, and about learning to deal with our own flaws as well as learning to rub along with other people’s. These emotional skills are not seen as traditional masculine skills, but they could be if only boys weren’t pushed from an early age into thinking anything to do with emotions is for girls. It’s no wonder that mental health is one of the most serious health problems facing men today.

In recent years women have made great strides across the divide that separates them from men. Now it’s time for women to do their part by embracing everything seen as “feminine.” Yes, of course it’s great for women to be able to play football, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There’s nothing wrong with being skilled at knitting and needlework, and there’s nothing wrong – in fact women should be proud – to pass on traditionally female skills to their sons. I’d love to see boys being taught to make clothes for their dolls, and that The Little Princess and Anne of Green Gables are great books, even though they’re about girls. The stories we read have a great role to play in reversing gender stereotyping for boys, from childhood to adult, whatever the genre.

* * *

Thanks to Rhobin Courtright for another great topic. Please do check out what the other authors in our Round Robin have to say. It’s an interesting subject, and I’m looking forward to hearing their views.

If you have any thoughts or comments at all on the topic of gender stereotyping, I’d love to hear from you!

Other authors in the Round Robin are:

Beverley Bateman
Diane Bator
Marci Baun
Connie Vines
Rachael Kosinski
Anne Stenhouse
Skye Taylor
Heidi M. Thomas
Fiona McGier
Helena Fairfax
Rhobin Courtright

18 thoughts on “Gender stereotyping in books: why it’s boys who really suffer

  1. What a fantastic and thought-provoking post, Helena. As a teacher of modern foreign languages I encounter these types of gender stereotypes all the time and it always saddens me to hear boys who have excelled at languages for three years state that languages are for girls when it comes to choosing their GCSE options. As a mother, I have done my best not to pass on any prejudices and I remember spending lovely afternoons cross-stitching with my two boys when they were little and them proudly showing me the results of their efforts!


    1. Hi Marie, when I was at school very few boys went on to study languages, either. How sad to hear nothing has changed, and how dispiriting for teachers to lose good pupils in this way.
      That’s so great you taught your boys how to embroider! You painted a lovely scene – I wish that sort of scene had been in my Janet and John books!
      Thanks for your great comment!


  2. Hi Helena, I’m blogging about this, too. I find it a really tough subject. Having brought up both male and female children, there was a pink period for her which the boys did not go through. There was the early maths toy – a rod with different shapes to screw along – for one of the boys. he chose the round shape and had a sword within a minute of opening the parcel! Great post, however. Must look more carefully in the supermarket, although I don’t buy books there. Anne Stenhouse


    1. Hi Anne, it’s true a lot of boys do have a tendency to to turn innocent toys into weapons. Even a crust of bread can become a gun :) Boys do this more than girls – perhaps social experts and child psychologists can explain why!
      Supermarkets are absolutely the worst place for the pink / blue divide. Next time you’re in Asda, check out the children’s clothes. It’s an eye-opener, and I’m sure far worse than when we or our children were small.
      Thanks very much for dropping in. Just of to read your post!


  3. This is a great post on an important topic, but I think that sexuality has to be a part of this discussion. One of the reasons that boys are not given dolls and girls are not give swords is that the parents are afraid their children will grow into homosexual men and women, (although other more charged words are used). I think those thoughts have been proven to be nonsense. However,until parents are okay with the idea of their children developing and finding their place in the world and maximizing their gifts no matter what their sexuality is, gender stereotyping will continue, at least in my opinion.


    1. Hi Ken, you make a really valid point, and those attitudes also true here in the UK, especially in my part of the world. I was in a supermarket recently and heard a dad say to his little boy in disgust, “You’re not having that. It’s for girls.” The look on the boy’s face was both upset and bafflement. He really didn’t understand what the problem was. It was sad to see. What the dad meant was, he didn’t want people thinking any boy of his was “one of those.” I agree with you – with attitudes like these, gender stereotyping will continue.
      Thanks very much for raising an interesting point.


  4. How many “traditional” families are out there? How about a working class family, with Dad suffering from a back injury, drinking his pain away, with Mom working at a factory, and daughter doing babysitting and cooking and cleaning for a rich family?


    1. Hi Marina, that’s very true as well. It’s a long while since I bought children’s books as my children are grown up. I have noticed that there is more choice to be found now then when I was young, and a truer reflection of the variety in society, but there is still a long way to go. Another interesting comment. Thanks very much for dropping in.


  5. Interesting post, Helena. I gave both of my sons dolls when they were little. One liked carrying “Stevie” around and the other didn’t. He preferred playing with trucks. The son who liked the doll also liked stuffed animals, the other didn’t. My grandson has also been given dolls, but it is clear to see, he loves pushing cars and trucks around more. But all were given the opportunity to play with non-gender toys.

    I know this isn’t part of your discussion, but when I was a little kid one of my favorite books was a Golden book titled “Mister Dog,” I loved that book so much, I bought it for my grandson. When I was reading the book, my daughter-in-law made of point of mentioning that the dog had a pipe in his mouth. She didn’t take note of how cool the story was but focused rather on what she wanted to focus on.


    1. Hi Susan, that’s great you gave your sons dolls. It’s up to them, then, to decide what they’re interested in playing with, as your sons did. At least you gave them the option.
      Personally I don’t think a cartoon dog with a pipe in his mouth is anything to worry about, but books can definitely have an influence. It’s so hard as a parent always trying to make the right decision! It’s good to have the experience of grandparents to call on. I expect you are a great grandma. Thanks for your great comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting post. I agree with Susan. I two am the mother of boys and found Susan’s post to almost mirror my own experience. However, my YA novel (Lexile Level 700) “Whisper upon the Water” has a larger readership of boys than girls. This novel is written in the first person, the main character is a 12 year-old-girl. The story is set in the late 1800s.

    I believe times are changing. My grandson loves his stuffed animals, Disney toys, and he is obsessed with sweeping, cleaning, and cooking. I see acceptable behaviors in gender roles changing because parents my share tasks, work, and blend families.


    1. Hi Connie, that’s really encouraging to hear that you’ve seen attitudes changing in the next generation. It’s a long time since my children were small, so I can’t judge. I will have a grandchild next year, so I’m very encouraged by your feeling that things are changing. And it’s really great that your YA novel has a larger readership of boys than girls. I think that’s wonderful and gives me optimism that things are moving on. Thanks so much for your encouraging words!


  7. Good post, Helena. I remember how it used to be – pink for girls and dolls; blue for boys and trucks. I do think it has changed some what, but maybe not enough. And yes, women authors use initials so they can be read by both sexes.


  8. Why is it that a girl who likes traditionally boy-activities is a “tomboy”, but a boy who prefers traditionally girl-activities is a “sissy”? A girl close to her father is “Daddy’s girl”, but a boy close to his mother is a “Mama’s boy.” The girl terms are praise, the boy terms are pejoratives. We encourage girls to experience the full panoply of human experience, but deny that to our boys. I totally agree with you!

    I raised 3 boys to be like their father, a beta -male. One has turned into an alpha, but he’s got a gentle side known only to his family, and his soon-to-be wife. Hopefully he’ll be the kind of “hands-on” dad that his father was, and show that side to his little ones also. My daughter is strong and independent, very much like her mom. I used to discuss these kinds of issues with my kids, with the result being that all 4 of my kids are avowed feminists.

    Great post!


    1. What a great comment, Fiona. I so agree about those boy terms being pejorative, and find it infuriating! That’s so great that your kids think about these things and call themselves feminists. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being an alpha male – or an alpha female – as long as you don’t walk all over others. We always need strong leaders. You’ve raised your kids in a thoughtful way. A great comment. Thanks so much for dropping in!


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