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Stereotypical Gender Roles in Children’s Literature

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Stereotypical Gender Roles in Children’s Literature essay
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From the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries male and female characters have always been represented as ‘separate’ or ‘unequal’ in children’s literature. (Simons, 2009). Males have been portrayed as strong, domineering and active characters throughout children’s literature, whereas females are seen as more passive and submissive individuals. The author will propose an argument to examine if there is a use of stereotypical gender roles in children’s literature. For the purpose of this research, the author will discuss, compare and contrast the theme of gender through the following pieces of children’s literature: The Daisy Chain by Charlotte M, Yonge from 1895, The Brothers Grimm Snow White and Cinderella from 1857, Noel Streatfeilds’ Ballet Shoe in 1936, Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton in 1942, Robert Munsch’s Paper Bag Princess in 1980 and Princess Smarty-Pants by Babette Cole 1986.

Gender Roles in Children’s Texts in the 18th and 19th Centuries

A variety of studies analyzing children’s text from the 1700’s to the 1800’s are controlled by male characters. As cited in Singh (N/D), Ernst (1995) did a research of titles of children’s literature and discovered male characters appeared nearly twice as often as female characters. She found also that books with either gender-neutral or female names in their titles commonly revolved around a male personality. A lot of traditional stories from the nineteenth century such as Boys of England by Bracebridge Hemyng, 1891 demonstrate prevalent stereotypes. The courageous and daring character Jack Harkaway is portrayed stereotypically as a mischievous schoolboy who plays tricks on the master and is regularly in trouble at school. His classic traits are carried into his future adventures when he runs away to sea, faces exotic dangers and traditionally becomes the hero. Simons (2009) addressed the severity of the struggles Jack Harkaway faced on his adventure that resulted in many parents’ disapproval of their children’s engagement with the literature. Stereotypically, this courageous adventure was carried out by a male with very little acknowledgment of any female aid in his fight for success.

As cited in Singh (N/D) by Simons (2009) and Temple (1993), young male and female characters are depicted in two very contrasting ways. Young females are seen as innocent and vulnerable and sometimes characterized as dependent or in a maternal light, whereas in contrast, young males are engaging in more adventurous roles such as firefighters and are seen as more capable figures. Usually female characters will only achieve their aim with the help of other characters and if they show themselves as being confident during the story they will then be portrayed passively towards the end of the story. This is in contrast to males, who will always succeed because of their power and determination to achieve goals on their own strengths and merits.

Rudman (1995) approves this theory as he admits young female characters who keep their active qualities are the exceptions in children’s literature. Furthermore, gender roles are similarly identified throughout The Daisy Chain by Charlotte, M Yonge (1856). This piece of literature demonstrates a female heroines’ struggle to hold power. Ethel, whose name descends from Etheldred which interestingly is commonly given to males, hints at her ambivalent status in the story. Ethel is heavily criticized for being ‘just like one of the boys’. (Young, 1856, p.71) A graceless character is labelled as ‘good for nothing’ (Young, 1856, p.32). Her family encourage her to act as a woman, advising her that ‘good needlework’ is ‘far more important than accomplishments’ (p.180). Meanwhile, her brother Norman, is encouraged to be adventurous and to use his intelligence to do great things. Ethel is forbidden to read books as not only does it affect her poor eyesight but it is not seen as a priority for her future.

Ethel is often referred to as a “freak” because of her need to wear her spectacles. Disappointing her father once again, she returns home from a walk with her dress covered in dirt and she agrees with her family and friends as she admits to herself anxiously “I am good for nothing” (p.32). Her bother Norman is both powerful and intelligent, and although Ethel strives to be successful in her studies she is surrounded by many barriers stopping her from overcoming her stereotypical gender role. Ethel is constantly reminded of her gender differences. ‘We all know that men have more power than women, and I suppose the time has come for Norman to pass beyond you’ (Young, 1856, p.201). Ethel is left to accept that she ‘can’t take a first class’ and learns to acknowledge that women in her society must accept their prime responsibility and become ‘a useful, steady daughter at home” and that she should accept the fact that she will be staying at home and become “a comfort to papa’ (p. 225).

Peksen (N/D) addresses further stereotypical gender roles throughout the study of fairytales. In the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White along with the first edition of the fairytale, the characters follow a stereotypical gender storyline where lists of household duties are made for Snow White to complete. She follows her masters’ wishes to clean the house and cook the dinner while the dwarfs are out working, earning money. The Brothers Grimm first edition also shows her as being saved by a male “hunter”. The use of the word “hunter” is seen as more masculine and commanding. The dwarfs point out that “dinner must be ready” when they return. (Peksen, p.155) Stereotypically, the male character is portrayed earning the money for the house as they leave in search for gold. (Peksen, p155) From a less modern text of the story, Snow White was requested to be “put to death” by the evil queen, looking to the hunter, a male, to achieve the orders. (Peksen, p.155) This highlights the lack of authority of the female character. She needed the help of a male to complete her wishes, possibly suggesting that females lack the strength and power to commit such a crime.

Peksen (N/D) suggests in Cinderella by the Grimm Brothers the power of the patriarch is very evident. Cinderella’s only quality is her beauty. Her father tells her she should be “good and pios” (Peksen 1997, p121) As cited in Peksen (N/D) Bruce (2012) also suggests that Cinderella is ‘good’ as a result of her passiveness. He also suggests that many of the heroines are seen as beautiful and ‘good’ in the Grimm’s fairytales. The Grimm Brother’s view of a female character is one of beauty and doesn’t portray any other distinctive qualities. ‘Good’ females are characters who are submissive whereas ‘good’ males are characters who are strong and domineering. “The male as savior is dominant and protects the virtues of the humble female” (Zipes 1983, p49). Peksen (N/D) also states that males are always celebrated as the hero at the end of the story. Bruce (2012) as cited in Peksen (N/D) acknowledges the fact the Grimm Brothers mention the absence of Cinderella’s father at a time when she is suffering. However the father is still celebrated because of his wealth and is therefore seen as a ‘good’ male character.

Analyzing gender roles deeper, a further argument to consider is the female villain in these stories. From studying the work of Nanda (2014) ‘ambitious females’ are portrayed as ‘evil from within, ugly and scheming’ (p247). In stories such as Snow White and Cinderella the stepmother is seen as bearing ‘negative and repulsive traits, such as vanity, jealousy and pride.’ (p.247). This is possibly due to the fact that stereotypically females should be beautiful , quiet and submissive and if they show any strength or determination it is conveyed as ugly. Nanda (2014) also suggests that some of these women are also linked to sorcery and magic as it is unearthly for a female to be anything but beautiful and kind. As also cited in Peksen (N/D), witches victimize Rapunzel along with Sleeping Beauty. The evil stepmother mistreats Cinderella while the queen victimizes snow white. Bruce (2012), reveals that women “never think, act, initiate, confront, or question, but are always saved in the nick of time by the handsome prince” ( p.233).

A rewriting of Cinderella called My Side of the Story by Lady Tremaine cited in Peksen (N/D) tells us the well-known story of Cinderella but from the perspective of the step mother. In this version of the story Cinderella is portrayed as wicked or evil and the step-mother sees herself as a victim and unable to protect herself. The role of villain and hero are reversed. The step-mother demonstrates caring traits as she attempts to shield her children from Cinderella, who she sees as wicked and an evil step-daughter. The male characters in this story remain unchanged and are still portrayed as ‘good’ ‘handsome’ and ‘adventurous’. The need for Cinderella to impress the prince still remains. Traditionally, to conclude the tale, Cinderella becomes married to the prince therefore the stepmother can live in peace with her innocent daughters. The prince acts as a savior to both Cinderella and to the step mother. He saves Cinderella from a life of slavery and he gives the mother peace by removing Cinderella from her care.

Baker-Sperry, (2007) cited in Peksen (N/D) carried out research in 2007 based on gender roles in children’s literature. Within her research she discovered that fairytales such as Cinderella added to a child’s perception of gender roles. In her research Sperry, (2007) firstly surveys the research group on how they feel about Cinderella both looks and personality wise before engaging in the reading. Views of her good nature and temperament remained positive and she was evidently identified as kind, caring and stunning. From the research it was also identified that girls in the study stereotypically seen the prince as attractive and good looking while there was no mention of their looks in the story. Her study revealed that the boys of the study found it difficult to engage in the literature ‘because it was for girls’ (p.681). This was due to the fact that the main character of the story was a princess and the boys felt that they were unable to relate to this character. Even though the prince played a very important role in the conclusion of this fairy tale the boys did not seem to find the story engaging or could relate to the characteristist of the male character.

Gender Roles in Children’s Literature as “Separate” or “Unequal”

Much of children’s literature and research has been carried out to prove against this theory. Although much of children’s literature from the past followed gender role expectations, Simons, (2009) adds that the high level of stereotypical gender roles within children’s literature decreased once the 1st world war ended. Noel Streatfeild’s, Ballet Shoes in 1936 demonstrates the diversity of gender roles as three orphans, Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil are adopted by ‘Uncle Matthew’. She explains that these orphans show their survival strategies within a male-oriented society.

The three children are sent to stage school where they earn a living and develop skills necessary for them to live independently. Both Pauline and Posy prove to be naturally talented at dancing and acting, whereas Petrova turns to the profession of an aviator. Unlike any of the previous pieces of literature discussed, the female in the story follows her dream for engineering. Furthermore, these characters continued to break the gender cycle by remaining unmarried and becoming strong role models in society. However, Tumer-Bowker (1996) would profess that this era in children’s literature was short-lived because of the start of World War 2 and men regaining power.

Role reversal continues in one of the five famous books, Five on a treasure island by Enid Blyton where the main character, Georgina is a female. Georgina overcomes the barriers to stereotyping by wearing shorts, having her hair cut short and rejecting any calls of her birth name.

I’m George’ said the girl. ‘I shall only answer if you call me George. I hate being a girl. I won’t be. I don’t like doing things that girls do. I like doing the things that boys do. I can climb better than any boy, and swim faster too. I can sail a boat as well as any fisher-boy on the coast. You’re to call me George. Then I’ll speak to you. But I shan’t if you don’t. (Blyton, 1942, p.7)

Her boyishness is significant and is an iconic feature while discussing gender issues within children’s text. Having been identified as a very popular and well-remembered characters of the Famous Five due to the reversal of roles. Blyton’s George is a fascinating portrayal of representing the differences between gender identities. Her character breaks the cycle of gender roles from typical housework to a heavy emphasis on adventure and service to her empire. The story promoted masculinity in females where stereotypically the male is the fierce and domineering character.

In the nineteenth century, indifferent stereotypical gender roles can be commented on based on the famous The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munch’s. The story greets the readers with the beautiful princes and prince. Both are portrayed as a couple who are madly in love and are set to be become married. Another example of stereotypical gender is seen as a fire breathing dragon causes danger to the party destroying the princesses home along with taking her beloved Prince. The princess finds only a rugged paper bag to cover herself with after the destruction. This leads to the role reserve where the princess takes the role of the typical prince by setting on an adventure and saving her prince from the dragon and defeating the evil animal.

Non-traditionally, Elizabeth takes on the male role of saving the weak and is portrayed as an adventurous and powerful character. After risking her own life and demonstrating resilient traits she saves the prince. However, another twist in the story leads to the thankless prince demonstrating more gender role reversal. The disgusted prince dismisses the princess because of her looks as she still remains clothed in the paper bag. Demonstrating her traits and highlighting the importance of gender equality rights, the princess leaves the prince behind referring to him as a ‘bum’ and looking for her own happiness. Being the excellent role model she is, Elizabeth doesn’t think twice before calling prince Ronald a “bum” and leaving him creating her individual happiness.

A similar message is presented in Babette Cole’s 1986 Princess Smartypants. During the story, Princess Smartypants has been seen has a happy and positive character and enjoys some company of her monster friends. Interestingly, Princess Smartypants goes against her mother’s wishes and is content to remain unmarried despite the number of suitors looking for her hand in marriage. Princess Smartypants’ father has no part in the story and her loyalties remain with her mother’s wishes. Smartypants denies every one of the suitors that come to marry her with the help of her monster friends. Finally, towards the end of the story Princess Smartypants simply turns her final suitor into a frog, scaring away all suitors so that she may live in happiness with her creature friends.

The illustrations from this story also promote non-traditional gender roles. Princess Smartypants, dressed in a dark brown suit and surrounded by her monster friends, is driving a large dangerous motorbike on the cover of the book. Her hair is short and scruffy and is an authoritative character which demonstrates a reverse in gender roles. Stories such as these are infrequent, and show a different view of female characters and traits. Although gender roles have been reversed in these two stories, both Princess Smartypants and The Paper Bag Princess demonstrate some traditional traits such as the princess remaining a protagonist along with both princess gaining their happiness in the end of the story.


Stereotypical gender roles have been identified and discussed within children’s literature from the 18th and 19th century. A variety of literature discussing traditional and non-traditional gender roles has been compared and contrasted within this study. The author has discussed the theme of gender roles throughout this study while proposing an argument to examine if there is a use of stereotypical roles in children’s literature. After the author has researched this theme it is evident that there has been a significant amount of children’s literature that portrays traditional gender roles such as The Daisy Chain and also The Brother Grimm’ Snow White and Cinderella. These texts highlight the traditional and passive characteristics demonstrated by females and emphasize their lack of power or authority in contrast to males. These females are often described as ‘good’ and their beauty is seen as their only quality.

The author can conclude that although there are many children’s stories that portray stereotypical gender roles, there are also many stories exposed to children that convey non-traditional roles such as Princess Smartypants and Paper Bag Princess. The females in these stories prove their own power as they take on typical male roles such as enslaving dragons and saving lives. They also prove that they don’t need males to obtain happiness while both remain content alone.


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Stereotypical Gender Roles in Children’s Literature essay

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What are examples of children's books that break gender stereotypes?
This list offers gender equality books about powerful girls and sensitive boys, and kids who dare to be different. Baby Feminists. Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl? My First Book of Feminism (for Boys) Little Feminist Board Book Set. Girls Are Not Chicks Coloring Book. Boy, Can He Dance! Made by Raffi.
What are examples of traditional gender roles?
For example, girls and women are generally expected to dress in typically feminine ways and be polite, accommodating, and nurturing . Men are generally expected to be strong, aggressive, and bold. Every society, ethnic group, and culture has gender role expectations, but they can be very different from group to group.
What are gender stereotypes in literature?
Gender stereotypes are simplistic generalizations about the gender attributes, differences, roles of individuals and/or groups . They can play an important role in shaping the way we think about others in society. Typically in literatures, women are characterised as being 'weak'.
What are the 4 gender stereotypes?
Examples of Gender Stereotypes Girls should play with dolls and boys should play with trucks. Boys should be directed to like blue and green; girls toward red and pink. Boys should not wear dresses or other clothes typically associated with "girl's clothes"
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