History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination
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History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination


WASHINGTON – February 5, 2019

We talk about children’s books like they’re not really that important. But just go on Facebook and criticize the current children’s books, and you’ll see how seriously people actually take them. It’s not surprising, really. In the end, they lay the foundation for our views on life, and of course, we want the next generation to agree with us on the major issues. At the same time, children's literature is an extremely changeable genre that adapts to current needs and societal demands. And one of the oldest and most pressing issues is the division into books for girls and boys.

History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination

The earliest illustrated children's books, intended for both boys and girls, appeared in England in the middle of the 19th century, and the first children's magazine was published in 1800. At that time, young readers were just beginning to be perceived as a separate audience. Before that, everything was limited to pages in family magazines, religious books and adaptations of famous classics works of adventure literature like Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift.

Until eight, British boys often wore long hair and even dresses. Children were simply not separated by sex until a certain age.

Textbooks on mathematics, and sometimes on the basics of scientific disciplines, were intended for both sexes.

However, at the end of the 19th century, a gender division began in the literature for children, which more or less lasted until the 1990s. Even the Religious Way Society, which was one of the pioneers of children's periodicals, became concerned about the decline of morals and began to produce its Boy’s Own Paper in 1879.

History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination

There were magazines and books designed separately for young ladies and young gentlemen. This was due in part to a decrease in the cost of printing, and in part to growing anxiety in Victorian society about the changing role of women. The same trend has spread in America, where the catalog of Charles Scribner's "Popular Books for Young People" from 1884 was first divided into sections for boys and girls.

History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination

Books of that era were more educational than entertaining -- this direction was set by the Puritans in the 17th century. However, now this training in the West is separate. Girls books teach about the role of good housewives, mothers and wives; the boys were asked to be soldiers, travelers, traders, diplomats, lawyers, scientists, engineers, politicians, builders and occasionally husbands.

Such a "division of labor" can be found even in the annotations to the works in the same Scribner catalog. Here is a description of the books recommended for boys:

"Sou'wester and Sword by Hugh St. Leger is a bright story about life in the sea and military adventures. A fascinating story, the rapid development of the action, colorful characters, accuracy in detail, which could only be achieved by a person who is familiar with what he writes ... the boys will be delighted" (The Athenaeum magazine).

And here is the summary of a girl's book:

"The Clever Miss Follett. John.K. G. Denny. An interesting story with a skillfully developed plot, and the characters - members of the family Follett - especially successful author. Girls will love the book" (The Athenaeum magazine).

History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination

Even reviewers didn't have the strength at least for some emotions about literature for a young lady. While adventure fiction flourished and works for boys were created by dozens of authors, there were two popular female writers: Charlotte Young and Susan Warner.

There was an opinion that men and women read different books and perceive them differently. About the representatives of the beautiful half of humanity, it was said that they waste time on all sorts of frivolous things, like novels. Therefore, publications for girls consisted of moral stories aimed at teaching them to be responsible and to instill in them the ability to sacrifice. Boys at this time read about antics at school, pirates, and the adventures of English gentleman, bearing the light of civilization in a barbarous country. And the main part of children's books was written this way until the 1970s.

The world of girls' literature was realistic and represented the home and everything connected with it, while boys’ books have always been filled with adventures and danger.

Works began to differ even in volume. It was assumed that girls have much more time to read and they can afford to focus on a long novel, while boys still had time to play sports and go to school.

"When choosing books to be read by boys and girls, it must be remembered that in the first case it must be spiritual food for the future leaders of the Great Race, and in the second -- for future wives and mothers" (Edward Salmon. "What Girls Read", 1886).

Of course, girls continued to be interested in adventure books. Even the publishers admitted that constantly reading about the history of housework is a little boring. To this day, boys prefer books with the main characters of their gender, but girls are more “omnivorous” and happy to read works written specifically for boys.

History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination

A number of books featured standard gender roles, including Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, a two-part novel published between 1868 and 1869, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, published in 1900. In Alcott’s books, the female characters were brought to the fore, with the life and relationships of the four sisters in the absence of men. The heroines’ father went to the Civil War, and mom runs all. The resulting female microcosm, despite the heroines in it, assigned generally familiar gender role, very different from the standard, moralizing images imposed by mainstream literature. Since then, the book has been repeatedly filmed, it staged performances, and it remains popular to this day.

The famous fairy tale of Baum became a real hit in America in the early 20th century, slightly shocking the audience.

The main character did everything that boys usually did.

It is believed that Baum deliberately introduced the theme of feminism in the book. His mother-in-law was the famous suffragette Matilda Сage, who had a great influence on the writer.

After the First World War, the rigidity of gender patterns in children's literature in the West somewhat weakened -- in any case, the images of girls ceased to be "canonical." The authors constantly played with social roles of female characters, bringing "tomboys" into fashion -- young heroines with boyish habits, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House in the Big Woods (1932) or even Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

From the 30s to the 60s, in the break between the two waves of feminism, inequality in the representation of women in children's literature (and not only in it) was more pronounced than in earlier or later periods. It was at this time that the fairer sex was literally erased from Hollywood history, despite that they wrote about half of the scripts for films from 1911 to 1928.

By 1940, women writers were not mentioned in the credits, they were forced to hide who they worked for, and did not argue if they were mistaken for secretaries. In 1954, the infamous Comics Code Authority appeared which, in addition to virtually destroying the comic book industry, also banned the display of "aggressive women," that is, any image that goes beyond stereotypes.

History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination

Of course, not everyone liked this situation. In 1942, the first part of the series of the Enid Blyton The Famous Five was published, where the main character struggles to escape from socially-imposed roles. Despite criticism for promoting feminism, the book immediately became a hit.

"I'm George," said the girl. "I'll only answer if you call me George. I hate myself for being a girl. I don't want to be a girl. I don't like girls' classes. I like what boys do. I can climb rocks better than any boy and swim faster than them. I know how to sail a boat as well as any fisherman boy on this shore. If you want me to talk to you, call me George. Otherwise, I will not talk to you." (Enid Blyton. Five on a Treasure Island).

Curiously, in the modern Western edition, the book removed George's replica about short hair, allegedly making it look like a boy because one found it offensive that girls need long hair to look feminine. And two young detectives, Julian and Dick, now help a character clean the house and wash dishes.

History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination

In 1945, beginner’s books by Tove Jansson about Moomin Trolls gave females the personality and performed in the foreground. And in the same year, the book by Astrid Lindgren Pippi Longstocking Settled at Villa Chicken was published. The author was mercilessly criticized for the main character, which was called "sloppy," "disrespectful" and "a model of what a girl should not be." The book, however, to this day remains a bestseller.

In the 1970s, in the American toy market, which had and continued to have a direct impact on literature, 70% of the goods produced were not segregated by sex. In advertisements, girls often played with planes and designers, and boys cooked in toy kitchens.

Representatives of the second wave of feminism insisted on the study of gender roles in the literature and firmly decided to change them. But what many missed, even in 1970, is that the man who wrote and illustrated the book for children I'm Glad I'm a Boy! I'm Glad I'm a Little Girl!" was Whitney Darrow, Jr., a famous cartoonist at New Yorker whose father founded Princeton University Press. It’s gender stereotypes caused feminist indignation at first, but they calmed down after careful perusal.

In it so aptly imitated gender stereotypes child literature that the first reaction feminists were indignation -- however, subsequently, on careful perusal, it quieted down, although you can still find indignant reviews online.

History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination

History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination

And in the early '80s, the famous children's author Richard Scarry was one of the first who redid his book, published in 1963, under the new gender standards, somewhat diversifying women's classes and allowing men to stay at home.

History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination

But even in 1978, according to Mem Fox, 85% of the main characters in the works for children were men. In 1993, she taught writing at Flinders University in Australia and asked her students to come up with the beginning of a children's book. Most, including the girls, made the main character a man. And to the question, would you change anything in the story if the main character was a woman, all answered in the negative.

Fox remembers receiving hundreds of letters from young fans and their mothers, where they talked about their love for Possum Hasha from her book. But the problem was that the character was female, and at the very beginning of the story, the word "she" was repeated over and over. Readers didn't pay attention to it, having gotten used to men in the main roles.

"Since it couldn't be seen, the koalas couldn't crush it. If they couldn't see her, she could have snuck past the dangerous kangaroos. Once it could not see, she could not be afraid of snakes. That is why Grandma Poss had made her invisible" (Mem Fox. Possum Magic).

However, until the end of the 1980s, the situation with gender equality in literature improved until there were two coinciding events. First, there was a backlash against feminism, and second, marketers realized that it was easier to make money in a properly segmented market. There were novelizations of My Little Pony, and behind them poured the rest of the series, originally intended exclusively for girls.

Danish neuroscientist Dick Swaab in his book writes about the differences in the brain of representatives of different sexes, causing behaviors and determining their preferences: For example, boys are more interested in designs, and girls in persons. However, not all scientists agree that this or that behavioral model is founded from birth.

Rebecca Jordan-Young in her critical study of the theory of physiological sex differences writes that this concept is poorly grounded and does not meet scientific requirements. The brain, she says, develops only when information comes from the outside world and changes over time. This is confirmed by observations on animals: Even those who were affected by hormones, with minor changes in physical or social conditions, again changed their behavior.

History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination

The study of Arthur P. Arnold and Margaret M. McCarthy states that the influence of environment and experience on a person begins from early childhood, and it's impossible to separate it from physiological factors caused by sexual differences, such as hormones or genes.

Any information received to a certain extent forms our consciousness and general mental activity, so it's impossible to understand whether women become housewives because they have a "female brain," or society pushes the weaker sex to this and thus makes their brain "female." According to the researchers, the complexity and "mosaic" of the body responsible for our mental activity, in fact, does not allow to talk about the "male" or "female brain."

It is fair to say that each person has "a unique combination of levels of masculinity and femininity, different for individual parts of the brain, and altogether these combinations form its ‘mosaic.’"

Now the Western book market, like any other, seems to have made a complete turn. But where publishers used to pursue educational and moral goals, modern businessmen are guided by much more prosaic considerations breaking the market of children's literature, cartoons, etc. into two segments. This makes it possible to sell twice as many products. "Idolizing" toys continues, and it seems that in the foreseeable future, this trend will only increase. It is improving the form to the detriment of the content.

History of Children's Literature and Its Impact on Gender Self-Determination

Although much has been done in the West to equalize gender roles in children's books, and women's images have become almost as much as the characters of the opposite sex, stereotypes have not disappeared. A study by Mykol C. Hamilton, David Anderson, Michelle R. Broaddus, and Kate Niehaus found that male characters are 53% more often in illustrations than female characters in books published since 2001. With regard to gender roles, everything is also "stereotypical:" 21 out of 23 adult women and 29 out of 33 men are strictly engaged in what representatives of each sex should do. Society continues to impose roles on children, not being particularly interested in their desires.

Author: USA Really