A study has found that male main characters dominate books about creatures with fur or feathers
By Janice Harayda
Not long ago I noted in a review that no female characters appear in the 2011 Caldecott medalist, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a book about zoo animals who repay the kindness of their keeper. A new study makes clear that its representation of the sexes isn’t unusual. Alison Flood writes in the Guardian:
“Looking at almost 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000, the study, led by Janice McCabe, a professor of sociology at Florida State University, found that males are central characters in 57% of children’s books published each year, with just 31% having female central characters. Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, the study found, while female animals star in only 7.5%.
“Published in the April issue of Gender & Society, the study … looked at Caldecott award-winning books, the well-known US book series Little Golden Books and [listings in] the Children’s Catalog. Just one Caldecott winner (1985’s Have You Seen My Duckling? following a mother duck on a search for her baby) has had a standalone female character since the award was established in 1938. Books with male animals were more than two-and-a-half times more common across the century than those with female animals, the authors said.
“Although the gender disparity came close to disappearing by the 1990s for human characters in children’s books, with a ratio of 0.9 to 1 for child characters and 1.2 to 1 for adult characters, it remained for animal characters, with a ‘significant disparity’ of nearly two to one. The study found that the 1930s to 1960s, the period between waves of feminist activism, ‘exhibits greater disparities than earlier and later periods.'”
I wish I could say the new study has flaws. But the equality gap in animal stories has existed since I’ve been reviewing children’s books. It’s true that such tales have more female characters than they did before the 1960s, including Maisy, Olivia and Angelina. But many more picture books are published today, so the ratio of male-to-female animals could have remained the same — or gone up — despite the larger number of heroines. And males remain the default setting in tales of characters with fur, fins, or feathers.
A Sick Day for Amos McGee fits the pattern: Every character in it, human or animal, is male, though the theme of the story — you get what you give – applies to both sexes. Do we need a new term,”the glass doghouse,” to describe the imbalance in such books?