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Gender Roles

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Stereotypical Gender Roles in Children's Literature

The roles of gender have been shaped throughout time. Ever since our parents read us bed time stories we have grown accustomed to the same theme for each and every story; whether it be hidden with the act of a prince saving a helpless princess, or a girl being helplessly lost in the woods, the role of females have typically been one of desperation and despair, while the role of males tend to be heroic. Flipping through the pages of our favorite childhood stories, it seems as though our gender roles have already been defined for us; these stereotypes include female characters being portrayed as feminine, innocent, dependent, timid, and naive, whereas male characters are masculine, adventurous, courageous, strong, and confident.

Many researchers of children's literature have found that the majority of a book's content is usually in some way dominated by male figures. In 1995, the sociologist, S.B. Ernst, analyzed the titles of numerous children's books and found that male names were written nearly twice as often as female names (Ernst). In addition, she also concluded that book titles with feminine or gender-neutral names, often revolve around male characters (Ernst). Furthermore, these unbalanced and exaggerated gender role stereotypes can easily be seen in mainstream children's literature. Such examples include: Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, The Berenstain Bears, and Rapunzel. Children's literature frequently portrays female characters as being acted upon rather than being active (Fox). In the classic story, Little Red Riding Hood, a male character, the wood cutter, protects Little Red Riding Hood from the Big-Bad Wolf with his axe, which alone is a symbol of strength and authority. Therefore, male characters typically have the action-packed roles such as rescuers, princes, protectors, fighters, and adventurers. In retrospect, female characters are typically seen in passive roles such as mothers, princesses, caregivers, or characters that rely on and support male figures (Temple). For Example, in The Berenstain Bears, Momma Bear is generally shown around the house wearing an apron, cleaning, or making dinner with Sister Bear. Meanwhile, Poppa Bear is usually occupied in strenuous or "manly" activities such as chopping wood, shoveling snow, or fishing with Brother Bear. Often, female characters achieve their goals because others, usually males, help them. On the other hand, male characters usually succeed because they have to overcome a difficult task or demonstrate some sort of unique skill.

In addition, some researchers believe in the theory that readers identify themselves with characters of his or her own gender throughout a story. Therefore, the relative lack of female characters in children's literature can ultimately limit the opportunity for females to identify with other females and validate their own place in society (Fox). Moreover, the manner in which gender roles are depicted in children's literature can impact a child's attitude and perception of gender-appropriate behavior in society. These gender-role stereotypes can severely hinder a young male or female's freedom of self expression. Furthermore, added peer pressure can result in males or females to behave in ways that are "gender appropriate," rather than ways that are best suited to his or her personality (Ernst). In the short poem, "Barbie Doll," the author, Marge Piercy, reveals some of the physical stereotypes and expectations that an adolescent female might be exposed to from her peers:

...in the magic of puberty, a classmate said:

You have a great big nose and fat legs.

She was healthy, tested intelligent...

...She went to and fro apologizing.

Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs.

She was advised to play coy,

exhorted to come on hearty,

exercise,

...

...

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