May 13, 2011 — New College of Florida Assistant Professor of Sociology Emily Fairchild has co-authored one of the most comprehensive studies of children’s literature undertaken in the United States. The study, published in the April issue of Gender & Society, identified a significant gender bias toward male characters in children’s books from 1900-2000.

The study looked at almost 6,000 books from three major collections: Caldecott award-winning books (1938-2000), Little Golden Books (1942-1993) and the Children’s Catalog (1900-2000). The findings showed that males were featured more than 1.5 times as often as females as central characters and nearly twice as often in titles.

“We found that representations did not consistently improve over the century,” says Fairchild. “Instead, the books were the most male-dominated in the middle of the century (the 1930s-1960s). This suggests that representations change as the position of women in society changes; representations are more equal when there is greater gender activism.”

Most measures showed significant improvement from 1970-2000. However, although books published in the 1990s were more gender balanced among human characters, male animal characters outnumbered their female counterparts 2 to 1.

Fairchild and co-authors Janice McCabe (lead), Liz Grauerholz, Bernice Pescosolido and Daniel Tope argue that this disparity sends the message that men and boys occupy a more important role in our culture. Books, they say, contribute to how children understand what is expected of women and men and shape the way children will think about their own place in the world.

“Together with research on reader interpretations, our findings regarding imbalanced representations among animal characters suggest that these characters could be particularly powerful, and potentially overlooked, conduits for gendered messages,” the authors say. “The persistent pattern of disparity among animal characters may reveal a subtle kind of symbolic annihilation of women disguised through animal imagery.”

Fairchild teaches sociology and gender studies at New College of Florida. Her current research projects include an analysis of gender in weddings and commitment rituals, a study of consumerist attitudes toward higher education, and continued exploration of gender representations in children’s media. Fairchild received her master’s and doctorate degrees in sociology from Indiana University.

Click here to read the study.

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