Kids' books have more male characters than female ones — even when those characters are animals. Should we be worried?
In a new study, researchers looked at almost 6,000 books published between 1900 and 2000. They found that 57% of books each year had a male main character, while only 31% featured a female one. The disparity holds true even for animal characters — 23% of kids books per year star a dude animal, but only 7.5% showcase a lady one. By the nineties, things were getting closer where humans were concerned — but male animals still outnumbered females 2 to 1.
Why does this matter? The study authors write that male-heavy kids' books could send the message that "women and girls occupy a less important role in society than men or boys." And animals are important too — say the authors,
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 persistent pattern of disparity among animal characters may reveal a subtle kind of symbolic annihilation of women disguised through animal imagery.
"Annihilation" is a harsh word, but it's true that animal characters in kids' books often function like humans with fur (or, sometimes, warty skin). They have birthday parties. They go to school. They explore space. So often a book starring a male animal might as well be a book starring a boy.
This doesn't mean we should throw out all the great kids' books focusing on male characters. I loved the Arthur books as much as the next girl (or aardvark). Instead, we should be encouraging teachers and parents to seek out books featuring girls and women — and supporting children's authors in their efforts to present female characters, human or not. Because girls deserve to know that lady-toads can go to space too.