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Why we need to widen the roles of girls in children stories

Recent research reveals that nearly 82% of girls aged 6-15 enjoy reading, but despite reading being recognised as a popular pastime and useful educational resource for young girls, males are represented nearly twice as often as females in titles. With an absence of female leads in stories, the question we need to consider is, how do young girls find a role model in books when females are so underrepresented?

 

Historically, women in literature have limited roles, with females mostly being depicted as an innocent and physically weaker character than a central male character. They are frequently described based on their appearance and other caregiver traits they provide to the male protagonist.

 

When girls are more central characters in a book, they are often princesses or other ‘feminine characters’ such as a romantic interest, wife or mother. Take for example, traditional fairy tales like Rapunzel, Cinderella and Snow White. Female lead characters who have positive characteristics are often quite thin with an emphasis on their attractive features. Rapunzel’s long, beautiful hair is symbolic, Cinderella transforms from rags to a beautiful dress and Snow White becomes the primary caretaker for the seven male dwarves. On the other hand, when females are playing an antagonist or an evil role they are portrayed as ugly or overweght. For example, the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz or the overweight and ugly stepsisters in Cinderella. Research has revealed that this encourages weight-based stigma, which has been linked to unhealthy behaviours in children stories, subsequently affecting attitudes and behaviour of children around food.

 

These popular stories are carrying messages to young girls that their worth is valued by these superficial constructs and whether they display this caregiving behaviour. Furthermore, this promotes stereotypical gender roles for females to be less ambitious or strong than male characters as they are predominately displaying kind and nurturing behaviour.  

 

But it’s not just the stories themselves that have influence, so to do the illustrations. Throughout many children books, females are typically dressed in dresses or skirts, despite engaging in activities where this sort of clothing isn’t practical. An inequitable portrayal of females character’s outfits is not limited to children’s books. Research has shown that females were far more likely than males to be depicted wearing sexy attire in popular family films, on prime-time TV programming, and on children’s TV shows. This sort of representation of females may not seem harmful at first, and many would argue it’s just a story, but it could subconsciously provide a social norm in which young girls will model their own behaviour and form stereotypes based on characters.

 

On the other hand, there are some books that include strong willed female characters, such as the classic tale of ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl who uses her high level of intelligence to reach her goals, and the independent and physically strong Pippi Longstocking who is as unique as they come.

 

Whilst there have been several children stories with female protagonists such as these, research reveals there is still an imbalance and significant gender bias towards male characters. Whilst the imbalance must be acknowledged, it does not necessarily mean that young girls should avoid stories with central male characters, it simply means that they should be exposed to just as many books where there are strong female protagonists.

 

Children storybooks remain a wonderful form of entertainment for young girls that should be continually encouraged, but parents should be mindful to expose our girls to stories that empower them and celebrate diversity.

 

Pretty Foundation has just launched it’s first book in a series called Charlie’s Tales. We hope to develop Charlie as a peer role model to set an example for our girls: one who embodies the characteristics of a healthy body image, and seeks to live her life to its full potential. We also hope to build resilience in our girls by instilling positive body image messages through each of Charlie’s adventures. We have big plans for Charlie, and, more importantly, big plans for our girls. We hope you join us in building up our girls and raising them into confident and resilient women.