17 May 2007

Picture Books and Gender: The Latest Snapshot

A few weeks back news of a new study of gender representation in picture books made a brief splash. At the time I was asking how the researchers chose their sample, and the news stories didn't answer that question. Since then, top news source Fuse #8 has come to the rescue with a link to Centre College's full press release on the study, conducted by Mykol C. Hamilton, David Anderson, Michelle Broaddus, and Kate Young.

The researchers explain:

Our sample included the 30 Caldecott Medal winners and honor books for 1995-2001. However, in order to draw from a larger and more representative collection of widely read picture books, we located 155 best-selling children’s books that had not won Caldecott or Newbery awards but were listed as top sellers in 1999-2001 by the New York Times, Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, or Publishers Weekly. Also included were nine additional best-selling Little Golden Books and three non-overlapping books from the 2001 New York Public Library list of books everyone should know and the 2001 Funorama.com top 10 picture books.
The study doesn't say if those bestsellers from 1999-2001 included titles published years before but still selling, like Goodnight Moon and Oh, the Places You'll Go!. I suspect that the researchers excluded older books because they seem to focus on what publishers are producing, not what books families are consuming, though the latter determines what's a bestseller.

Some pieces of good news from the study:
  • "Neither sex, contrary to the hypothesis, was more likely than the other to be portrayed as active or as passive. In fact, both male and female characters were portrayed more often as active than as passive". This was a considerable change from the results of studies published in 1985 and 1987.
  • "There was no significant gender-related difference in our sample for assertive/aggressive behaviors."
  • "Male and female characters were equally likely to perform rescue behaviors in our book sample," as was also true in a 1987 study.

On the other hand, by the numbers female characters showed up less often, had a smaller range of jobs, were indoors more often, and so on. "Female characters in our sample were much more likely than male characters to perform nurture behaviors; the ratio was 3.3:1," and, furthermore, that ratio rose since the 1980s.

The researchers write:
The fact that we found only one borderline significant difference in the degree to which Caldecott vs. other picture books under-represent female characters suggests that Caldecott books may represent the overall category of children’s picture books well.
But that "borderline significant difference" is a basic one: the bestselling sample portrayed 1.5 males for every female, the Caldecott sample 2.6 males. In other words, the honored picture books, as chosen by a committee and within a profession where females outnumber males, were actually more male-dominated than the books individuals and families were buying. Why would that be?


Anonymous said...

Maybe families (which are equally likely to have girls as boys) look for books with girls as heroes as often as they look for books with boys as heroes, to try and let the children identify with the characters (parents often have trouble believing their kid could identify with a hero of the other sex), whereas the award committees have no such need. The award committees can simply choose what they feel are the best picture books of the year, regardless of the sex of the hero, which leads to a more representative sample among winning picture books.

I could be completely wrong, since I'm guessing based on what the parents in my bookstore are usually looking for and not based on any actual knowledge of why the difference exists.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the discrepency in the number of male versus female images has to do with the weather-beaten idea that girls can identify with boys in art but boys can only identify with boys.