Sexism and stereotypes starts at home in books, movies and even clothes
Sexism and gender stereotyping starts at home with us. I have been spending time with small children recently and have become very aware of all sorts of things in the type of influences that they are exposed to and can see how we embed stereotypes every day without thinking. It’s in books, movies and even clothes that I had completely forgotten about.
Gender balance book test
If you have kids, do your own gender balance book test. Pick ten books from your bookshelf and look at the gender balance:
📌How many male characters are there?
📌How many female characters are there?
📌Who gets to speak?
📌Who gets to act?
📌What are male and female characters shown doing?
📌Who are the heroes?
📌Who are the villains?
The Guardian ran a study on sexism in children’s books in 2018 and revealed that “Male characters are twice as likely to take leading roles in children’s picture books and are given far more speaking parts than females, according to Observer research that shines a spotlight on the casual sexism apparently inherent in young children’s reading material.
In-depth analysis of the 100 most popular children’s picture books of 2017 reveals the majority are dominated by male characters, often in stereotypically masculine roles, while female characters are missing from a fifth of the books ranked.”
As we saw with the “Peppa Pig Syndrome” which I talked about before, with Mother Pig working from home “on a computer” we are setting kids up with gender stereotype expectations from the earliest of ages.
Some of the messages that come from kid’s movies spill over into everyday life with astonishing ease. Not only are many dark and totally scary but riddled with the normalisation of abuse:
- Cinderella – emotional and physical abuse
- Hansel and Gretel – neglect and child slavery
- Snow White – physical abuse
- Rapunzel – economic and parental abuse
5 themes from kids movies that normalise sexism
The template of pretty, good girls taking on abusive witch/ stepmother is one that has successfully prevailed for generations. Cinderella that English speakers know and love can be traced to the French story Cendrillon, first published in 1697 by Charles Perrault, though Chinese and Greek versions of this classic tale go back to the 9th century CE and 6th century BCE, respectively. The same is true for other classics. But the values of those times no longer endure and are acceptable – yet the stories live on.
1. Boys dominate
The ratio of boys to girls cast in movies sits at two to one, with the majority of supporting roles assigned to girls. This leads to girls expect boys to be better than them. In addition, the male characters have more speaking parts and speak for longer, even when the movie is about girls! Yep, even the Little Mermaid doesn’t have the leading role. Can you believe that?
A study from Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer analysed dialogue in Disney movies.
The Washington Post, suggests that “all of the princess movies from 1989-1999 — Disney’s ‘Renaissance’ era — are startlingly male-dominated. Men speak 71% of the time in Beauty and the Beast (1991); 90% of the time in Aladdin (1992) 76% of the time in Pocahontas (1995).”
2. Girls are pretty, cute, and good
All the lead characters are beautiful, slim with impossibly tiny waists, super cute with lots of thick long hair. Without exception. Especially Rapunzel.
3. Stereotype roles
Many children’s movies show women in traditionally female roles especially carrying out housework. Snow White cooks and cleans for seven albeit small men, while they go to work. Cinderella and Gretel are also victims of abuse and are forced to clean houses.
4. Girls need rescuing
The message for girls in many of these stories is that girls are submissive and need rescuing. Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel.
5. Love at first sight
They endorse the notion of love at first sight as the foundation for a relationship as they live “happily ever after.” Girls come to learn that they are appealing because they are pretty, because the characters certainly don’t know each other.
Don’t forget boys
It’s also important to mention that this gender stereotyping traps boys as well. They are bombarded with images of rough and tough men who behave in the way their cartoon heroes do. This intensifies as they become older and the lead characters morph into action men with six-packs.
There are some plans to update these traditional stories with newer versions, but the traditional favourites are so deeply embedded in both our psyche and streaming systems, centuries of storytelling isn’t going to disappear overnight. That is not forgetting the billions that these characters generate in “princess” merchandising.
As I have written before media, publishing and graphic design companies all need to take responsibility. But it is the role of the parents to push back against these trends by voting with our wallets. Sexism and gender stereotyping starts at home with us. It is our responsibility.