Gender, Pronouns, and Storytelling

One of the many perks of having a child is that I have the opportunity to read a lot of children’s books. I have a great collection. Some are old classics lovingly saved by my parents, some are new gifts from friends and family. I love being able to look again at books I remember being read as a child, as well as reading the offerings of a new generation of picture book authors.

I find myself paying close attention to how gender is assigned to characters in these stories. In children’s books it seems that gender doesn’t play a very important role. There is no romance, there often isn’t even a traditional hero’s journey plot. And yet… It seems to be that so often the ‘default’ gender of the protagonist is male. This is particularly interesting to notice in characters that are animals or inanimate objects.

For example, take the “The Little Engine That Could“. I was shocked when I read it for the first time in (at least) twenty five years. The train that breaks down? Female. The three trains that refuse (or are unable) to take the toys and food over the mountain are ALL male. Then along comes our heroine, the Little Engine that Could. When I read this as an adult I was applying all kinds of analysis to the choice of gender in this story. In one sense it is about women helping women. In another it could be about men thinking of women’s work is beneath them. (The toys and food were for children after all). Is it condemning or condoning that women feel obligated to do work that men either refuse or are unable to do?

I know I’m probably taking things to far. Reading too much into a simple children’s story. But I also know that a culture’s views about gender is taught to each generation through the stories we tell. That is reason enough for me to be careful.

Why are both The Little Blue Truck (beep beep) and the antagonist dump truck male? Why is The Very Quiet Cricket a boy? Why is The Very Busy Spider a girl? There is no reason at all story-wise that these characters even need to be assigned a gender at all.

I worry about the subconscious lessons I could be teaching my daughter: The only stories worth reading are about boys. The girl characters are nice and hard working and the boy characters are bold and curious. Her brain is absorbing so much so quickly, I wonder (and worry) what she might be picking up by accident.

My imperfect solution? I switch the pronouns of the characters every few readings. That way I know she cannot attribute the actions the characters take with a particular gender. The same character who is nice and hardworking will be a boy one day and a girl in tomorrow’s reading. I do this with heroes and villains alike, being sure that it isn’t always an boy vs. girl situation either.

I want my daughter to see herself in characters regardless of their gender. She should know that women and men can be brave and cruel and kind and thoughtless. Instead of establishing limits of how a female “should” behave, I want stories to open up worlds and adventures for my daughter. Because, that is what storytelling does best, it opens up possibilities.