Well, here’s something to tick you off:
Did you know that according to a 1999 study (the most recent available), award-winning and best-selling children’s books featured male characters twice as often as female characters in central roles? Females were similarly underrepresented in illustrations and books titles.
Furthermore, in a survey of 19,664 children’s television programs from 24 different countries, only 32% of main characters are female. If you look at nonhuman characters like animals, robots, and monsters the number drops to 13%.
And finally, in a list of the 101 top-grossing G-rated movies from 1990-2005, less than a THIRD of the speaking roles were given to female characters. There was no improvement in this statistic from the start of the period to the end.
These stats come from a fascinating book called Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, which is actually not about children so much as about the way neuroscience is portrayed in popular media. If you’ve ever read a relationship book that explained gender differences in terms of brain “hardwiring” then you really need to read this book. Actually, strike that. If you’ve lived in the world for more than 3 months (the age at which infants seem to begin to recognize gender as pattern), you should probably read this book.
(And if you are regularly exposed to either TV or religion, you should definitely read this book. Was watching the red carpet interviews for the SAGs the other night when a female reporter asked Sofia Vergara which of her body parts she liked the best and which she liked the least. This could be one of those list games where you try to come up with all the levels at which this question is so not ok, but since this is just a parenthetical point I’m going to go with 1) pretty sure Daniel Craig has never been asked this question, 2) pretty sure the awards at this show are for acting, 3) pretty sure inviting women to criticize their bodies on national television is a fail).
Anyway, I thought the book was interesting on a lot of levels, but since I spent most of yesterday organizing the nursery, the points that were really sticking out for me were the ones about children.
I’d thought a little bit about children’s movies and television—and movies that definitely weren’t going to be staple viewing in our house—but I hadn’t thought much about books. And we already had a shelf full of them in the nursery. Out of curiosity, I went upstairs to see if the statistics I’d read in Fine’s books matched what I’d randomly collected over the last few months and years.
I was still picking my bruised jaw off the floor when Carl came in a bit later to ask what I was doing.
“Sorting books,” I said, now a bit grim. “Getting rid of the ones that aren’t gender-neutral.”
Carl laughed. Not a mean laugh, but one of those friendly, you’re-not-100%-serious-are-you? kinds of chuckles. Well, to be fair, I hadn’t thought I was serious when I first sat down. I thought I was doing a little unofficial survey to test a theory. Because surveys and theories are fun, right?
Not fun anymore.
I directed Carl’s attention to the pile of books. Most of them were inoffensive color & shape or story books featuring animals, but when the animals were designated by personal pronoun, it was always male. Believe me, I have nothing but warm, nostalgic regard for Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, Frog and Toad and Dr. Seuss, but it gets to be a little bit weird when you don’t see a single female character for 40 pages. And then we wonder why boys “have trouble” relating to female characters. (Hilariously, our church actually has a policy against having female leads in Christmas pageants because men just don’t seem to relate to female leads. It’s not that they want to exclude women, but since women are “naturally” so good at empathizing and seeing things from other people’s perspective… well, why not cut the guys some slack? As Lady Catherine says in P&P, You will never be REALLY good unless you practice…).
But the hands down worst offender on our bookshelf was the Toddler Bible. Out of 22 stories, only two featured women. Guess which ones? Ruth, who was kind and therefore rewarded with marriage, and the Mary/Martha incident with the housework.
I’ll be the first to admit there aren’t many good roles for girls in the Bible (according to Wikipedia only 14% of the named characters are female), but wouldn’t you think Esther would get chosen over Mary, Martha, and the housework? And why is that story always about Martha’s poor attitude anyway, when the really revolutionary thing is that Mary was acting like one of the disciples and Jesus was all about it? Or what about Deborah? Or, I dunno, the women at the empty tomb… Any way you look at it, if you’re going to condense the Bible into 22 stories, Martha’s bad attitude about housework shouldn’t be topping the list.
“I’m sorry,” Carl said when I’d finished.
“You don’t have to be sorry to me,” I said, chucking aside the Toddler Bible. “You can be sorry to our daughter in twenty years when she has a complex.”
“She won’t have a complex.”
“She will if she has a brain,” I said. “Those are her options. Either she has a brain and a complex or not. No brain, no complex.”
Carl was consoling. We’ll find her some good books. We’ll write her some good books if we have to (Carl suggested Dimension Power II, a follow up to the book he wrote and illustrated for school when he was little). All of which made me smile and feel much less like crying, but here’s the nagging thing I can’t quite figure out:
I can write my daughter 100 books, give her a home where girls get to be main characters, value her adventures and contributions just as much as anybody else’s.
But I can’t give her a religion like that.
Years ago, I read a blog post by a Lutheran father (I think he was Lutheran) who mentioned casually that he limited his young daughter’s access to both Disney and the Bible for exactly the same reasons. I remember thinking that was sad and conflicting and moving on with my day, but now that I have a girl on the way the words are a bit more haunting.
I can teach her—I think I can teach her—to take the world with a grain of salt. It would be nice if the world was equally friendly to everybody, but we know it’s not. Whether you’re black in a white culture, or religious in a modern culture, or poor in pretty much any culture, most parents understand that life isn’t fair. Part of the job of parenting is to teach your child how to navigate a world that, while beautiful and exciting, is also sometimes indifferent and occasionally downright hostile.
But somehow you expect better things of your religion.
It’s disheartening, frustrating, and deeply saddening to know that if I give my child my faith (knowing, of course, that ultimately it’s hers to accept or reject) I’m giving her something with the potential to be as wounding as it is healing. Faith isn’t supposed to be like that. But faith is experienced through people, so it usually is.
How do you explain it all to a child? I don’t particularly want to be a “feminist Christian” but what if the only alternative is to be a sexist one? How do you explain, for example, that even though God is spirit and therefore without gender, it’s orthodox to refer to God as male and blasphemous to refer to God as female?
It doesn’t make sense because it’s nonsensical.
But don’t try telling that to your pastor. And don’t teach your child to pray to “God who is both Father and Mother” unless you’re prepared to get put on the prayer chain. One of my friends told me recently that her church is now boycotting one Bible translation because the new version of that translation is using gender-neutral terms for… gender-neutral concepts (mankind is now humankind). For real.
Not to be flippant, but the hills our churches are willing to die on seem to consist of some pretty poor topsoil.
And yet, I’m not going to stop going to church. I’m not going to limit my daughter’s access to the Bible just because the Bible fails to represent women in equal or even very positive ways. To be honest, I’m not sure what I’m going to do about it.
And write a lot of children’s books.
And hope I come up with something better by the time she hits 3 months.