Children's books still portraying women negatively

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The Independent Culture

Children's books are perpetuating outdated stereotypes by portraying women as submissive, emotional creatures who rarely work, psychologists said yesterday.

Books for children under seven have more female characters than in the 1940s, when they were virtually invisible, but they continue to exhibit traditional attitudes to gender roles.

Women are either depicted as homely, matronly types who busy themselves at the kitchen sink or as evil characters such as witches, researchers found.

But girls are portrayed more realistically and allowed to be adventurous, independent and clever characters, Dr Claire Etaugh told the European Congress on Psychology in London. The only times adult females are given more masculine traits such as self-reliance or strength is when they are depicted as bad characters such as witches.

Even the Harry Potter books are guilty, with a central character who is a boy and a young co-star Hermoine, who is a tomboy with brains and guts.

The most admired adult female is Mrs Weasley, the mother of Harry's friend Ron, who is a traditional mother figure who likes cooking and showering the children with gifts. Most of the other women are witches who teach at Hogwarts school of witchcraft and are strange, but competent.

Dr Etaugh said: "The message you get from books like Harry Potter is that girls have to make a choice. Either they become nurturing adults who put their families first or they decide they are going to excel in a masculine world. But men can do both."

She studied 60 children's picture books written in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and found that female characters had become as common as male ones.

But female characters were stereotyped in 85 per cent of the books, regardless of which decade they were written. Out of all the books, that were selected at random from an American library, only one included a mother who went out to work.

"The number of females represented has increased. They are just as likely to be central characters and to be in the illustrations. But the stereotypes are still alive and well."

Dr Etaugh said that, during adolescence, girls were often encouraged to abandon their tomboy ways and become more feminine, less argumentative and more passive. Picture books mirrored these old-fashioned attitudes, she said.

"They certainly don't reflect reality. Many mothers have young children and jobs as well, they combine these roles. But you don't get that message from these books, it seems you have to choose."