Friday, April 25, 2014

The History of Gendered Children's Books ... And Their Segregating Present

Includes "Gulliver", "Robin Hood" and
"Robinson Crusoe"
Scholars of children’s literature are accustomed to defending the field on the odd occasion when introduced to someone who jokes about how frivolous and pointless it must be as an area of research. Yet when an article appears in the media which suggests that children’s books should be altered to ensure that they are more inclusive of all children, it inevitably provokes the interest of tens and even hundreds of thousands of readers. For something supposedly trivial, children’s books seem to be of great personal significance to a large number of people.

Last month, Katy Guest, literary editor at the Independent on Sunday, announced that the paper would no longer review “gender-specific children’s books”. This didn’t mean that books like Anne of Green Gables or Harry Potter would be barred from review. Guest made specific reference to the recent rash of books that segregate boys and girls and don’t leave open the possibility that girls might be interested in pursuits that are stereotypical for boys and that boys might also want to read about what are considered girls’ interests. These are not simply books with boy or girl protagonists, but the type of books that are colour coded in pink or blue and which are often published in pairs, such as Usborne’s Illustrated Classics for Boys (“stories of action, adventure”) and Usborne’s Illustrated Stories for Girls (“stories about mermaids, fairies, princesses and dolls”).
Includes "Heidi", "The Wizard of Oz" and
"The Secret Garden"
Around 200,000 people read Guest’s original article and responses were so numerous that she was compelled to prepare a list of answers to the most common expressions of outrage. The article offered support to the Let Books Be Books campaign, which is part of a broader push to end gender segregation among children’s toys.

I also agree that girls and boys should be encouraged to choose from every kind of story imaginable. But, then, a lot of my research concentrates on books and magazines that were published specifically for girls during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Don’t I actually like the concept of books written and published for girls? And if girls’ and boys’ books have been around for so long, then what’s wrong with these recent books targeted at one gender?

The History of Gendered Children's Books and Magazines
A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744)
The earliest illustrated children’s books published in Britain by John Newbery in the mid eighteenth century, such as A Little Pretty Pocket Book (1744), were intended for both boys and girls. The book’s subtitle indicates that it was "Intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly". Children were just beginning to be recognised as a distinct readership, separate from that of adults, as evidenced by the debut of The Children’s Magazine in 1800. Previously children who were fortunate enough to be able to read would usually only be catered to through children’s pages in family magazines, religious tracts, catechisms, primers and chapbook adaptations and abridgements of popular novels like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels.
Little Folks (1871-1933)
Most nineteenth century magazines for young children, such as Aunt Judy’s Magazine, Little Folks, Chatterbox and Kind Words for Boys and Girls, were aimed at both boys and girls. Concerns about properly gendered behaviours were not marked for young children. For instance, small boys often sported their hair long and wore dresses until the age of breeching (usually after a boy turned four and before he was eight). Young children could then be treated as a relatively undistinguished mass in books and magazines.

In the eighteenth century, adolescence was generally incorporated within the concept of childhood. Yet in the late nineteenth century, girlhood emerged as a distinct phase of development separate from that of early childhood, which, as I've mentioned, tended to encompass both sexes. Consequently, as children grew older, it became common to encourage them to read books and magazines specifically written for boys or girls. New, niche publications targeted at boys and girls flourished in this period due to reduced printing costs and rapidly increasing literacy rates. 

From Newbery’s first books, young people’s reading was understood as having the purpose of combining “instruction with delight”. As expectations for men and women with regard to education, work and family were so starkly different, the instruction girls and boys required as they approached adulthood came to be  understood as needing to diverge. For instance, in 1879 the Religious Tract Society began publication of the long-running Boys’ Own Paper and followed with the even more popular Girls’ Own Paper from 1880.

Girl's Own Paper (1880-1956)
Men and women were also understood as different kinds of readers, with women more likely to be characterised as wasting time reading frivolous material, such as novels. As a result, girls’ publications, such as the Girl’s Own, were especially conscious of presenting appropriately moral stories that encouraged girls to be dutiful and self-sacrificial. Edward Salmon, a nineteenth century commentator, put it this way: Girls’ literature is intended to “build up” women, as boys’ literature is meant to “build up” men. Books for each gender, according to Salmon, have very different purposes:
"If in choosing the books that boys shall read it is necessary to remember that we are choosing mental food for the future chiefs of a great race, it is equally important not to forget in choosing books for girls that we are choosing mental food for the future wives and mothers of that race."  
Salmon knew that Victorian girls often read boys’ books and periodicals as well, but did not disapprove of their covert reading. Even adults of the era were aware that exciting adventure stories, which were reserved for boys' publications, held appeal for girl readers whose stories were often loaded with moral lessons and were confined to domestic settings. This tendency continues today in that children's novels with boy protagonists are often assumed to appeal to all young readers but girl protagonists are generally thought to only appeal to girls. (Although recent Young Adult fiction with girl protagonists, such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, is widely read by both sexes.)

Gendered Books Today
Pink mania for girls
What does all this mean for the debate about gender-specific children’s books? In her original article, Guest speculates that part of the reason for the contemporary push for segregating toys and books along gender lines is sheer greed from manufacturers “forcing parents to buy twice as much stuff”. At their core, however, children’s books, films and television exist to achieve much the same things as John Newbery charged his illustrated children’s books with in the eighteenth century. Our culture produces targeted books, films and television to entertain children, but also to socialise (or “instruct”) them in the prevailing views of how to behave, what kinds of people are valued, and what kinds of people they should seek to become as adults.

In the nineteenth century, very young children were seen as occupying a comparatively genderless stage of life. As a result, the books and magazines that were written for them tended to see young girls and boys as capable of enjoying the same things and requiring the same kinds of didactic messages about how children should behave. It was only when children grew older that enforcing gendered expectations became crucially important and necessitated that books and magazines be tailored to girl or boy readerships.

As the Pink Stinks and Let Toys Be Toys campaigns attest, the past two decades has seen increasing gender stereotyping of children’s toys, even for very young children. We seem to be even more anxious about children remaining within very narrow sets of expectations of what they should grow up to do as men and women. This comes despite progressive attempts in the 1970s, driven by second-wave feminism, to encourage children to play and dress in ways that weren’t highly gendered. In her research on Sears’ toy catalogues, Elizabeth Sweet found that in the mid 1970s “very few toys were explicitly marketed according to gender, and nearly 70 percent showed no markings of gender whatsoever. In the 1970s, toy ads often defied gender stereotypes by showing girls building and playing airplane captain, and boys cooking in the kitchen.”
Stereotype breaking toy catalogue from Sweden's Leklust
And yet now that women are highly educated and the majority of mothers are also in the workforce, toys and books specifically aimed at girls are focused more than ever on the tasks of looking pretty and domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning. The hypergendering of both children’s books and toys looks more like part of an ongoing backlash against feminism in which limiting stereotypes (both old and new inventions like the sparkly, tulle fairy princess) for both boys and girls serve to restore a neat, predictable gendered order. As families negotiate the difficulties of raising children with two parents at work and situations in which women might out-earn their male partners, a return to clear-cut gender divides is something that seems culturally reassuring and comfortable. After all, without our willingness to embrace the gender divide in children’s toys and media, corporations and marketers would have no one to sell their pink, glittery vacuum cleaners to.