Gender Equality in Kids’ Fiction

Gender Equality in Kids’ Fiction

When I was growing up, I was a voracious reader. I almost never stopped reading. I read to the exclusion of many other activities, including homework and chores. In fact, when my parents wanted to discipline me, they’d take away my books rather than my toys. I wanted to read everything. In my mind, there weren’t any limits to what a little boy should be reading.

One summer vacation some friends saw me reading a Nancy Drew book. Facing their ridicule taught me that boys aren’t supposed to read books about girls. Sadly, I took that lesson to heart. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, avoided books with female protagonists. Growing up in a society that still emphasized the differences between men and women, I even developed the idiotic idea that I wouldn’t be able to identify with a book written by a woman as well as I could with one written by a man.

Now, as an adult, I am doing my best to make up for lost time. But I can’t help wonder how my mind was shaped by the prejudices that were drilled into me throughout my formative years. Having a daughter is bringing my deep notions about gender equality into focus. There are a lot of silly ideas I have to unlearn. 

As parents, we have the opportunity to minimize the formation of those “silly ideas”. We can, and should, encourage our kids to read books and watch movies with strong protagonists and antagonists, both male and female. 

There’s no shortage of books with strong male protagonists. And most girls don’t have any issue reading or relating to them. There are a growing number of books (including comic books!) with strong female protagonists. And chances are, unless someone is telling your little boy it’s wrong for him to enjoy such books, he’ll eat them up!

Here’s what happens when a girl reads a book or watches a movie with a strong female protagonist. She sees that women are heroes too. She learns that women matter just as much as men. She learns she doesn’t need to depend on a man for her worth. She discovers that girls are awesome, and that means she is awesome. Aren’t those things you want your little girl to learn?

Here’s what happens when a boy reads a book or watches a movie with a strong female protagonist. He sees that women are heroes too. He learns that women matter just as much as men. He learns he should respect women just the same way he respects other men. He learns that girls are awesome because of who they are, and not just for what they can offer him. Aren’t those things you want your little boy to learn?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a book or movie that has a male protagonist. But we should be conscious of how the authors and writers treat women in the story. All to often, women are window dressing in male-centric fiction. Too many action movies have one stereotyped love interest who serves as little more than a damsel plot gimmick. We can do better by our kids.

There’s a simple evaluation you can perform on a movie or book. It’s called the Bechdel Test. It consists of three questions. If you can answer “yes” to all three, the book or movie passes the test. Here are the questions:

  1. Are there two or more female characters?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Is their conversation about something other than a man?

It’s surprisingly hard to find Hollywood movies that pass this test. Even many Hollywood movies with female protagonists written mainly for women (we’re looking at you, rom-coms) fail this test. In the scenes where the female lead is talking to her girlfriends, they’re usually talking about the male lead.

The Bechdel Test isn’t a perfect way to measure the media you and your kids consume for gender equality. But it’s at least a start that points you in the right direction.

Do you or your kids have a favourite book or movie that features a strong female character? Share it with us in the comments so others can take your recommendations.

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