Thursday, 8 November 2012

Representing gender in children's reading materials

would a boy have been shown with flowers in the 1970s?

Are girls and boys portrayed differently in children’s reading materials today than in the past? During the 1970s and 80s, studies of children’s reading materials found that males not only featured more than females but also they tended to take the lead roles and were more active than their female counterparts, who were often restricted to traditional stereotyped roles.

Many of these earlier studies of gender in children’s reading material analysed the texts based on their content, which meant that researchers made their own judgements about what was sexist and what was not.  Now, however, advances in computer and electronic technology mean that ‘corpus linguistics’ can be used to analyse texts more systematically. Using this method, John Macalister set about answering the question of how far gender roles in writing for children had changed since the 1970s.

Macalister based his study on New Zealand’s School Journal, a multi-authored journal of prose, drama and poetry, published and distributed to New Zealand school children every year.  He focused his research on the words ‘boy/s’ and ‘girl/s’and any variants of those, such as ‘boyhood’ and ‘girlfriend’. He analysed the frequency of the words; whether they were alone or connected to each other somehow (usually by ‘and’); what ‘roles’ or occupations were assigned to boys and girls; their attributes, signalled by adjectives and, finally, what they were ‘doing’ by analysing their associated verbs.  He concentrated his research on four issues of the School Journal from the years 1910, 1940, 1970 and 2000.

In the first three issues of the Journal, Macalister found that ‘boy/s’ outnumbered ‘girl/s’. However, by the final issue the numbers were roughly equal with ‘girl/s’ slightly exceeding ‘boy/s’.  This shift in numbers since 1970 shows how awareness of gender bias has resulted in more equal treatment of girls and boys. The same can be shown with the ‘interdependence’ of the words. In the 1910 issue, 48% of the occurrences of ‘girl/s’ was found connected to’boy/s’.  However, this reduced noticeably as the century progressed, so that by 2000 the figure stood at only 4%, proving that there is a trend towards increasing individuality in the treatment of ‘girl/s’.

Macalister found that there was a greater number of ‘roles’ associated with ‘boy/s’ in the 1910 - 1970 journals and these roles were more likely to relate to employment.  However, it was striking that by 2000, there was an absence of any clearly marked occupation for ‘boy/s’, whereas ‘girl/s’ seem to have taken over roles beyond the confines of home and school, appearing as ‘delivery girl/s’ and ‘girl/s crew’ for example.

In all of the issues, ‘little’ was the only adjective that was consistently applied to both ‘boy/s’ and ‘girl/s’ and ‘girl/s’ was always more likely to be associated with an adjective than ‘boy/s’.  Some examples of the kind of adjectives attributed to ‘girl/s’ in 1910 were ‘beautiful’, ‘dreamy’ and ‘gentle’ whilst ‘boy/s’ was attached to ‘bold’, ‘clever’ and ‘thoughtful’.  However, by 2000 the adjectives had become more evenly distributed with both ‘boy/s’ and ‘girl/s’ described as ‘brave’, ‘naughty’, ‘young’ and ‘pretty’ amongst others.

When the verbs associated with the words were analysed it was found that in the 1910 – 1970 issues, ‘girl/s’ was encountered ‘doing’ far less often than ‘boy/s’ and even in 2000, ‘girl/s’ was marginally less often portrayed as ‘doing’.  One interesting result to emerge is that in 2000 there is an absence of an association between ‘boy/s’ and mental verbs whereas before they could sometimes be found thinking and reading etc.  So, it seems that boys are being depicted in a more limited fashion than they were in the past.

Macalister concludes that overall gender stereo-typing in New Zealand school reading material has been successfully addressed since 1970.  It would be interesting to investigate whether the same has happened in Great Britain.
Macalister, John (2011) Flower-girl and bugler-boy no more: changing gender representation in writing for children. Corpora 7 (1): 25-44.
doi 10.3366/cor.2011.0003
This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

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