What's the Problem With Gender Stereotypes in Children’s Books, Cartoons, and Advertisements?

Stereotypes are fixed, overgeneralized beliefs about a particular group of people. We attribute certain characteristics to a group and then generalize them to every individual belonging to that group without the effort of getting to know them and regardless of whether they actually possess that trait.

Similarly, gender stereotypes are commonly held beliefs about how males and females behave, what they like, and what they do. While stereotypes help us organize our thoughts and create mental shortcuts so that our brain can react fast in situations similar to those in the past, they can have some negative consequences.

Especially narrow-minded, explicitly defined gender stereotypes can adversely influence our aspirations, hobbies, and interests. Research has shown that children as young as 7 years old appear to have career aspirations shaped by gender-related stereotypes; girls aspire for nurturing and caring related jobs, whereas boys show greater interest in male-dominated professions.

Therefore, it is important that we realize the power of gender stereotypes and schemas in order to break free of them and act independently of the stereotype.

How do children learn gender stereotypes?

Learning gender stereotypes in childhood proceeds through three stages. At first, children learn traditional traits and attributes connected to genders, for instance, they learn that girls have longer hair than boys do. In the second stage, they are able to apprehend different characteristics of people of the same gender. However, this knowledge is limited by kids’ own gender. During the third and final stage, children understand the other gender(s) as much as they understand their own.

Gender stereotypes have always existed and probably always will, although they are prone to change over time.

We learn gender stereotypes through socialization. We first look up to our parents to make sense of the existing gender roles. For instance, seeing my mom do the laundry every time in our house, made me think that women in general are supposed to do laundry in every house. You could say that women doing laundry is one of the gender stereotypes that I have learned at home.

Kids watch, observe and learn. Anything you do in their presence they are likely to remember, and in order to make sense of it attribute it to you belonging to an obvious group, in this case to women.

In addition to learning gender norms from our parents, we acquire gender stereotypes through the media. Any media, actually – cartoons, movies, the radio, books, and even advertisements.

Learning gender stereotypes through children’s books

Children’s books are one of the first sources of getting to know the societal norms, values, and expectations. Books contain different themes connected to friendship, love, family, and moral sense. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that an important part of the socialization of gender roles and norms be carried through kids’ books.

Books therefore represent a valuable source of gender stereotypes with which children can try to understand gender and gender-related behavior. Gender stereotypes can be learned from observing the activities of male and female characters, looking at illustrations, and from gender-stereotypical use of language.

How are female and male characters depicted in children’s books?

Research has shown that female characters are more often than not shown as passive, incompetent, dependent, and aimless. On the contrary, male characters are usually presented as very active, independent, and competent. Female characters are significantly more likely to be depicted inside, whereas male characters are usually illustrated in action and outside.

Moreover, the language used can also be an important indicator of gender stereotypes. In stereotypical children’s books, female characters are described as pretty, scared, or kind, whereas men are more likely to be called brave, or strong. In animal stories, males were more typically embodied as wild, powerful, and potentially dangerous beasts, such as bears, tigers, and lions. Females, on the other hand, tend to be embodied in more vulnerable and smaller creatures, such as insects, cats, and birds.

A study from 2017 has shown that male characters are still twice as likely to be put in the lead role as female characters. Male characters also speak far more in stories than female characters.

In kids books, men and boys are illustrated and described as doing more and more various activities in comparison to female characters. By only putting girls and women in the position of a mom, a cook, a hairdresser, a nurse, and so on, we give girls a message that they can only be that – a mom, a cook, a hairdresser, or a nurse. Only when we tell stories of girl bosses, girl astronauts, and girl managers, our kids can start thinking wider about what they want to be according to their interests and abilities.

This is not to say that female characters in children’s books should no longer be depicted in their traditional roles; rather the key is to offer multiple roles, from a fireman to a teacher, so every kid can dream to be what he wants to be regardless of societal gender norms.

Moreover, a careful analysis has shown that female characters were likely to react to a tragic event with sadness, or desperation. Male characters, in contrast, were more likely to detach themselves from the situation and remain strong. In the future, I hope characters react according to the situation and not the gender assigned. If a situation is sad, all characters should show hurt and melancholy.

Depictions of male characters remaining strong when female characters are emotional and sad does not only hurt little girls, but mostly little boys. Even if we think that such representations of characters are not important we are telling our children how to behave in similar situations. By reading such a book, we tell boys to not show their emotions. Such books can be the reason why men build the emotions inside and never express them. Consequently, a whole lot of other problems that males have could be related to this.

Contemporary research has reevaluated children’s books by looking at male and female characters as depicted in stories today. The authors have divided the books into two categories – gender stereotypical and gender non-stereotypical books. They have found that the gender non-stereotypical books show girls and other female characters in roles and positions that have traditionally been considered as stereotypically male. However, the authors pointed out that even gender non-stereotypical stories do not depict boys and men in non-traditional ways.

For instance, girls were pilots, firemen, and doctors, but men or boys were never shown as taking care of a baby, going grocery shopping, preparing meals, or doing other house chores. This is problematic for little boys because it limits their roles. There are boys out there who would love to become stay-at-home dads or get a job as a caregiver but we cut their wings by suggesting this is not even an option.

In summary, stereotypical stories and illustrations can have adverse consequences on kids’ experiences of the world as they learn a lot about themselves and others from the books. Picturing male and female characters only in stereotypical roles seriously limits the children’s pool of options to explore regarding to their hobbies and capabilities.

To illustrate, a girl might have become a great mathematician and would enjoy it too, but she never persuaded math studies because she never saw it as a possibility. In the books she has read, and the movies she has watched, only men were depicted as successful scientists and mathematicians, so she never even thought about studying mathematics even though she would excel in it.

From the present example, you can see the harm from limiting our kids concerning who they can be and what they can do. Accordingly, researchers have found that in children's science books, for every image of a female scientist, there are three images of male scientists. This finding connects an evidence-based fact with an example presented above.

Moreover, researchers have described the adverse effects that reading mainly stereotypical books has on kids. Girls that were listening to and/or reading books depicting gender in a very traditional sense were found to have a lower self-esteem in comparison to girls who read less traditional books. Furthermore, stereotypical stories and characters resulted in a traditional conceptualization of gender, which was very strict and limiting.

It is hence vital to realize the importance of the quality of the books that we read to the children. By picking out different books that show male and female genders in various roles, we keep children’s options wider and truly let them be whatever they want to be.

A quality book exceeds the traditional gender expectations and invites the children to think, discuss and reevaluate gender roles and gender norms in the society. This means that the characters in the story have personality traits and interests that are independent of their gender.

Watching TV and gender stereotypes

TV watching can have similar effects as books on children’s knowledge of gender. Cartoons and animated movies can influence which traits and attributes they connect with each gender. That’s why it matters that we choose quality TV content as well – one that challenges the existent knowledge of gender.

Three-year-olds, who watch more TV, have a more stereotypical knowledge of genders. When watching TV, children are bound to see advertisements eventually. In fact, before, during, and after kids’ shows, TV stations play mostly toy advertisements. Ads are one of the first TV contents that will attract children’s attention since they are short and dynamic.

Advertisement producers use very different techniques to advertise a toy depending on whether it is traditionally targeted at boys versus at girls. For example, while ads for girls toys feature soft music, pastel colors, and often a doll, ads for boys are known to be more dynamic, feature loud music and voice effects, and are filmed from different angles. Moreover, it is very unlikely that a toy advertisement would show girls and boys playing together. There are separate ads to catch boys’ attention and separate ads designed to attract girls.

This has a big influence on kids’ choice of toys, too. Girls are more likely to want to play with dolls, whereas boys will love to play with cars, ships, trains, or weapons. What is more, kids that do not play with toys traditionally associated with their gender are likely to be ridiculed by other peers. Because of the need to be accepted by others, they will soon abandon their interests that didn’t match their gender and start playing with gender “appropriate” toys.

And this is just a few of the negative effects that can stream from learning uncritically accepting traditional gender stereotypes from the media. It’s essential that we are aware of the possible effects of gender stereotypes so that we can truly explore our interests and follow our dreams despite of our gender. Moreover, the importance of encouraging kids to break free of gender stereotypes is tremendous.

Let’s be aware of everything mentioned above as we raise our sons and daughters to simply be the best version of themselves and let others do the same.

XX, Ajda