For centuries, children's books have been used to teach children morals. Because of the times that many of these stories were told, there are gender stereotypes that have been attached to them that have not changed too much over the centuries. Only in recent times has there been a significant change in gender stereotypes in children's books. Still, these stereotypes are very strong and have been ingrained into children's teachings for so long, it is hard to get rid of them.
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The most well-known early children's books are the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The Brothers Grimm collected their tales from other sources and cultures and modified them to their liking, moral beliefs and the beliefs of their time and location. Their volumes were published in the 1800s. Women in their tales were usually weak and needed a man to save them. These women were also pious and obedient to their fathers or husbands and if they were not, there was likely to be some extreme consequence for such behaviour. There are of course certain tales, like Hansel and Gretel, where the girl is the stronger one and defeats the antagonist (Gretel shoves the old witch into her own oven). These fairy tales have been told over and over and now more recently have been retold by Disney, which changed them even more to make them extremely stereotypical and conservative to fit within the stereotypes and beliefs of their time in America. The time in America when these stories were retold was quite divided by gender, women were to assume one role, men another. So in turn, female children were to grow up preparing themselves to fit that role, as well as male children preparing for theirs. If a woman or man did not fit that role, his place in society was not certain and was looked down upon. They definitely could not find a character to relate to in these stereotypical tales.
The Brothers Grimm were from Germany, and because this was a large collection of fairy tales, became quite popular and well known. They collected their stories from different cultures, however, and these stories had been in existence long before they collected them. These tales were modified to fit within the moral belief structure that the Grimms lived in at the time. Children's books in Japan have similar stereotypes for male and female characters, as in America.
Stereotypes in children's books is very important to the development of a society. Because children are very impressionable and often take stories for reality, they also take the roles of the characters very seriously. They find characters that they can relate to, which often is by their gender. These children are effected by these characters and views of the world and will continue to be effected as they grow into adults and raise their own children.
The thinking process from these stories helps to shape the society in which these children live and grow. In most stories, the stereotypical traits of a male are aggressive, brave, physically strong, handsome and usually saving a victim in distress. This is a rescuer theme that is very common in children's books. This is also a very heterosexual view of what a male should be. Most characters who do not fit this ideal in a story is either weak or sneaky and can't be trusted, or is the evil antagonist of the tale. The stereotypical traits of a female in most of these books is not as smart as the male, definitely not as savvy, possibly naive, physically weak, good, blindly obedient and trusting, but always beautiful. Most females in stories who are assertive are not to be trusted in these tales, or are the evil antagonist. Many times if a female is not beautiful in a tale, she is a creature like a witch. Again, as in the male stereotypes, the female must fit into the ideal otherwise they are "bad." A very well known example of this is with Cinderella and her evil stepsisters, who are known to be uglier than her. Why couldn't they be beautiful but very vain and because of this, mean? Because Cinderella is good, pious but cannot think for or save herself, so that must equate to extreme physical beauty. This is the formula that these stereotypes are using and shaping in little girls minds. The more submissive you are the more beautiful you will appear.
These early stories in a child's mind effect his or her self identity and thought processes. They may project what they think is right about other people's identities. They may view their father and mother according to the fairy tales and if they do not fit, they may question why. Behaviour is effected by what the child reads is normal, and their interaction with others is also another big issue. Further than the immediate effects are further down the road as the child grows into a teen and into an adult. There are many women who still expect to be whisked off to some shiny castle by a prince charming. There are also men who expect a woman to be submissive and helpless and that are intimidated by any other kind of woman. Career goals and relationship patterns are things that are deeply effected by these stories.
It is not solely the responsibility of children's books to form and shape society and the mentality of children. It is also the job of the parent to show children what is right and wrong, what is important and what choices they should make in life. To prevent a child from taking these stereotypes too seriously, a parent must explain to the child what these themes mean and even question them during story time. A child should be allowed to question themes as well and the parent should be prepared to answer those questions. Also, spend some time reading not-so-typical tales to expose the child to a more balanced body of literature.
Recent history of Children's Book Stereotypes
In the 1970s, there started to be more children's books that were not defined by gender, but used more imaginative story plots and characters. This may also have helped to shape the changing role of women in the 1980s when more women started to have serious careers and want equality for themselves outside of the traditional female role. In the present, these stereotypes are still fairly prevalent, but are not as accepted as they were in the past. Children's books have evolved along with society.
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