Gender in children’s colouring books

Yesterday’s research seminar (from our almost-every-week PESP seminar series here at the University of Bedfordshire) enabled me to put together a few thoughts on a current project on gender in children’s colouring books which my colleague Dr Vladimir Martinez-Bello and I are building. We are concerned with stereotypical gender representations in books aimed at girls or at boys. That is, where a publisher produces two similar books, one for girls and one for boys, with different pictures inside. We have started with three sets of colouring books (six books in total: three aimed at girls and three, from the same publishers, aimed at boys). As a significant part of the market for children’s books, colouring books encourage some creativity and imagining different worlds that children can contribute to (even if only deciding what colour to make everything).

What gender diversity is shown among the characters in the books?
In a quantitative content analysis of the six books, the coding done by our independent (adult) coders showed that books for girls overwhelmingly contain female (girl or woman) main characters. Books for boys contained 100% male main characters.

What age are the characters represented?
Often, male characters are men and female characters are girls. As a similar project in the USA noted,

‘Boys get to envision their grown up selves, whereas girls may infer that they remain young and childlike’ (Fitzpatrick and Macpherson, 2006: p.135)

Where are they shown?
Male characters were shown outside much more than female characters, who tended to be shown indoors. Male characters were more often in static poses and female characters in

Our current thoughts on the direction of the project is to delve into a more qualitative analysis, using Gillian Rose’s outline of Foucauldian discourse analysis. This concerns images’

production by, and their reiteration of, particular institutions and their practices, and their production of particular human subjects’ (Rose, 2001: p.164)

We anticipate that the social construction of gendered bodies in these colouring books will represent body tyoes and patterns of movement and comportment that reflect dominant ideologies concerning girls and boys, and that the types of and spaces for physical activity will also reflect gendered restrictions on movement that result in marginalisation and disengagement. As the project develops I will blog more results and discussion.

After my presentation it was great to listen to the resulting discussion between MA Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy students and Sport Science and Physical Activity staff from the University of Bedfordshire. Here’s my general reflections on the perspectives from the discussion (not my own words but anonymised words from participants in the discussion).

Our project has been so far constructed around adult-published colouring books and adult researcher coding. How do children define and see gender? Does it come from nurture and the relentless difference that is constructed by adults in their organisation of children’s play and education and the selling of toys? Could children’s interpretations alongside or instead of the adult coders progress the project into new areas? How would they /respond to this? Could we co-create a colouring book with children that represents a diversity of moving bodies?

Gendering of children is ubiquitous; from new baby greetings cards to the “river of pink” in the toy shop. Presents bought for a new baby girl, or for her later birthdays, invariably reflect this. Some said that there is a clearly a market for gendered toys (toys that say “for boys” or “for girls” on them), with consumers liking to choose these products (in the fear that they might get it wrong with a gender-neutral toy?) and children, it was said, go for the toy aimed at them every time. In response: that children are hard pushed to choose otherwise given the extent of this social construction of gender. The punishment for children who do not conform is potentially high. There are very few alternatives to the extreme pinkified version of feminine girlhood. A question was asked, is this a problem? In response, another pointed out that the choice to be girly-girl or hyper-feminine needs to be reflected upon – we might consider how this relates to our feminist perspectives – and recognise this as one option for girls (I’d add, and for boys, and anyone else). The solution is not more conformity but less restriction and more options for expressing and accepting diverse gender identities. It was pointed out that as a continuum, gender is much more than the two boxes of pink and blue.

There are two points then: the construction of difference between boys and girls, and the signs or symbols that are used as a result of this difference. In books for boys it is clear that there is little diversity in terms of the characters represented, but encountering a diversity of people should be seen as highly important. By all means, create a colouring book of princesses, and one of trucks and cars, but they don’t need to be labelled as for girls and for boys, respectively. What possibilities are there instead for “green books” (a nod to the pink and blue of many toys and books) – those that represent both (or rather all) interests? As Let Toys Be Toys would say, books are for all children.

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