Conference abstract: Gendered physical activity representation in physical education textbooks and children’s colouring books

This is the abstract for a forthcoming presentation: Gendered physical activity representation in physical education textbooks and children’s colouring books to be presented at British Educational Research Association annual conference, September 2016. It is from the Colouring Books project.

Joanne Hill and Vladimir Martinez-Bello

Curricular materials, including textbooks and children’s picture or colouring books, are vehicles of ideas and values that may contain sexist messages. Colouring books are of especial interest as children are prompted to engage creatively, while textbooks for physical education communicate accepted ideas about physically active bodies to students of the subject. Colouring books often depict gender-stereotypical activities: women and girls in static positions, and boys and men in physical activities (Fitzpatrick & McPherson, 2010). In textbooks, male characters may predominate and be represented in a wider range of outdoor competitive sports, whereas girls are either invisible or presented in selected indoor sports (Tàboas-Pais and Rey-Cao, 2012; Ullah and Skelton, 2014).

This research analyses representations of female and male bodies in materials available in the UK: specifically, physical education textbooks and children’s colouring/doodling books (the latter were books created for girls and books created for boys).

The first phase of this research utilised quantitative content analysis to examine the similarities and differences of the characters in three UK colouring/doodling books for girls and three for boys across the categories of gender, age, space, and physical activity domains. There was a trend for more male characters to be represented in physical activity. Subsequent qualitative analysis asked, in pictures portraying physical activity, what messages are conveyed concerning masculine and feminine bodies, activities and relationships?

Over 200 images from six gendered colouring books and six physical education textbooks were collated and coded by two researchers, using discourse analysis, for the shape, clothing, and posture of bodies in physical activity; the types of activities they were engaged in; and positioning in the picture.

Qualitative analysis found that representations of physical activities were often gender-stereotyped, for instance boys were represented in bodybuilding with a muscular, macho physique while girls were represented in dancing or fitness, with slender bodies and submissive poses. Female characters were often depicted being helped by others or entertained, suggesting more passive roles; where female characters did display agency, representations often infantilised the characters. Male characters were more likely to have adventures, make discoveries and be leaders.

Not only greater visibility, but the form and context for gendered physically active bodies can be a marker of greater legitimacy in sport (Birrell and Theberge, 1994). This has implications for maintaining gender-sensitive physical education, suggesting a need for creating and using diverse images across all curricular materials.

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