Tag Archives: boys

Gender and physical activity representation in children’s colouring books

colouring books word cloud

Word cloud of common words found in colouring books for boys (left) and for girls (right)

Books and other curricular materials are vehicles of knowledge, ideas and values that may contain messages that teach children normative ways to be a boy or a girl. Children take seriously the messages they receive from books, toys, marketing and the adults around them.

Despite some publishers recognising the importance of ensuring equal representation of all people in curricular materials, it is still common to find stereotypically gendered books.

In this post I report on some qualitative and quantitative research on children’s colouring books series where there is a book for girls and a book for boys. It was carried out by Vladimir Martínez-Bello (Universitat de València) and Joanne Hill (University of Bedfordshire).

As physical activity and sport researchers, we felt that it was particularly important to avoid gendered representation of physical activity. In the last 12 years, a couple of studies of American children’s books have found them to portray boys more often in active or outdoor play and girls in indoor or static positions (Fitzpatrick and McPherson, 2010; Hamilton, Anderson, Broaddus and Young, 2006). Gender representation in sports media has been investigated extensively, including presenting some sports as male-appropriate and some as female-appropriate, supporting assumptions of female frailty and male strength, and presenting female athletes in a sexualised manner, although some research points to the latter diminishing somewhat over the last 25 years. Assumptions that girls and boys are simply different also restrict girls’ and boys’ opportunities to play sports together (Cooky, Messner & Musto, 2015; Koivula, 1999; Messner, 2000; Messner, Duncan & Jensen, 1993).

The aim of this study was to investigate the representation of female and male characters in the illustrations of six colouring books published by well-known publishing houses in the UK that were entitled “Book for Girls” or “Book for Boys”. We took a sample of 136 illustrations of human characters and analysed the gender and age of the human characters in the pictures, the place (indoors or outdoors), and the type of activity (including physical activity, sedentary activity and active transport). 

1: Representation of gender

  • In the books for girls 75% were depicted as female, 13% as male and 12% as unclear.
  • In the books for boys, 60% were depicted as male, 18% as female and 22% as unclear.

In one of the books for girls, there was only one male character present in all the sampled images, represented as a bridegroom at a wedding.

It appears that publishing houses may assume that boys are not interested in seeing female characters and likewise, that girls are not interested in seeing male characters. I agree with Let Books Be Book’s (2018) concern that gender segregation in itself is an artificial and damaging divide. Their social media sites highlight the stories of a number of parents and children frustrated by implicit messages that a certain toy or book is not for them, claiming that it restricts children’s opportunities and dreams. This labelling of books and toys may also lead to bullying of any children who make the so-called ‘wrong choice’.

***

2: Gender and physical activity

  • Of the female characters represented in the books for girls, 26% were doing physical activity, 67% were sedentary, and 7% doing other activities.
  • Of the male characters represented in the books for boys, 44% were doing physical activity, 42% were sedentary, and 14% doing other activities.

So, there was a trend towards boys being represented as more active, but it was not statistically significant. Other activities means active transport, household work, or occupational work.

These quantitative results for physical activity obscure some differences in the ways that active female and male characters were represented. In the books for girls, where leisure time physical activity was displayed, it was frequently dance, such as ballet or bharatanatyam (Indian dance). In one image of horse riding, a female character rides behind a male companion who holds the reins. This is one example of female characters being submissive to or relying on men, or having a lesser role.

Physical activities that only male characters were in engaged, in the books for boys, included football and fishing. One image of active transport showed a number of men dressed in suits, walking to work. The opportunity and encouragement of leadership in work and adventure settings was also clear in the books for boys.

The written language accompanying some images invited readers to imagine themselves as part of the story; in the boys’ books, readers see ‘you have discovered…’ or ‘you have created…’ that position readers (that is, boys) as the protagonists in science or adventure settings. In sedentary activity or static positions, female characters in the books for girls were represented in fashion or fantasy settings; written instructions encouraged girls to imagine her own appearance in the future, or to imagine herself kissing someone.

The subject positions available to girls in these books have a narrow scope and reproduce discourses that girls are less active. This could affect the participation of girls in a variety of physical activities.

***

We also had some results which did not support what we expected to find:

3: Representation of gender and age

  • In the books for girls 66% were depicted as adults, and 34% as children.
  • In the books for boys, 65% were depicted as adults, and 35% as children.

We had expected to find female characters more often represented as children but this was not supported. This is possibly a good thing, as it means there is some similarity in how female and male characters are presented, and female characters are not infantilised.

***

4: Gender and location

  • Of the characters in the books for girls, 48% were depicted outdoors, 18% indoors, and 34% in unclear locations.
  • Of the characters in the books for boys, 57% were outdoors, 8% indoors, and 35% in unclear locations.

We had expected to find boys represented more often outdoors. The main difficulty was the amount of images where the location was unclear.

However, qualitative analysis of the books for boys suggested it was common for male characters to be represented in workplace, discovery or adventure settings, depicting boys or men as scientists, astronauts, pirates, divers, strong men and superheroes. There was no space travel in any of the books for girls. Strong men and superheroes had muscular bodies or demonstrated strength through lifting heavy objects, for instance. In one image, one strong man was drawn with smaller muscles, unable to lift a heavy object – but this could be seen as providing an opportunity to laugh at a character unable to carry out his role. 

Some images in the books for girls stand in contrast; there were superheroes featured, but they were girls rather than women; female characters sometimes had jobs, but were ‘closer to home’ or smaller in scope – such as pet shop owner – compared to the astronauts and pirates of the books for boys. Female characters were close to or part of nature, for instance drawn as the size of small animals and interacting with birds. This contrasts with male characters in the books for boys who conquered nature – explorers on safari or anglers catching large fish. Although one image in a book for boys depicted a female pilot, she was sat behind the male main character, perpetuating an idea that men lead.

***

Although the scope of this paper is only on gender, the analysis also highlighted a lack of representation of larger bodies, non-white bodies and people with disabilities.

What can we conclude? Despite decades of research into gendered books (and other children’s items) our results don’t show all that much is new or has changed. We argue that girls and boys do not need separate books. To separate children generates a feeling of difference and impassable boundaries around ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ (Messner, 2000).

A number of publishers of children’s colouring books have recently agreed to produce no more gendered titles, instead agreeing to gender-neutral books (Let Toys Be Toys, 2016). In the past there might have been an assumption that showing evidence of stereotyping would be enough to persuade publishers, writers and illustrators not to produce books which encourage gender stereotyped views, and as a result the next generation would be free of stereotypes. Today, consumer pressure meets some resistance from publishers and retailers who claim that consumers seek and appreciate security in gender-differentiated goods. This suggests education should continue. Parents and teachers might find ways to encourage critical reflection on gendered materials when they discuss books with children. Talking about gender in books is just one element in a difficult journey towards less prescribed gender roles and greater acceptance of gender diversity.

 

References

Cooky, C., Messner, M.A., & Musto, M. (2015). “It’s Dude Time!” A quarter century of excluding women’s sports in televised news and highlight shows. Communication & Sport, 3(3), 261-287.

Fitzpatrick, M., & McPherson, B. (2010). Coloring within the lines: Gender stereotypes in contemporary coloring books. Sex Roles, 62(1-2), 127-137.

Hamilton, M.C., Anderson, D., Broaddus, M. & Young, K. (2006). Gender stereotyping and under-representation of female characters in 200 popular children’s picture books: A twenty-first century update. Sex Roles55(11-12), 757-765.

Koivula, N. (1999). Gender stereotyping in televised media sport coverage. Sex Roles, 41 (7/8): 589–604.

Messner, M. A. (2000). Barbie Girls versus Sea Monsters: Children constructing gender. Gender & Society, 14(6), 765–784.

Messner, M. A., Duncan, M. C., & Jensen, K. (1993). Separating the men from the girls: The gendered language of televised sports. Gender & Society, 7(1), 121–137.

Let Toys Be Toys. (2016). Buster Books becomes 10th publisher to agree to #LetBooksBeBooks. Retrieved from http://www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk/letbooksbebooks/.

Let Toys Be Toys. (2018). Why it matters. http://lettoysbetoys.org.uk/why-it-matters/

 

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If you miss the ball, you look like a total muppet! Boys investing in their bodies in PE

This post summarises my published paper Hill, J. (2015) If you miss the ball, you look like a total muppet! Boys investing in their bodies in physical education and sport, Sport, Education and Society 20(6), 762-779. It can be read in full at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13573322.2013.820695#.VHCLsPmsWSo

The title of this paper refers to a comment made by one of the boys who participated in this study of Year 9 (13-14 year olds) students in a secondary school (11-16 years old) in the UK. This boy, who has the pseudonym Harshul, was explaining why he likes to practice golf and tennis at home, away from school. He told me that the pressure to be competent in physical education, to be good at sports, was high, and he felt like he needed to practice lots in order to be good, or at least to not look like a “muppet” if he swung the club or racket and missed the ball. That is, to avoid looking uncoordinated and unskilled.

Harshul and other classmates suggested that there were pressures to demonstrate a supposedly natural ability or display a muscular and fit body. They showed, in a series of participant-created photographs, how they took part in out of school activities that would help to develop the right body that would provide status in PE.

The association between traditional or typical ways of doing PE and boys or masculinity can obscure the concerns some boys encounter in sports-based settings. Perhaps it is because sport is associated with masculinity that the pressures for boys to be competent are so large. Sports are supposed to provide status for boys, as well as popularity “off the pitch”. If we look at how gender intersects with ethnicity, body size and shape, we might note some of the reasons why boys can have less than positive experiences in PE. White, muscular, fit and competent bodies are most often high status as sporting bodies.

Although the boys in this study claimed to enjoy PE and sport, and were active in and out of school, their stories suggest that they encountered normative discourses about masculine sporting bodies that required them to put effort into reshaping their bodies to fit.

Abstract:
Connections have been drawn between masculinity, muscularity and physical or social status in sport. Not only are sporting bodies often related to masculinity but also to whiteness, leading to the devaluing of Asian boys’ bodies and sporting experiences. This paper draws on three British Asian teenage boys’ visual and verbal narratives to enquire how they negotiate these connections in their physical education and recreational sport experiences. Bourdieu’s notion of capital is used to make sense of boys’ ways of investing in their bodies to manage their status in school. Drawing from focus-group interviews which used participant-driven photography and photo elicitation techniques, the research indicates how three boys invested in their bodies by doing particular types of physical activity that would enable them to develop muscularity, fitness and/or motor competence, to attain or retain physical and social capital in school. Along the way, they add pertinent comments on the intersections of masculinity and ethnicity in constructing and performing a sporting body.

“You get praised more when you’re good at sport”: Young people negotiating embodied subjectivities through (dis)engagement in physical education

This is the abstract from my PhD, awarded October 2012.

The purpose of this study was to engage with a group of students from a diverse school environment about how they construct value or status in their own and others’ bodies in physical education (PE) and sport. This study was premised on the notion that young people’s constructions of bodies that have value affect both their sense of self and their (dis)engagement with physical activity in and out of school. Sport, physical activity and education are not value-free in their purpose or practices, and constitute arenas in which young people learn about what those values are and how they apply to their own bodies. Learning more about how young people make embodied decisions to engage in physical activity can aid in understanding how best to create inclusive, positive experiences within PE and youth sport. The feminist / poststructuralist theoretical framework that this research draws upon focuses attention on the constructions of embodied subjectivities through an individual’s subject positions amongst multiple discourses. These discourses are (re)produced but shift as individuals take up and negotiate positions through the multiple narratives available to them. By linking these notions to that of physical capital, this study explores how individuals’ practices affect how they might be seen as valued. This study pays particular attention to gendered and racialised constructions of bodies in PE and sport, as literature identifies concerns about equity in participation and representation. Data were generated over one school year with a cohort of students in Year 9 of an ethnically diverse secondary school in the East Midlands, UK. Fourteen boys and eleven girls volunteered to take part in a collaborative visual ethnographic project consisting of a fortnight’s photo diary and the sharing of participant-produced images in group interviews. Taped group interviews, participants’ photographs, field notes from observations of the participants’ PE lessons and researcher’s photographs of the school notice boards were collated and analysed using a combination of thematic, discourse and content analyses. Findings indicated that the participants constructed as valued bodies those that are “good at PE”: meaning competency, strength and a desire and ability to win. Alongside this, students also valued fit, “not fat” bodies, and the display of effort or trying one’s best. These constructions were often tied to their potential to perform convincingly. The students took up positions in relation to these notions of status, sometimes investing in practices that would develop their bodies in these ways. Participants’ fluid subjectivities as they negotiated different activities, physical cultures, and assumptions about gendered and racialised bodies affected their choices not just whether to engage but in what ways they would engage in physical activity.

Boys visualising strong masculinities

This post summarises my book chapter Hill, J. (2013) Rejecting the weak Asian body: Boys visualising strong masculinities, in Pedagogies, physical culture and visual methods, edited by L. Azzarito and D. Kirk, Routledge.

This chapter explored how Asian boys negotiated dominant and local constructions of masculinities in relation to their own embodied experiences in PE.

PE is a key site where boys learn what a masculine body is and how it relates to ability and status in sporting bodies. The continuing predominance of multi activity sports technique based curricula in PE can be seen as centralising proficient sporting performance. Ability and status tends also to be awarded to particular body shapes and to strength or muscularity. There can be big consequences for boys who do not perform or embody these ideals, which can affect their learning and engagement in PE.

However, the work of Connell has shown that masculinity is not a singular set of characteristics. Boys give different meanings to masculinities on different places; it is a fluid concept. The masculinities that gain dominant status in any space might look different or be related to different body shapes. Not only has sporting status been associates with masculinity, but with whiteness, or at other times blackness, so that Asian and “other” bodies are marginalised. Asian boys might be considered frail and uninterested in PE unless it’s cricket. Among boys’ localised physical cultures, however, they may be able to find ways to construct valued masculinities that relate to their own experiences. As researchers, teacher educators and teachers, can we support alternative and diverse meanings for boys’ positive engagement in PE? How do Asian boys make sense of their own bodies among dominant valuing of strength, muscularity and whiteness?

This chapter uses visual and verbal narratives from four Asian boys, one black boy and one white-Asian boy to explore this. Creating photos in and out of school, the boys pictured valued masculinities as strong muscular bodies, more often than technical competence in sport. The pressure to be muscular or big was felt by some, who related this body shape to ability to scored in football, or to become team captain. The boys who achieved these were, at this school, black or Asian.

Some noted that it was hard for Asian boys to be successful in sports because of institutional racism among, for instance, scouts. They found spaces in which to be successful, spaces that were defined by Asian communities. Boxing was a notable example.

Although the boys said that developing a strong body was important, some were aware that bodies showing signs of fighting were difficult, at the intersections of race and class. It can be hard especially for Asian or black boys to gain employment if they are read as fighters.

There reminded pressure for these boys to embody valued masculinities, but they were able to relate valued masculinities to Asian and black bodies and sport engagement. This may have been because they were in a school with a predominant Asian population. Discourses about boys’ bodies might be recognised by most boys but deployed in different ways. Asian boys’ opportunities to be involved in sport are still mediated by their positions at the margins in broader social contexts. The boundaries of respectable or ideal masculinity intersect with race and class. Strength was still the marker of valued masculinity, but the boys made sense of it in relation to themselves. They resisted notions that Asian boys’ bodies are weak.

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