Tag Archives: girls

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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Rethinking the ‘aspirations’ of Chinese girls within and beyond Health and Physical Education and physical activity in Greater Western Sydney

This post summarises my published work Pang, B. and Hill, J. (2016). Rethinking the ‘aspirations’ of Chinese girls within and beyond Health and Physical Education and physical activity in Greater Western Sydney. Sport, Education and Society [iFirst], 1-14. The paper can be found at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2016.1217517

Although researchers have attempted to understand why so few Chinese girls participate in physical activity, attempts have not before taken into account girls’ aspirations for sport, education and career and how their aspirations have been shaped. In this paper, we made visible how girls’ engagement in physical activity relates to what is thinkable, desirable and achievable for themselves and in relation to parental expectations. Aspiration is a term that has been co-opted by neoliberal discourse to point blame at those who do not ‘achieve’; it goes along with post-feminist ideas that girls have all options open to them now.

This strengths-based research calls for a rethinking of how aspirations are conceptualised. It does this by bringing a Chinese feminist perspective into physical education and sport pedagogy in order to demonstrate a need to reconsider dominant racialised perspectives on feminism and on physical activity/sport in education. We took inspiration from Raewyn Connell’s writings on Global South feminisms and gender theory, where she raises questions about a Western or white focus that reifies the ‘othering’ of Global South women and girls. Different perspectives are needed to understand their experiences.

Abstract

This paper aims to explore young Chinese girls’ aspirations and ideal
environments for engagement in Health and Physical Education (HPE)
and physical activity (PA) in Greater Western Sydney. Interviews are used
to elicit these girls’ perceptions of their future and ideal environments in
relation to HPEPA. Their data offer insights into key influences regarding
what is thinkable, desirable and achievable in their HPEPA environments.
Results showed dimensions of environments, such as social and
pedagogical aspects, that are conducive to these girls’ aspirations in
HPEPA (e.g. social support from parents, and functional built environment
for HPE). This paper aligns with a strengths-based approach to
understanding and recognising young Chinese girls’ perceived
aspirations within their socio-cultural environment. In doing so, we
discuss how feminism and femininity are positioned from a Chinese
perspective that may provide alternative views to a post-feminist
panorama in promoting advancement of all young girls in HPEPA.
Results invite us to take into account some of the girls’ ambivalence
towards being an ‘autonomous’ and ‘dependent’ modern Chinese young
girl. This paper calls for a rethinking of how aspirations that shape
young people’s future in HPEPA in much of the contemporary Western
world are conceptualised in academic research.

Girls’ active identities: navigating othering discourses of femininity, bodies and physical education

This post summarises my published work Hill, J. (2015) Girls’ active identities: navigating othering discourses of femininity, bodies and physical education, Gender and Education 27(6), 666-684. You can find the paper at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09540253.2015.1078875.

While all of the research and writing I did from my PhD studies tried to challenge the accepted, to complexify what we think we know about young people and their physical activity experiences, one of my favourite things about what my participants told me has made its way into this paper. Here, I talk about girls who are physically active – although they might not think of themselves as active. Girls being physically active is a challenge to the accepted for two reasons: the field talks so much about girls being inactive and disengaged in PE; and what counts as sport and physical activity, as a physically active body, and especially as a feminine appropriate physically active body are narrowly constructed so that girls who don’t ‘fit’ cannot see themselves in the images of ideal fit bodies. Ideal bodies can marginalise and other some girls.

For the girls in this paper, the ideal was not enough to put them off being active (unlike some of their peers who I talked about in other paper). However, they couldn’t entirely get away from discourses of gender that regulated them and a system of penalties and rewards for reinforcing or deviating from gender norms.

For instance, one girl Lucy was highly active in a range of team and individual sports. But she was beginning to moderate the types of activities she did to concentrate on ones that would help her attain a slender body, rather than continuing to develop the muscular body she had. She did this because she claimed that boys at school called her fat. She was punished for gender inappropriate activity and physicality.

Other girls enthusiastically took part in physical activity as long as the environment was right and they were surrounded by similar people, that is, girly-girls. Ayesha liked single sex PE where she could be with ‘just girls’ who ‘understood each other’. She also claimed that they didn’t have to act like tomboys in this setting. While she felt included, the question remains about how excluded tomboys might have felt in a setting that still reproduced gender regulation. Neither single sex or mixed classes intrinsically have the answer.

Girls here were othered by discourses of fatness, whiteness and femininity and I discuss ways of listening to girls’ voices on the struggle to challenge gender norms, call for equality and avoid surveiling/regulating other girls’ bodies. Girls and boys can be supported to identify and make sense of gender boundaries, acceptable gendered and racialised performances, and create discussion out of instances of diversity or regulation.

Abstract

Within physical education and sport, girls must navigate discourses of valued athletic and gendered bodies that marginalise or ‘other’ non-normative performances through systems of surveillance and punishment. The purpose of this paper is to share girls’ perspectives on how these discourses affected their gender performances and activity engagement. Students aged 13–14 in one ethnically diverse UK secondary school were invited to create a photo diary of the physical activities they engaged in. Photo-elicitation interviews in small groups followed. The girls positioned themselves as physically active but had to carefully manage their activity choices and gender performances in a single-sex physical education environment that regulated deviation from the fit, slender, girly-girl. Although the girls demonstrate the difficulty of resisting, they indicate moments of positioning themselves against norms that suggest the possibilities of shifting gendering processes. The paper points out the importance of listening to ‘other’ girls’ narratives in building positive physical education engagements.

Conference abstract: Girls’ meanings of their physically active bodies at the intersections of gender, race and age

This is the abstract from a conference presentation (presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, September 2014). The work is from my PhD research.

Joanne Hill

The physical education (PE) experiences of girls of a South Asian heritage, in the UK, have recently been of some focus in working for inclusive or gender-sensitive PE programmes (e.g. Azzarito and Hill, 2013; Stride, 2013). They are often constructed as inactive, their gendered and racialised bodies rendered invisible against a white feminine norm. The voices of those young people who might be othered are increasingly valuable in working towards relevant and enjoyable learning experiences. This project in part attempts to offer further contextualised research on how girls construct themselves as active as they make sense of their physical selves as they intersect with gender, ethnicity and age.
The focus of this enquiry was to co-produce visual and verbal accounts of girls’ physical activity and embodied selves as they make meaning of physical activity in and out of school.
This research used a visual ethnographic framework. Students aged 13-14 in one school with an ethnically diverse population in the UK were provided with a digital camera and invited to create a two-week long photo set of the physical activities they engage in, where and with whom. Group interviews followed, during which the participant-photographers explained their photos’ meanings to each other and to the researcher (Harper, 2002). This paper concentrates on four girls’ visual narratives.
Theoretically, the paper recalls that we position ourselves in relation to the multiple narratives that are available to us, such that we have multiple embodied selves across different spaces (Cox and Thompson, 2000; Garrett, 2004).
The girls variously constructed themselves as active or able amongst different activities, physical cultures and peers. Notable themes included negotiating gender relations and normalised (South Asian) girlhood; remaining active during transitions from girlhood to young womanhood; reclaiming team games as a choice in PE; and a desire for “free” or unconstrained activity in public spaces. These girls, representing an othered group, used their visual narratives to show themselves as active agents in creating meaning for PE and physical activity. By seeing and listening to these girls’ narratives, teachers and researchers can contribute to positive engagement in PE programmes that take into account their choices and identities.

Conference abstract: Girls’ visual and verbal constructions of valued bodies

This is the abstract for a forthcoming presentation: Girls’ visual and verbal constructions of valued bodies: engagement in physical education at the intersections of gender and race

Joanne Hill

Girls can find themselves “othered” in physical education (PE), in relation to discourses of valued bodies that intersect with gender, race and body size to render ethnic minority and fat girls’ embodied experiences invisible against a white male sporty norm. This project adds to work towards inclusive or gender-sensitive PE programmes by engaging girls in creating visual and verbal accounts of how they negotiate valued bodies in PE to form their own sense of self as active or inactive.

This research drew on feminist poststructuralist theories that we embody multiple selves across different spaces, and used a visual ethnographic design. Students aged 13-14 in one school, with a predominantly South Asian population, were provided with a digital camera and invited to create a two-week long photo set of the physical activities they engage in, where and with whom. Group interviews followed, during which the participant-photographers explained their photos’ meanings to each other and to the researcher. This paper specifically draws together analysis on girls’ constructions of themselves as active and inactive, free or constrained, in different physical activity spaces within and beyond the school. Girls identified valued bodies as those that give significant effort in PE, rather than those that are sporty and competitive. They also discussed fit, fat and muscular bodies and femininity. Some girls resisted normative gender relations and racialised girlhood; they reclaimed team games and public spaces as enjoyable; and negotiated an active identity in relation to more sporty peers and images of high status athletes. Reflections are also made on the value of visual methods for engaging young people in inquiry on the 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.

Representing valued bodies in PE: a visual inquiry with British Asian girls

This post summarises my published paper Hill, J. and Azzarito, L. (2012) Representing valued bodies in PE: a visual inquiry with British Asian girls, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 17:3, 263-276. It can be read in full at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17408989.2012.690381#.VHCOOfmsWSo

The paper tries to understand how British Asian girls make sense of constructions of bodies that have value (those that are considered norm or ideal) and how this affects their sense of self. What subject positions are available to girls as they negotiate or resist narratives of physical activity and girlhood?

In this paper, two girls’ visual and verbal narratives illustrated how they saw themselves as active but not sporty, which potentially restrained their engagement in PE and physical activity.

Physical cultures that young people engage in place value on certain bodies in terms of strength, muscularity and ability. These also intersect with gender, race, class and age so that some young people are seen as deviant, at risk and “other” if they do not or cannot embody these ideals. At the same time, pressures for a feminine appearance remain strong for girls. Minority ethnic girls position themselves among these discourses of ideal sporting bodies, femininity and whiteness – this draws from a feminist poststructuralist framework. Positioning theorises that we create subjectivities (or identities) as we come into contact with different discourses; we might take up a little bit of all the identities that are available to us as we try to consider who we might be. This enables researchers to see identity as a lot more complex than just girl; white; 13 years old, for instance.

I use this theory to help consider how to localise understandings of how bodies are valued in physical cultures and school contexts.

The data for this project were created in one school, with Year 9 pupils (age 13-14) who were mainly from a British Asian background. The methods included observations in PE classes, participant photography, and photo elicitation interviews in groups. Participants were asked to create photos of, firstly, what they did when they were active, with whom and where; and secondly, people they considered to be valued or have admired bodies. The paper just uses data from the girl participants, although boys were also participants (see my other published work Hill 2013, a, b).

Only three of the 14 girls in the research were active in sport outside of school. Many created photographs in school, suggesting the centrality of school to their physically active lives. Additionally, many girls did not include pictures of themselves, or only photographed themselves in inactive situations. There could be a number of reasons for this. In observations in the PE department, I noted that there were a number of posters on the walls that promoted sport engagement to students, either with motivational messages or adverts for clubs. None of the pictures on these posters included Asian women. I wondered, maybe the girls didn’t see anyone like them as sporty, and therefore struggled to see themselves as sporty. While the girls were able to talk about sportstars as people who have tried hard to get to where they are, they couldn’t talk about themselves in the same way – it wasn’t something they could do. For them, sport was a highly competitive, high ability activity, and mainly for boys. These girls did not avoid participating in PE, but could not visualise themselves as valued sporting bodies.

Given the narrow discourses available to girls regarding sporting and feminine bodies, among which they could position themselves, the girls had few subjectivities available to them to combine being physically active with being a British Asian girl.

Young people are able to verbalise and visualise what valued bodies mean to them. If they are given potential to create alternative narratives and subjectivities within educational settings they may have more space to articulate and experience active identities.

Abstract:

Background: Status or value in sport and physical education (PE) contexts is often associated with performances of highly proficient sporting bodies, which produce hierarchies of privileged and marginalised gendered and racialised positions. This may be communicated through text and images shared within school, physical cultures and media that young people consume. Understanding how students make sense of constructions of valued bodies in PE, and how this affects their sense of self, can assist in creating spaces for young people to experience alternative narratives.
Focus: The paper’s aims are to explore varying ways British Asian girls visualise and make sense of themselves as active or sporting bodies, and what this means for their (dis)engagement in physical activity.
Theoretical framework: This study draws on a feminist poststructuralist approach concerning the ways in which young people create multiple subject positions through negotiating or rejecting verbal and visual narratives about physical activity and girlhood.
Methods: The data draws from a one-year collaborative visual ethnography conducted with 25 students aged 13–14 in a predominantly British Asian urban secondary school in the UK. In this research, student-participants were included in the data production through being asked to create photographs over a two-week period that represented their views of valued bodies in physical activity contexts in and out of school. Focus group interviews used participant-driven photo elicitation techniques to talk through the images.
Findings: In this paper, two British Asian girls’ photos enabled them to talk about, analyse, and reflect on valued or sporting bodies that they saw in visual media. The girls illustrated their performances of constrained or empowered physicalities, within a physical culture that values, among girls, racialised performances of active but
feminised bodies. Many girls placed their physical activity significantly in school, and saw sporting bodies as male and elite. Where students do not associate people like themselves as sporting bodies, there may be implications for their continued involvement in physical activity. At the same time, girls were physically activity
outside of school despite not seeing themselves as sporty. Reflecting on the invisibility of minority ethnic women in sports media, this research suggests that greater representation may enable young minority women to see themselves and people like them as valued bodies in sport and physical activity.

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