Tag Archives: sexism

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.



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/



Dealing with hostility to progressive ideas in the classroom

This is the script of a talk I gave at an “Everyday Sexism” event at Loughborough University, 1st May, 2013

How can we deal with hostility to progressive theories when teaching and studying gender equality?

I am going to be talking about sexism in the classroom. The thoughts I’d like to share are specifically about how we teach and study such things as equality, feminism, and progressive ideas – where they come up in our modules, whether in social sciences, politics, arts… I am a teaching fellow in Sport and one of the things I teach is gender equality in sports and physical education.

My journey towards being an academic began when I got my Masters degree in Gender Studies. Among my fellow students, we all “got it” – we understood gender inequality, we identified it, analysed it, and denounced it.
This was a positive space to be a student of progressive ideas. I hope that there are many of you in this room today, whether you study gender inequality or just talk about it, who have spaces where you can identify and talk about gender inequality with people who “get it” just like you.

As I have become a university teacher however, I have come to recognise that sometimes progressive ideas are not the norm in the spaces in which we study and teach. Not everyone has had exposure to progressive ideas, not everyone understands gender inequality or denounces it. I’m going to give a few examples that colleagues of mine at other universities have told me, when they have tried to teach gender inequality, feminist ideas or just raise issues of sexism, in their classrooms.

The first thing I would like to say is that my feminism is intersectional. What that means is that I believe that our gender identities and experiences cannot be separated from our experiences of, for instance, sexuality, ethnicity or body size. So I am not just going to talk about sexism as affecting women, but as intersecting with how people are treated for their sexuality or their body size, for instance.

Sometimes there is passive hostility, such as when beginning a lecture by saying “I’m going to be talking from a feminist perspective” – and some students groan and bang their heads on the desk.

Sometimes there is disbelief, one lecturer in management told me. Women students have remarked to her that if women don’t like to be harassed in the workplace then they should just leave their jobs. “Being groped in the office is normal”. “If an office affair is found out, the woman should be sacked but the man should keep his job, because she enticed him”, some students said.

Sometimes there is a hint of evolutionary psychology. “Boys will be boys”, I hear when I teach inclusion in sports. “Boys are just more competitive than girls, that’s why they shouldn’t play sports together”. Just yesterday I was reading something about how teachers need to use different language when they speak to boys and girls just because of gender difference.

Then there are the times when sexism, or something similar, can be triggering or harmful either to the teacher or a student. A friend of mine who lectures in media, gender and sexuality at another university, gave a lecture on fat activism and health at every size to her students. In the discussion time afterwards, she encountered fat phobia, which she found personally triggering. She asks, how could she negotiate and challenge this fat phobia in her classroom in ways that were safe for herself and for her students?

This is just one perspective on sexism in the classroom. I do not mean to sound like I think that the only problem is with students. Certainly not. I have encountered professors who need to consider the ways in which their language can be exclusionary or plainly sexist. There are many students who have the drive to work to end discrimination and oppression, and many who want to understand it and are learning.

Sometimes there is shock. People sometimes just are unaware that sexism occurs in the everyday world – they have never come across it themselves. To me, sport is a very gendered arena, but some people just don’t see it that way, or they see gender difference as natural and normal. Sometimes it can be a very great hurdle to roll a century or more of knowledge on gender inequality into the type of knowledge that students can make something of in order to get their degree. Everyday sexism, fat phobia, homophobia – these things can affect our classrooms when we try to raise issues of equality, to theorise and analyse the world through a progressive or a feminist lens.

I’d like to offer you next some questions that I have, that I wonder whether we, as a community of teachers and students, might work to answer to find best practice in studying issues of equality.
What responsibilities do lecturers have to educate on sexism and other inequalities? If we choose to do so, what are our responsibilities then?
By teaching and studying inequalities, do we risk creating spaces in the university that are potentially triggering? Spaces where students and staff with personal experience of sexism or fat phobia, say, encounter denial or hostility to their experiences?
Do we need our students to subscribe or to respect progressive ideas?
What strategies can we have to work towards safe, supportive and progressive spaces in our classrooms?
What are the best ways to ensure that the students who “get it” and those who don’t all gain the education they need to get through the course?
And as students, do we have responsibilities to call out our classmates? How can we do so safely?

I’d like to finish by saying that if it were not for studying inequalities at university, I wouldn’t have the feminist knowledge I have today, and I continue to grow through my engagement with the students I teach and the personal knowledge and experience they bring to our discussions of sexism, equality and inclusion in sport. I hope that these are ongoing conversations and I look forward to hearing answers to these questions that I’ve raised.

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