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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.

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.

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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