Gender Stereotypes In Childrens Books Essay

Table of Contents


1. Literature Review
1.1 Gender Studies – A Short Concept Explanation
1.2 Gender and Language – A Short Concept Explanation
1.3 The Discourse Approach
1.4 Gender and Children’s Literature

2. Methodology
2.1 Data and Sample
2.1.1 The Author R. Dahl
2.1.2 The Children’s Novel Matilda
2.2 Procedure
2.3 Framework

3. Results and Discussion
3.1 The Characters
3.2 The Occupations of the Characters
3.3 Adjectives Describing the Characters
3.4 The Verbs Connected to the Characters
3.5 Biography of Author and Sample




Table 1 - Turner-Bowker Study: Commonly Used Adjectives

Table 2 – Turner-Bowker Study: Commonly Used Adjectives, no Overlapping

Table 3 – Characters and Occupation

Table 4 – Adjectives

Table 5 – Verbs

Table 6 – Most commonly used verbs


This study examines the language use towards male and female characters in the children’s novel Matilda written by Roald Dahl. The fact of an uneven depiction of female and male characters in children’s literature, which is proved in many studies, is the base of this analysis. With this work I examine if Dahl uses gender stereotyped language in his popular novel as well.

The selection of this book has a personal background. When I was an Au pair in Australia an audiobook with all stories of Roald Dahl fell into my hands. The owner, a boy, said I should definitely listen to those because they are “awesome”. For this kind of study I thought Matilda might be interesting because the protagonist is a girl.

The main emphasis of the analysis is put on the number of characters and their occupation, the used adjectives to describe the characters, and the verbs describing the characters’ actions. That leads to the following hypotheses: Firstly, female characters are underrepresented in extensive roles; secondly, male characters are depicted in more different occupations than female characters; thirdly, different adjectives are used to describe female and male characters; and finally, female characters are portrayed predominantly in gender-stereotyped activities. The overall interest of this work is if the characters in this children’s novel are mainly described in a gender-stereotyped way.

My work is structured as follows: I will provide a rough introduction in Gender studies and especially in the field of Gender and Language in the first chapter. Further I point out the central matters of the research in Gender and Children’s literature and introduce a few studies that support my own examination and are the basis for the hypotheses. The first part in the second chapter gives an introduction to the sample book as well as the author. The second point describes the procedure of the research, the consistence of the data and how it is collected. How the data is arranged for the analysis is to be found in the third part of chapter two. The third chapter starts with the analysis of the occurring characters and their occupations, followed by an analysis of the adjectives to find out if the author uses gender stereotyped words to describe female and male characters. In the fourth part of this chapter the verbs are examined for gender stereotyping female characters. The conclusion sums up the work and gives a prospect of further questions. In the appendix are the tables showing the examined and collected data divided by female and male occurrences.

1. Literature Review

To embed the research on the children’s novel Matilda, I point out the central ideas of Gender Studies, Gender and Language, and Gender and Children’s Literature in this chapter. Chapter 1.4, Gender and Children’s Literature, also sketches the studies concerning the gender bias in children’s literature I use the methodology from for my research. At the end the hypotheses of this research are posted.

1.1 Gender Studies – A Short Concept Explanation

Gender Studies is a young field in the sciences, it started with the feminist movement in the 1970s. Gender Studies emerged from the Women’s Studies, which had a scientific view on women in a society dominated by men (Schößler 2008). Gender was defined in a new way and is not used as a synonym to sex anymore. Sex is connoted as a physical, biological and anatomic condition of women and men. However, gender is defined as a “cultural or social construct” (Litosseliti 2006: 10), which describes social and cultural acts that constitute men and women, for example traits that stand for femaleness or maleness (Litosseliti 2006; Schößler 2008).

There is an often-cited quotation of Simone de Beauvoir from the year 1949 which sums up the central idea from a feminist perspective very well: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" (Simons 1999: 160). She already expressed that gender is made by the society and is learned as a child. The definition of gender describes also the exploratory focus of Gender Studies, surely it is a wide field today and there are many categories. One of the categories of Gender Studies that I would like to focus on is Gender and Language.

1.2 Gender and Language – A Short Concept Explanation

A short overview of the main aspects of Gender and Language gives Litosseliti (2006), who says the central matter of Gender and Language is the assumption that “who we are is partly because of the way we use language” (9). That means our language constitutes social reality and shapes a human’s worldview and is not as formerly assumed an index for it. Consequently is language use an instrument to establish and maintain or challenge social and power relations, values and identities, she adds.

In the history of the scientific field of Gender and Language three theoretical approaches developed, which show how women and men use language differently: The deficit, the dominance, and the difference approach (Litosseliti 2006). These three theories developed the approach that is nowadays followed to analyse language in terms of gender – the discourse approach.

1.3 The Discourse Approach

The Discourse Approach understands gender as social construct set up by language and discourse, not as an essential characteristic of an individual (Weatherall 2002). The term discourse is understand as “language beyond that of words” (Weatherall 2002: 76) or as “a web of social themes, voices, assumptions and explanations” (Litosseliti 2006: 48). That means this model of Language and Gender not just focuses on language anymore, but rather on “how language in use reflects and perpetuates gender stereotypes” (Weatherall 2002: 76) or “a conceptualisation of language as social practice” (Litosseliti 2006: 44).

Turner-Bowker (1996) cites Morawski who argues that a social hierarchy of power has been created by the categorisation of gender, which is based on the white, heterosexual male as standard to which all other humans are compared. That means women have generally a lower status. Further she says language plays an important role in determining and upholding the gender stereotypes, and is often used by the media to maintain gender status and stereotypes of individuals in a society. Labels like quiet, caring, emotional, and expressive describe the “typical” women, whereas the “typical” man is labelled independent, aggressive, bold, and adventurous. Turner-Bowker deduces that as long as these gender labels connected to specific attributes are carried on; children will identify with and follow them, because it is a social desirability.

Children get to know early which things are considered typically feminine or typically masculine. A study of Carter and McCroskey (1984) investigated the attitude of children in the age of Kindergarten, 2nd, 4th and 6th grade towards cross-gender behaviour and found out that the older children judge it more negatively than the younger (Blakemore 2009).

These points show if language use shapes the personality, power relations and the development of gender it is important to present children role models in balanced gender roles, e.g. women/girls in typical male roles or activities and the other way around, on the way to a gender equal society and for the child to develop an own identity without fulfilling expected roles. The fact that children learn their gender specific behaviour and expectations at an early age makes it even more important. Out of those facts the field of Gender and Children’s Literature evoked.

1.4 Gender and Children’s Literature

Children learn from role models, which they not just find in their daily life, but also in media, e.g. books, emphasises Turner-Bowker (1996). They learn what is expected of them, how to act and what to say, to decide between right and wrong, she continues. In the 1970’s studies about gender bias in children’s literature emerged. Adams, Walker and O’Connell (2011) emphasize “The study of gender stereotypes in children’s media is important because exposure to traditional gender stereotypes has been found to impact negatively on boys’ and girls’ development, narrowing the range of acceptable behaviours and naturalizing inequalities (Karniol and Gal-Disegni 2009; Witt 2000)” (260).

The most significant results of studies concerning gender bias in children’s literature are summarized by Turner-Bowker (1996), on which I base my work. She developed a mix of methods to examine children’s literature; I will work accordingly to that. The reviewed studies operated differently, some used qualitative and some quantitative research methods. In the following I outline the studies that can be connected to my own research. It is to be considered that these studies handle with American children’s picture books published between the 1940s and the 1980s.

Different studies demonstrate that female and male characters are often depicted in gender-stereotyped activities. That female characters are portrayed more often in passive, domestic, limited and devalued roles than male characters, who are mostly depicted in active, dominating and valued roles proved Charnes, Hoffmann, Hoffmann and Meyers (1980); Kortenhaus and Demarest (1993); McDonald (1989); Marten and Matlin (1976). Focusing quantitative research methods there are to mention the studies of Kortenhaus and Demarest (1993), who detected in 150 books published between the 1940s and the 1980s that male characters outnumber female characters in a ratio of 2:1 in titles and central role figures; and the study of Heintz (1987) who focused on the occupations and activities of characters in 14 Caldecott children’s books and revealed males were presented in three times as many different occupations as females. McDonald (1989) focused, amongst other things, on the occupation of characters as well. He examined 41 children’s picture books published between 1976 and 1987, were around 87% of the characters showed in stereotypical roles.

Turner-Bowker (1996) carried out a study herself on 30 Caldecott Medal and “honors” books, the most distinguished books of the year, published between 1984 and 1994. She combines quantitative research with qualitative evaluation of the data. The results of the first part are male characters were mentioned significantly more often in titles than female characters, but there is no difference in number between both genders in central roles. The latter opposes the findings of Kortenhaus and Demarest (1993); the date of publication of the sample books could be an explanation. Gender Studies influenced also the children’s book market and the discussion about gender-inequality also changed the work and thinking of authors who then treated female and male characters more equal (McDonald 1989).

What is new in Turner-Bowker’s study is, she listed the adjectives used to describe both genders and compared the most frequently used ones (see table 1 and table 2) with the result that there are different words used for females and males. In a second step she rated them in terms of potency, activity, evaluation and gender association. The latter part showed in the first place that there is a relationship between gender stereotypes and adjectives used for the characters in stories. Furthermore it revealed that the characters were mainly described stereotypical, i.e. male characters were more often described as powerful, active and “masculine” than females and authors, no matter of which gender, do not differ in the use of words describing characters in a gender-stereotyped way.

The overall interest of this work is if the characters in this children’s novel are mainly described in a gender-stereotyped way. My hypotheses are firstly, female characters are underrepresented in extensive roles; secondly, male characters are depicted in more different occupations than female characters; thirdly, female and male characters are described with different adjectives. A fourth and last hypotheses is female characters are portrayed predominantly in gender-stereotyped activities. This last examination focuses on verbs used for the characters.

2. Methodology

In this chapter I introduce the method used to examine the sample to verify or falsify my hypotheses. Therefor it is not only significant to consider the data, but also if the biography of the author gives hints of a specific way describing gender.

2.1 Data and Sample

I examined the children’s novel Matilda, written by Roald Dahl, first published in 1988 in London. It might be interesting to have a few facts about the author of the sample book and about the story itself to draw conclusions concerning the attitude towards gender description or the influence the story might have on children.

2.1.1 The Author R. Dahl

The information about the life of the famous writer are taken off the website managed by the organizations he founded (Roald Dahl).

The author Roald Dahl was born in 1916, by Norwegian parents, in England. Women influenced his childhood; his father died when he was only four years old and from then on he grew up with his mother, three sisters and one brother. It is remarked, that Norway was the first independent country introducing the women’s suffrage in 1913 (Sørfjord).

With the outbreak of World War Two he joined the Royal Air Force and fought in Africa as squadron pilot. In 1953 he married the well-known American actress Patricia Neal, who gave birth to five children and did not give up her career for a quiet family life (Harmetz 2010). Even the family lived in England Dahl was often in the US. The author started writing after ceasefire, when he got back to England, mainly stories connected to his experiences made in war. In 1961 The Giant Peach was published, Dahl’s first book for children with many to follow. Matilda was his last long children’s book, which he won the Red House Children’s Book Award in 1989 for. He died in 1990, aged 74, in England.

2.1.2 The Children’s Novel Matilda

Matilda is about a child prodigy, her limited family and a tyrannical headmistress. The protagonist of the story, Matilda, is a little, precocious girl, with a passion for reading books. Her parents Mrs and Mr Wormwood neglect her and treat her bad. When Matilda enters school her class teacher Miss Honey discovers her extraordinary abilities and fosters her. The giant, tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull makes the school to a place of anxiety. When Matilda discovers her ability to move things only with her eyes, the story takes another course. The just named figures are the main characters, together with Lavender Matilda’s school friend.

The story is very popular and was adapted into a movie in 1996 (IMDb), as well as a musical that premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010 (Matilda). The popularity did not break off yet, so that a musical opened on Broadway in 2013 (Matilda).

2.2 Procedure

The proceeding on the sample examined within the bound of this work is oriented on the studies mentioned in chapter 1.4. I analyse the book quantitative and qualitative. Therefor I count the characters and their occupations, compare the numbers to see the ratio, and use the criteria of McDonald’s (see chapter 1.4) study to evaluate the occupations stereotyping or not. Furthermore I list the adjectives and verbs, compare them and evaluate the commonly used ones gender-stereotyped or not using the criteria of the forenamed studies of Turner-Bowker and Kortenhaus and Demarest (see chapter 1.4).

The data collected covers around a third of the book. To have an objective data pool I collected the adjectives of every third chapter, beginning with the first one, that are together 7 chapters and the verbs of every third chapter beginning with the first and ending with the 13th, that are 5 chapters. Recorded were all adjectives used to describe the characters or physical parts of the character, like voice, hair or hands, as well as the verbs connected to the characters. The word lists embrace words uttered by one character or the narrator about another character or the character itself. Not counted are words of assumptions and if a word is used positive or negative. If an uttered word is considered for more than one character it is counted separately for every character. I collected the data solely.

The findings were listed on forms, one per character with the character’s name noted at the top of the form, as well as the following information about each character: Gender, developmental status (child, teenager, adult), human or animal and occupation. Underneath I listed the adjectives and their frequency and on the back of the form the verbs.

2.3 Framework

To analyse the data I listed the characters and their occupation in a four-column table divided by gender. The characters that appear in more than one of the considered chapters I marked yellow (see Table 3). In a second step I listed all adjectives used for female and male characters and their frequency in a four-column table arranged alphabetically (see Table 4). I did the same with the verbs (see Table 5). In the tables I wrote the words used for both genders bold and green. The most frequently used words are marked pink in the table. Therefor I regarded adjectives used more than two times and verbs more than three times, dependent on gender.

3. Results and Discussion

In this chapter I present the results of this research on the children’s novel Matilda and discuss them with regard to the hypotheses. For a better orientation may be mentioned the chapter is ordered in the chronology of the hypothesis (see chapter 1.4).


New Perspectives on Illustration is an engaging weekly series of essays by graduate illustration students at MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art. Curators Stephanie Plunkett and Joyce K. Schiller have the pleasure of teaching a MICA course exploring the artistic and cultural underpinnings of published imagery through history, and we are pleased to present the findings of our talented students in this weekly blog.

Contemporary Gender Roles in Children’s Literature by Joshua Heinsz examines the influence of illustrated children’s books on how gender roles are assigned and understood in contemporary society.

Contemporary Gender Roles in Children’s Literature

An Essay by Joshua Heinsz

Gender roles are established very early in a child’s life. In fact, it has been determined that most children are able to identify themselves as either a boy or a girl by the age of three. While there is no definitive evidence that children’s literature is a major factor in how gender role’s are assigned and stereotyped, the importance of the messages in said works cannot be denied. By engaging in these fictional worlds, consciously or not, children will project themselves as the characters in their beloved stories and the roles that they play can become integral to the child’s personality development.

More often than not, male characters are assigned to more dominant roles, exerting strong leadership abilities and displaying the need for toughness and a necessity to suppress emotion. This stems from the stereotype that men must be strong, and parents enforce this idea to prevent their boy from being raised as a “sissy”. Which to use the word “sissy” as a negative connotation is a problem in and of itself as it is associated with the feminine and suggests that both feminine and negative are synonymous to young boys.

In contrast to the male characters, leading ladies have tendencies to be mild mannered, submissive and worst of all: damsels in distress. They are often involved in both tales and decorum of frivolity and lack the substance of character that is to be instilled in young men. Aside from literature with female leads, it is even more problematic in works targeted to a male audience. In said stories, the cast of girl characters is often minimal, lacking dimension and suppressed under the roles of the boys. This therefore subconsciously teaches young boys that they indeed are the more important roles in society.

When it comes to children’s literature, these stereotypical gender roles are just beginning to come under fire. While the issue of race diversity within the genre has been explored and evolved over the past several decades, we still have a long way to go when it comes to teaching individuality in children and the disregarding of stereotypes.

One of the more notable children’s books of late to address this issue and breaking some of the barriers of gender roles is Pinkalicious. The story is co-written by Elizabeth and Victoria Kann, with illustrations by the latter. While the illustrations are bright and pink and our heroine very much representative of society’s current ideas of what girls should enjoy, the forward thinking comes from the father and the brother figures in the story. While both snub the excess of the color pink, her brother Peter in the end embraces his love of the color as well. While this is a franchise very much directed at young girls, it does at least convey the message to them that it is quite alright for boys to love what is primarily considered a “girl color” as well.

Rewinding a bit to the year of Nineteen Eighty, we have a much more forward thinking plot with Robert Munsch’s Paper Bag Princess with illustrations by Michael Martchenko. For those unfamiliar with the tale, we are presented with our lovely ingénue, Princess Elizabeth who is to be wed to the handsome and dapper Prince Ronald. In a what happens to be not-so-unfortunate turn of events a dragon interrupts the preparations and not only burns down Elizabeth’s castle and belongings, but kidnaps her prince as well. After finding nothing more than a paper bag to adorn her body with, Elizabeth treks all the way to the dragons cave and uses cleverness and wit to trick the dragon and rescue the prince. After risking her own neck, the spoiled prince is so ungrateful for her deeds all because she looks unrefined in her paper bag garb. Being the excellent role model she is, Elizabeth doesn’t think twice before calling Prince Ronald a “bum” and hightailing it to her own happily ever after without him.

A little closer to the present, we were given a similarly strong princess role model in the form of Princess Smartypants, written and illustrated by Babette Cole. In this tale, our heroine is perfectly content with her life the way it is and the company of monster friends that she keeps. Despite her mother’s wishes, Smartypants is perfectly happy to remain a “Ms.” With a number of suitors calling for her, Smartypants foils nearly every one of them with the help of her creature friends. When at last she is nearly outdone by a prince, she simply turns him into a frog, therefore scaring away all past, present and future suitors so that she may live her days in harmony with her friends in the way she so chooses.

Both above princess tales are excellent examples of the direction more contemporary children’s book writers and illustrators should consider when storytelling for young audiences. I would say this is especially so with the Paper Bag Princess. Princess Elizabeth is strong and independent, while still virtuous and true. It is important that poise and good manners are not shunted aside in these tales as well. Characters can still be well rounded and modern without losing morals that are traditionally positive for both genders.

Though we can indeed say there is a notable increase in these strong leading ladies to set more positive examples of femininity, there is still a distinct lack of advancement when it comes to children’s books for young men. On the whole, literature for young boys still very much preaches the importance of what are in truth unhealthy notions: a lack of full emotional range, conformity and undermining what is often misconstrued as weakness. These supposed weaknesses also tend to be associated with the feminine and further perpetuate gender-skewing stereotypes.

With such a hole left in the market for books moving beyond the traditionally considered traits of masculinity, The Only Boy in Ballet Class, written by Denise Gruska and Illustrated by Amy Wummer, is truly a breath of fresh air. Here we meet Tucker who doesn’t want to play football like the other boys; he instead has a passion for dance. His peers give him much grief, but despite being considered strange, Tucker still has the courage to pursue his passion. Then when he is suddenly needed to help the football players, it is his dance skills that lead the team to victory. While it would perhaps be nice if the message did not have to be conveyed through such a stereotypical sport, it is still appreciated all the same. In the end, Tucker and his love of dance are embraced and his uniqueness is glorified.

The virtues behind The Only Boy in Ballet Class need to be more widespread in the culture we create for young boys. Not every young man is destined to be a star athlete, and certainly none should be taught that suppressing their emotions is a sign of strength. Being called a “sissy” or a girl should not be given a negative connotation and having an appreciation of or desire to engage in what are considered girlish activities should be embraced and not frowned upon.

Times have changed and so have modern gender roles. Women are easily capable of becoming mechanics, CEOs and racecar drives. Men are equally as capable of being chefs, nurses and stay-at-home dads. None of the above demoralizes one’s femininity or masculinity, and society is increasingly pushing forward to embrace a broader definition of gender. So if we as adults are breaking tradition, is it not our responsibility to ensure these new inclusive ways of identifying ourselves should not be more readily taught to children in one of their most vital methods of learning? Society is evolving, and it is time picture books did the same.


Cole, Babette. Princess SmartyPants. New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1986.

Flood, Allison. “Study finds huge gender imbalance in children’s literature.” The Guardian.

Glenn, Whitney. “Helping Children Understand Gender Roles and Avoid Gender Bias.”

Gruska, Denise. The Only Boy in Ballet Class. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2007.

Institute for Humane Education. “12 Picture Books that Challenge Traditional Gender Roles.” Humane Connection.

Kann, Elizabeth and Victoria. Pinkalicious. New York: Harper Collins. 2006.

Kid Source Online. “Gender Issues in Children’s Literature.”

Munsch, Robert. The Paper Bag Princess. Willowdale, ON: Firefly Books, LTD. 1980.



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