Full video with closed captioning available here
I was very interested in both animal studies and gender studies and I was looking for a way that I could put these together, so I chose to do this topic on animals and children’s picture books. In this presentation I will look at the implications for animal rights issues in more detail, as well, in how we portray them.
Here are some pictures from my content analysis that I found.
My theoretical approach: the first approach I used was around gender socialization and performance. I looked at gender schema theories, from Sandra Bem, which is the idea that people develop gender schema – which are networks of associations which are internalized and shape understandings of the world and regulate behavior.
I also used West & Zimmerman’s idea of “doing gender”, which is that norms are socially created and naturalized through interactions, being continuously maintained. And then I also used Butler’s similar idea that gender is a stylized repetition of acts, and books play a major role in children’s socialization around gender.
The next approach I used was gender representation in books. In my research I found that in books, children’s books, women have been consistently underrepresented. And that this happens especially when characters are animals. Even non-gendered characters often are gendered as male, which reflects Audre Lorde’s idea of the “mythical norm”, and the idea that people are assumed to be white, heterosexual and male. And I also found in the research that stereotypical depictions of gender were common in these books and were consistent over time.
And this under-representation and stereotypical depiction of women can give children the impression that women aren’t important. And it’s especially an issue because these books are the best-selling books that I’m studying. So this is really influencing children and these are books that are purchased a lot. A lot of previous studies have focused on award-winning books, which is interesting too, because this is about which books are being seen as really good books and even those books are very oppressive.
The last theoretical approach I used was around animal symbolism. Steve Baker says that animals are reflections of our beliefs and human culture, and that often the way they are depicted has more to do with humans than with the animals themselves. In Ortner’s essay “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?”, she talks about how nature is devalued cross-culturally and women are devalued cross-culturally because
they are associated with nature. Lerner and Kalof argue this as well. And saying that
women are seen as closer to nature. They say that construction of gender onto nonhuman animals certainly contributes to maintaining the salience of gender distinction in human social life.
So we use animals in ways that naturalizes our social norms and naturalizes these gender distinctions. And Carol Adams talks about this as well saying that women are symbolically oppressed through depictions of animals and in her book the “Sexual Politics of Meat”, Carol talks about how pronouns tend to be specific to how we view animals. We gender animals as female when they are animals that we use for food or products, and we gender animals as male when we’re afraid of them. So this is another way that gender is being naturalized through depictions of animals. McCabe et al., say that the consistent under-representation of females may reveal a subtle kind of symbolic annihilation of women disguised through animal imagery.
In this way animals in these children’s books are subliminal and overlooked because people don’t associate animals with being similar to human. So they seem separate but they are not, they are really influencing our society. In fact, sometimes when people use animals in children’s picture books, this is to avoid stereotyping because they thought they could get around dealing with stereotyping by using animals. But actually this, as we see from research, ended up being more stereotypical. Also we use animals to naturalize social norms because we see them as a closer nature and we associate nature with morality. Gaard, Gianini and Parry all talk about how we project norms onto nature in a way that seeks to naturalize them and is untrue. Duke also studies how animals really behave in nature is not following these social norms that we project onto them.
This idea that people call things, behavior, “unnatural”. It’s not really unnatural, this is a social construction. John Levi Martin also did similar research which recently was posted on Sociological Images about class divisions of work with animals and he studied “What Do People Do All Day?” by Richard Scarry, where he noted that different animals were portrayed in different jobs and this had to do with naturalizing these jobs and naturalizing these class divisions.
This is my methodology for my study: I did a purposive sample of the top 10 best-selling children’s picture books, per year, which were about anthropomorphized animal characters from the Library Book and Trade Annual. And so I went through the best selling list and I selected all the books that were about anthropomorphized animals that were children’s picture books and then I studied these. I had 45 books total and 105 characters. There were 45 books total because there were duplicates over the years.
So some of these books are even more influential because they are best-selling for many years in a row. I did a quantitative content analysis.
When I was looking for gender, I operationalized gender as “male”, “female” and “non-gendered”. I measured sex-typing on a scale. Sandra Bem defined sex-typing as the way that we attach masculinity and femininity to male and female. I looked at gender in text and signifiers. Text as in pronouns, and signifiers as in visuals that we see as being masculine and feminine. Originally, I was going to look at text, but signifiers is also important because most people assume these things so it’s important to look at this as well. I measured sex-typing through gender attributes that were expressed.
For example, the masculine attributes I was looking for were: independence, directiveness, competitiveness. And then feminine attributes were: dependence, submissiveness, emotionality. And I had a scale that was from strongly sex-typed to strongly opposite sex-typed. So strongly sex-typed would be very masculine men and strongly opposite sex-typed would be very feminine men, or very masculine women.
And then I had non sex-typed, which was in the middle.
For my instrument, first I had book information: title, author, illustrator, best-seller year, etc. And gender of author and illustrator, because I was interested in that representation as well. I looked at gender of major and tertiary characters. And I identify the gender in the text and signifiers. I counted expression of gender attributes. And I would like tally how many times I saw the gender attributes expressed by the characters in pictures and in text. And then I put them on a scale – I made a scale where I subtracted them to see how different the total for masculinity and femininity were. And then I would measure sex-typing, where if it was between zero and five, the character was non-sex typed. If the difference was between five and ten, they were somewhat sex-typed or somewhat opposite sex-typed. And ten or more, they were strongly sex-typed or strongly opposite sex-typed.
These are my findings: So my findings reveal a lot of under-representation of female characters. The blue represents male characters and the green represents female characters. Females were under-represented – 89.5% of total characters were male, and only 10.5% were female. There was no representation of characters who were not gendered in either text or signifiers. Also interestingly, I looked at tertiary characters and gender representation of tertiary characters. For them, there were 147 male characters, 141 female characters and 72 non-gendered characters. And so, in this we can see that there is more representation of female and non-gendered characters in less important roles and so this asks the question of what will children get from this?
They see that women are being portrayed in less important roles and that’s where they
have more representation. The representation of female and non-gendered characters also did not change at all over the decade.
Here you can see that the blue line at the top is male characters over the decade and the green at the bottom is female characters. There was also no change in overall sex-typing
of characters over the decade. Here on this graph you can see sex-typing representation:
49.5% of characters were sex-typed. 33.3% were non-sex-typed and only 17.2% of characters were opposite sex-typed. Also, my study found that there was greater diversity in female gender expression over the decade than with male characters. But this could also be due to low end values because there was just so few female characters to study that the results arc might be skewed by that, and you can see here that the green line represents female characters and that moves from one (being strongly opposite sex-typed) to five (being strongly sex-typed). It moves around a lot on the screen, whereas the blue line represents male characters stays around somewhat
sex-typed throughout the decade. And this is the average. And where the green line breaks there, you can see that’s when there were no female characters at all in these books, for 2002 and 2003.
I also found under-representation of female authors: 52.4% of characters were by men and 40% were in books by women. The interesting thing I found is that female authors
were more likely to write about female characters. 11.9% of female characters were in books by women, whereas 5.5% of female characters were in books by men. And this difference is especially apparent when looking at sex-typing. 38.1% of opposite sex-type characters were in books by women, whereas only 3.6% were in books by men. And the P value for this is are .001 for each. So they’re a very, very significant difference. This really demonstrates that maybe if there were more books by women, we would see more
diversity of character representation.
Limitations on my study are: potential gender bias, although I constructed my study to reduce bias. There also could have been some sampling error and my studies cannot be applied to humans because as I saw in my research, representation of gender is different with human characters and animal characters, so an interesting project for future research could be comparing these with the same books over the same decade and seeing if there’s a difference. Also these cannot be applied to books that are not bestselling. I also wanted to talk about LGBTQ representation in these books and looking at naturalization of social norms and how this may affect children. These representations also naturalize hetero-normativity.
This book, “And Tango Makes Three” has been banned, on banned book-lists, particularly
because it’s about animals. And since we equate nature with morality and since people use this kind of discourse when they’re talking about LGBTQ equality, this book – the animals have a really interesting role in this in how they’re portrayed. So this book is really helpful in deconstructing these social norms and deconstructing this idea that nature reflects our society and reflects our hegemonic norms.
I also wanted to talk, lastly, about this as an animal rights issue. This, sort of, using animals as symbols of hegemonic norms, is a paradox with the way that we devalue them in society. Lerner and Kalof writes that we use them as symbols and allegories of the human social world as well as marking them as “other”. So we’re exploiting animals further in this way, using them as images to oppress people in ways that don’t give them their own autonomy of behavior. We project our norms onto them in a way that’s oppressive to people. Also, as Carol Adams shows in her work, the way that we gender animals influences the way that we treat them. Here’s another form of exploitation of animals, I think, and this is the way that also oppresses people.
Also, another example of queer issues, in the research I found, was in this book, in particular, “Lilly’s Big Day”. It focuses on marriage and this is another example of naturalizing hetero- normativity through animal characters.
I tried to visual cues that are very common in society, like the kind of colors that male and female characters are wearing and if those are stereotypical. And like other clothing characteristics, because I was hesitant to use, to identify female and male characters visually in my study but through talking to my advisor about it, I realized that since most of the children looking at these books would identify characters that way, I should do so to really get an accurate idea of how these animals are being represented. But also I think this is a place where people have so much more autonomy in the way they view these characters, because you can read these characters how you want to even though
children will be socialized to read them in certain ways.
I haven’t published my research yet so I haven’t been in communication with libraries about that. And I didn’t really look much into that because it wasn’t within my scope of studies for this project, so I was mostly looking just at books. But I think it would be really interesting to do studies looking at Disney movies, as well. I’m really interested in that, and in cartoons.
Full video with closed captioning available here
Hannah Monroe graduated from Warren Wilson College in December with a double major in Environmental Studies and Sociology & Anthropology. Hannah’s research focuses on ecofeminism and animal studies, looking at how ideas about animals inform those about gender and depictions of animals in the media. Hannah is interested in feminist approaches to animal rights activism and plans to work in animal rights activism and then eventually go to graduate school for a PhD in sociology, focusing on ecofeminism, animal studies, and veganism.
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