Gender non-specific characters

13 Sep

During discussions about the lack of female characters in children’s picture books, I’ve noticed a few people saying that they swap the genders of characters as they read books to their children. It’s easy enough to say ‘she’ rather than ‘he’ as you read along, and it can do wonders to balance out the genders. No, we shouldn’t have to do it, but when faced with a whole book of male characters a little creativity with the pronouns can make a big difference.

Think about Dear Zoo. A book that is a staple of every library, nursery and reception class. A seemingly gentle and innocent lift the flap classic. But… ‘I wrote to the zoo to send me a pet.’ And they sent me eight animals. Every single one male. Why? And when you really think about it and look at the way the animals are described you see that the words used are describing stereotypically male behaviours. ‘He was too naughty’, ‘He was too fierce’, ‘He was too jumpy’. The book changes completely when you change some of those he’s to she’s.

Dear Zoo was first published in 1982 and things are certainly changing now. I love uncovering great books with inspiring female characters and books that flip the gender stereotypes. Another way that gender views are being challenged is through gender non-specific books. I’ve been interested to see quite a few of these crop up lately. It takes what parents and teachers are already doing to the next level – you don’t have to swap the gender of the character anymore, you can create it yourself. Quite empowering for a little one I think!

In my post about the lack of female animal characters in picture books I wrote about the way we use language in relation to animals and how we have been essentially programmed by society to gender animals. Farm visits and bug hunts become unconsciously gendered affairs. I wanted to know how children would react to books with gender non-specific characters. Would they assume that they were all male? That they were the same gender as them? Would the gender be related to the animal type? In my very small, very unscientific experiment, it turned out to be a mix of those things-and more. I used three gender non-specific books; Momo and Snap are Not Friends, It’s not Yours, It’s Mine, and Pip, Pip, Hooray!. All have gender non-specific characters, all of which are animals.

20130913-123538.jpg

Pip, Pip, Hooray! is a lift the flap book with a black cat named Pip. Pip is a character that pops up in treat bags alongside Hello Kitty and in a range of activity books published by Hodder Children’s Books. I love the Pip brand for being a bit different. The idea is that Pip is a black cat, only identified from all the other black cats in the book by a name badge. This creates a whole host of spotting opportunities and gender and role play discussions. It’s like Hello Kitty meets Where’s Wally.

The brilliance is that Pip isn’t a girl or a boy, just ‘Pip’ so the children can decide for themselves and use Pip to explore gender concepts. On one page Pip is dressed as an ice cream seller in full pink frilliness. On the next page Pip is wearing a hard hat and controlling a construction vehicle. What madness is this? Is Pip a boy or a girl? The joy is, I really don’t know. The book is very careful not to specify gender with the language it uses and Pip is shown in a variety of costumes so it truly is non-specific. The children didn’t seem fazed by it at all and relished the spotting fun and the counting activities hidden under the flaps. Most of the children assumed Pip was the same gender as them, some asking for clarification when they got to the ice cream cart page- costume seems to be their first stop for gender assigning.

What a brilliant book to use in a role play area and to show children that gender roles are an irrelevant social construct. They can be a fairy or a pirate or a ballet dancer or a construction worker. The sticker books seem to support this idea even more with the tag line ‘who will Pip be today’ alongside pictures of fairies, farmers, astronauts, ballet dancers, racing drivers and pirates. I am a Pip convert.

20130913-124408.jpg

It’s not Yours, It’s Mine by Susanna Moores is a gorgeous book about a rabbit called Blieka who has a beautiful red shiny ball. Blieka is worried about sharing the ball and keeps it close at all times. Yellows, reds, oranges and pinks wash across the page as we see Blieka’s love for the ball. It really does go everywhere, until it becomes a little flat and Blieka needs to call in some friends to help restore the beloved ball to its former glory. Blieka slowly begins to share the ball and the story ends with all the friends happily playing and sharing their toys together. There’s just the right amount of gentle humour to keep an adult reader interested and the book perfectly portrays the early struggles of sharing something really precious.

Blieka can be a girl or a boy, there are no clothing clues, no ‘she said’ or ‘he said’s to help. The readers (or listeners) are left to decide for themselves. Interestingly, I read this to a small group of girls who all asked if Blieka was a girl or a boy- it seemed important for them to know what gender they were dealing with. I told them I didn’t know and asked them what they thought and they all decided Blieka was a girl. I wonder what a group of boys would say? Next week I will try to find out.

20130913-124035.jpg

Momo and Snap are Not Friends by Airlie Anderson is delicious! It makes me smile for so many reasons. It tells the story of Momo the monkey and Snap the crocodile who bump into each other and instantly begin competing. They try to scare each other away, then attempt to prove their superior strength and skills until potential predators arrive and Snap snaps into action to rescue Momo. It tells this story beautifully, with only the pictures and the animals’ sounds, making the book a riot to read aloud and a wonderful chance for children to act out and explore story lines.

20130913-130316.jpg
They can talk about what is happening in the pictures, make the noises, understand and ‘read’ or perform the book themselves without the need for an adult. Momo and Snap are Not Friends is a book that works across ages as younger children explore the animals’ expressions in the pictures and the adventure of the story, while the older children pick up more information from the pictures and are able to read some of the text themselves. I love the bright pictures, and I adore the purple outline around Snap. This book is so much fun for children that the ones I read it with didn’t stop to ask about the gender of the animals, they were far too busy chatting about what was going on in the pictures. But here’s the thing- they did slip into using ‘he’ for both characters, even though I was reading the book with an all-girl group. Hmmm!

There are a lot of books around that use gender non-specific characters, and often these characters are assumed to be male. Think about The Gruffalo. Before The Gruffalo’s Child and James Corden’s voice in the film version, the mouse wasn’t gendered. If you take The Gruffalo book as a standalone, the mouse is consistently referred to as ‘the mouse’. No gender was given until The Gruffalo’s Child. Yet how many people assumed it was a male mouse? I think I probably did. I have found it really interesting to see how many times a gender non-specific character pops up- and if I’m really honest, how many times I have had to stop myself from referring to it as male! My latest one was the dragon in The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie. Such a brilliant affirming book and I go and trash it by slipping in a ‘he’! I’ve been brainwashed! But I’m really trying to reprogram. So hurrah for books that allow us to think about and explore gender roles and how we respond to gender non-specific characters. Hurrah for Pip, Momo, Snap, Blieka and Dragon, and all who created them and brought them to our shelves. Because we have had a lot of years of mainly male characters and we have some serious re-learning to do. These books are the ones that will help our children grow up with a more evenly balanced view. Hurrah to that!

Source: Momo and Snap are Not Friends, It’s not Yours, It’s Mine kindly sent for review by ChildsPlay
Pip, Pip, Hooray!</em kindly sent for review by Hodder Children's.

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Gender non-specific characters”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Merry Christmas, Pip! | Rhino Reads - December 15, 2013

    […] is, as always, beautifully gender-free and dressed in a range of wintry outfits of all colours, including elf and […]

  2. Dear Zoo without the frills… | Julia Lee Author - September 23, 2015

    […] because the words are pared back none of the animals is a ‘he’. Or a ‘she’ or an ‘it’. As has been pointed out before, every animal in the original is male for absolutely no reason whatsoever except that it’s the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s