I want to raise kids who know that women are just as valid, valuable, and capable doing interesting things as men. To that end, when I read to my toddlers, I read male characters as females by replacing “he” with “she,” and “him” with “her.” 1 In doing this, I’ve become aware of a few things I need to share, just in case you missed it.
Day after day, image after image, story after story, girls and women see themselves portrayed as selfless nurturers, beautiful bystanders, and objects of desire – if they see themselves portrayed at all. Meanwhile, boys are portrayed as…well…everything else. 2
With VERY few exceptions, in children’s literature, as in all media:
- Characters 3 that take action are men.
- Interesting, inquisitive, decisive, confident characters are men. 4
- Characters with any depth at all are men.
- Characters who aren’t doing anything stereotypically or even vaguely masculine, but who also aren’t blatantly feminine, are men.
- Women, if there are any, 5 are wives, mothers, sisters and teachers. And ballerinas. 6
So g’head – read “he” as “she” when you read to your kids. 7 Do it most, if not all, of the time. Especially if you have tiny ones, since they won’t notice the difference. And if they DO express concern because a “she” is doing typically male things, 8 then today’s the day to stop that train in its tracks.
Ah, but I hear your protests:
“I’m worried that reading all the boy characters as girls will create an imbalance in the other direction.”
Have no fear! Your empowered girl-focused story times will be more than balanced by every other image your kids see, and every other story your kids see and hear, every day, everywhere.
“But that wasn’t the author’s vision!”
You’re absolutely right. Dr. Seuss didn’t write a female Lorax. And if “that wasn’t the author’s vision!” were a valid argument for sticking to the original, The Declaration of Independence would still only apply to men. Just sayin’.
“Why can’t we just teach our kids to see beyond gender, and to identify with whatever character they like, male or female?”
Great idea! Let’s do that, too! And until we see evidence that kids are consistently imitating role models that bear little or no resemblance to them, let’s do what we can to give the under-represented kids a leg up.
I’ll admit: Changing pronouns made me uncomfortable when I first started reading this way to my girls. Why? Because just like you, I’m a product of our culture. 9 If you run with this re-gendering idea, expect a voice inside you to say “You’re over-reacting, this is stupid.” Then keep swapping “he” for “she,” because the weirder it feels to give power to girls when we have the chance, the more we owe it to our kids to do it every chance we get.
So let’s give the girls we’re raising a better chance to identify with and imitate characters that have ideas and power and creativity and choices and agency and depth. And let’s give the boys we’re raising more opportunities to internalize that women actually are their equals. Who’s with me?
- So, ultimately, I’m adding women and girls where they had previously not existed. For sure, there are folks writing female-centered books where the main character isn’t a dancer or a teacher or someone’s little sister, but those represent an absurdly small percentage of the whole of children’s literature, despite the efforts of some truly spectacular authors. There’s also some amazing websites, like AMightyGirl.com, pushing to put strong female-centered media in front of girls who’re starving for role models that are as complex and nuanced as they are, and in front of boys who’re looking for proof of this whole “girls are just as good as boys” thing they keep hearing about. Sadly, if you’re a mother who’s inclined to take a bird’s-eye view of childrens’ media, efforts to level our overtly, absurdly sexist landscape can feel a bit like trying to bail out the Titanic with a tea cup. Obviously we can’t rewrite history, but we also don’t have to sit idly by while we wait for thousands of books to be written, movies and shows to be made that show women and girls as equal to men and boys. With this simple pronoun shift, we can do some super-practical field-leveling right now. ↩
- Doctors, pilots, robbers, directors, runaways, musicians, gluttons, depressives, painters, gondola drivers, postal workers, astronauts, zoo keepers, chefs, mayors, do-gooders, elves, funny little people, fixers, workers, architects, arborists, fishers, beggars, bakers, city-dwellers, country-dwellers, bike riders, paint-mixers, police officers, trolley drivers, train conductors, traveling salespeople, butterfly hunters, racers, jokesters, shop owners, groundskeepers, farmers, violinists, sea captains, gelato servers, firefighters, performers, builders, problem-solvers, detectives, craftspeople… ↩
- People, animals, letters, shapes, objects. ↩
- When applicable, these male characters are also white, able-bodied, thin, middle-to-upper-middle class, and being raised by heterosexual parents. While it’s a piece of cake to change pronouns, it’s noticeably harder to change these other ‘-ism’-supporting problems. This is where critical reading comes in. After we get used to switching pronouns, it’s up to us to bring attention to these other problems by asking questions: “Isn’t it funny that all the kids in this book are white?” and “How would a kid in a wheelchair get into that building?” ↩
- And there probably aren’t. ↩
- Oh, and princesses. Let’s don’t forget those princesses. ↩
- When I say “kids” I mean all kids, not just girls. ↩
- Wearing pants, wearing colors besides pink, being interesting in ways not romance-, royalty-, or ballet-related… ↩
- I have internalized that men act, and choose, and save the day, and have a right to be ubiquitous, and that women wait for princes. And sometimes, they have babies. ↩