Shock horror! All animals are boys!!

After I’d chosen my Top 10 Animals in Children’s Books I realised that all of them – every single animal I loved and sometimes heavily identified with – were male. And I hadn’t noticed, not at the time of reading the books they appear in (and sometimes reading them over and over) nor when I chose them for my blogpost.

But although I’m embarrassed to find that I’ve totally ignored and left out female animals, I discover it’s easily done. It seems that male is the default setting for animals in literature everywhere, and male characters not only dominate the cast-lists in children’s fiction but usually take the biggest and most exciting parts too. This was true not only in my childhood, and long before (Beatrix Potter* and Kenneth Grahame were first published around 1900 and A. A. Milne’s children’s books in the 1920s) but right through the 20th century. And now we’re in the 21st apparently it’s not much better.

Here is some lovely low-tech research carried out this year by Rhino Reads in response to the question “Why are crocodiles only boys?” April | 2013 | Rhino Reads

In another post Rhino Reads talks of reading Dear Zoo many times before spotting that the zoo has nothing but male animals. (And a very unsuccessful breeding programme, I imagine!) And I’ve done just the same, even though I credit myself with being fairly aware and usually not letting people get away with sloppy gender stereotyping.

Around the same time Alison Flood wrote an article about recent research from Florida State University here Study finds huge gender imbalace in children’s literature | Books | theguardian.com

And some detailed research from 2007 – Gender Stereotyping and Under-representation of Female Characters in 200 Popular Children’s Picture Books: A 21st Century Update – is here http://www.centre.edu/web/news/2007/2/gender.html

So I’d have had to search far and wide to find key and beloved female animals. What seems odd to me is that

  1. I didn’t notice, so used am I to males being given the lead roles, those the reader expects to identify with, and to all-male cohorts of characters.
  2. I had no problem identifying with all these boys as a young girl reader.

*To be fair to Beatrix Potter, she did give us Jemima Puddleduck and Mrs Tiggie-Winkle and more, but her male characters by far outnumber her female ones.

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10 thoughts on “Shock horror! All animals are boys!!

  1. You had me thinking too, and a quick raid on our grown-up kid’s books (now enjoyed by the grandchildren) seemed only to confirm your suspicions. But all is not lost, as my quick bit of research shows!

    Alison Uttley’s books include a fair smattering of female animals, albeit involved largely in household chores: Little Grey Rabbit, Squirrel and Speckledy Hen all have their own adventures and feature in seventeen of the twenty-four picture book titles I counted. Little Grey Rabbit alone accounts for fourteen of them.

    Jane Pilgrim’s Blackberry Farm books, which both girls and boys enjoyed, seem to have an equal balance between male and female animals, both for characters and for titles.

    It’s noticeable that cats are often female, and three titles our children loved (and the adults who read them) were Judith Kerr’s Mog the forgetful cat, Nicola Bayley & William Mayne’s The Patchwork Cat and Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat (though she only takes second billing).

    All these are picture books, of course, and I haven’t considered more wordy literature. No doubt a whole host of conclusions can be drawn from just these examples, but it might require a dissertation rather than even this lengthy reply!

    • Thing is, I don’t recall Grey Rabbit as fondly. Squirrel I only remember for her pretty frocks! And Speckedly Hen, now that you remind me of her, just laid random eggs under hedges, didn’t she? Sorry if I’ve missed out their heroic struggles somehow. But Hare was silly and funny and exuberant, which chimed with me.

      Thank you for reminding me of The Patchwork Cat – very beautiful. Is that where “Good morning, good yawning” comes from?

      • It is indeed! It was a stock phrase in our household for a while! The Uttley books weren’t a great favourite of mine, but now we live in the countryside I warm to the themes a bit more. No, not much in the way of heroic struggles I realise.

        (By the way, poor proofreading allowed “our grown-up kid’s books” to slip the net — should be plural kids.)

      • Yes, a stock phrase here for a time too! And clearly stuck firmly in my head.
        Another – which my other half and I sadly still use – is ‘Desmond was feeling a little anxious’ from a Desmond the Dinosaur book by Althea. We loved it because it seemed so unlike most zappy phrasing in little kids’ books. You’d be surprised, or maybe not, how often it comes in handy.

      • I remember just this title by Althea but not the phrase, though it does sound right for what I remember of the tone of the book. We don’t seem to have a copy anymore — wonder what happened to it…

        Oh, and I don’t know if you’ve seen Carter is a Painter’s Cat by Carolyn Sloan with marvellous illustrations by Fritz Wegner. We remember several phrases from that…

        And the cat here is male. And do you remember Orlando the marmalade cat and his family?

    • Mmm, good point. Although I must say I don’t automatically think of cats, in real-life or books or pictures, as female. When meeting a real cat (I’m an inveterate cat-greeter in the street) I tend to look at its face and body-shape and make a guess. Often wrong, probably.

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