Gender Equality in Children’s Stories

I recently watched a TED Talk by Colin Stokes called “How movies teach manhood.” The ideas expressed in this talk struck a chord in me and got me thinking about the role models—and the villains—we present to children. Far too often the villains are women—wicked witches, evil sorceresses, evil queens, and evil step mothers. And far too often, the heroes are princes or knights or at least male.

This TED Talk is seriously thought provoking. Check it out:

 

I work full tiWhirl Story Bibleme as a Sunday school curriculum developer, overseeing the creation of faith formation resources for elementary age children. I’m thankful to work for a company that values gender equality in the stories we present to children, particularly when presenting stories of faith. We work hard to include female biblical heroes in the scope and sequence of the curriculum we develop and be sure to include a balance of girls and boys and men and women in the illustrations, photographs, and animated characters in the various curricular components. It’s important, because boys and girls need to see themselves as equally valued and represented in the stories meant to inspire and shape their faith.

The stories our children absorb play a major role in forming their identities and worldviews. They open up their imaginations and introduce them to the wonders of love, friendship, courage, hardship, and evil forces. Most children’s movies and books take on the classic battle of good vs. evil, but fairy tales are often rooted in patriarchy and this is the message, however implicit, that affects children in their most formative years.

Recently my husband and I went to see the movie Frozen, due in part to the rave reviews it was getting from feminists and children alike. At first I was disappointed to see the same old love-at-first-sight tired tale, but the movie surprised me with its own critique of these messages and presented a new form of sacrificial love. The 2012 movie Brave also broke ground by featuring a female protagonist and her courageous quest to save, and ultimately reconcile with, her mother.

Frozen

So there’s hope for breaking out of the love-at-first-sight, damsels-in-distress clichés for children’s movies, but what about role models for boys? Who is teaching our boys to respect women, to treat them like equal partners in the battle for good over evil, and to see them as more than sex objects?

In his talk, Colin Stokes calls out the problem of not having good role models for boys in children’s movies. Children’s movies do a great job of, “teaching girls how to defend against the patriarchy but aren’t showing boys how to defend against the patriarchy. There are no models,” Stokes says.

And why is this important? In his talk, Stokes refers to a U.S. government survey that revealed 1 in 5 women say they been sexually assaulted.

“When I heard that statistic, one of the things I think of, is that is a lot of sexual assailants. Who are these guys? What are they learning? What are they failing to learn? Are they absorbing the story that a male hero’s job is to defeat the villain with violence then collect their reward, which is a  woman who has no friends and doesn’t speak? Are we soaking up that story?” Stokes asks.

When we publish books, tell stories, create animated videos, it’s important to evaluate what message we are sending, however implicitly, to children. It’s important to evaluate the stories we  buy and recommend to the children in our lives.

  • Are your kids reading books and watching movies with female heroes who overcome the odds with skills other than their good looks or feminine charms?
  • Likewise, are the stories they see and hear featuring men who respect women?
  • Are their faith formation resources promoting gender equality?
  • Are you helping them choose school projects that highlight women in history or men who uplift, rather than degrade, women?
  • Are you modeling for your children healthy relationships with the opposite sex, whether platonic or romantic?

As Stokes says, “we have to show our sons a new definition of manhood . . . We need to model that a real man is someone who trust his sisters and respects them and wants to be on their team, and stands up against the real bad guys—who are the men who want to abuse the women.”

That starts with us, the adults who raise, educate, and create stories for the youngest members of society. We need to work together to combat unhealthy messages of masculinity and femininity and promote a more holistic personhood instead. It takes a village to raise a child, as the saying goes; we must take responsibility for the collective raising of our children.

*Note: This post was adapted from a similar post I wrote for the CBE Scroll blog.

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