Must monsters always be male? Huge gender bias revealed in children’s books

A thieving duck in Peppa Pig is one of the few female villains in the 100 most popular picture books. An Observer study shows that, from hares to bears, females are mostly sidekicks.

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Male characters are twice as likely to take leading roles in children’s picture books and are given far more speaking parts than females, according to Observer research that shines a spotlight on the casual sexism apparently inherent in young children’s reading material.

In-depth analysis of the 100 most popular children’s picture books of 2017, carried out by this paper with market research company Nielsen, reveals the majority are dominated by male characters, often in stereotypically masculine roles, while female characters are missing from a fifth of the books ranked.

The 2017 bestseller list includes perennial favourites The GruffaloGuess How Much I Love You and Dear Zoo, in which all the animals are referred to by a male pronoun, as if by default. This approach to gender is equally present in more recently published bestsellers such as You Can’t Take An Elephant on the BusThe Lion InsideSupertatoThe Day The Crayons Came Home, The Lost Words, The Koala Who Could and There’s A Monster in Your Book – none of which contain any female characters.

The lead characters were 50% more likely to be male than female, and male villains were eight times more likely to appear compared to female villains. Only one book, Peppa and her Golden Boots, portrayed a sole female villain, acting alone: a duck who steals Peppa Pig’s boots and takes them to the moon. Over the course of each book, the characters who got an opportunity to speak were 50% more likely to be male than female, and male characters outnumbered female characters in almost half the stories that made it into the top 100.

Peppa and her Golden Boots is the only book in the top 100 to feature a lone female villian, a duck who steals Peppa’s boots.
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 Peppa and her Golden Boots is the only book in the top 100 to feature a lone female villian, a duck who steals Peppa’s boots. Photograph: PR Company Handout

Twice as many of the characters who were given a speaking part and a main role in the story were male – and, on average, there were three male characters present in each story for every two females featured. Sometimes this ratio can be far higher; Mr Men in London, for example, has 13 male characters and just two female. It was published in 2015.

The research doesn’t surprise me,” said children’s laureate Lauren Child, author and illustrator of the Charlie and Lola picture books.

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