The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) informs us that “gender” has at its root the Latin genus, meaning “race, kind,” and emerges as early as the fifth century as a term for differentiating between types—especially those of people and words. In the ensuing 1,500 years, “gender” appears in linguistic and biological contexts to distinguish types of words and bodies from one another, as when words in Indo-European languages were identified as masculine, feminine, or neuter, and humans were identified as male or female. It is telling that gender has historically (whether overtly or covertly) been a tool of negotiation between our understandings of bodies, and meanings derived from and attributed to them.
Within the field of children’s literature studies, as in other disciplines, gender in and of itself is rarely the object of critique. Rather, specific constructions of gender structure understandings of subjectivity; allow or disallow certain behaviors or experiences on the basis of biological sex; and dictate a specific vision of social relations and organization. Critical approaches to gender in children’s literature have included linguistic analysis (Turner-Bowker 1996; Sunderland 2004); analysis of visual representations (Bradford 1998; Moebius 1999); cultural images of females (Grauerholz and Pescosolido 1989); consideration of gender and genre (Christian-Smith 1990; Stephens 1996); ideological (Nodelman and Reimer 2003); psychoanalytic (Coats 2004); discourse analysis (Stephens 1996); and masculinity studies (Nodelman 2002), among others. In the adjacent fields of education and literacy studies, gender has been a sustained point of investigation, often deriving from perceived gendering of pedagogical practices (Lehr 2001) or of reading preferences and competencies, and, in recent years, perceptions of boys as “reluctant readers” (Moss 2008). The ideology of patriarchy has come under critical scrutiny primarily because it has been used to locate characters and readers within the specific binary logic of gender relations, which historically subordinated the feminine to the masculine. Just as feminism might be broadly defined as resistance to existing power structures, a gendered reading might be broadly defined as a “resistant reading” in that it most often reveals or contests that which a text assumes to be the norm.
From its eighteenth-century inception, children’s literature addressed itself through particular narrative strategies as male or female, and, in doing so, enacted an entangling of bodies and words in the sources and objects of gendered understandings. Within the liberal-humanist project of socialization through literature, works for children affirmed values of consciousness and experience as distinctly masculine or feminine. Reading not only created literate citizens, it also located them in a gendered social order.
We can clearly see ideological gendering of children’s literary culture taking place within serial magazines such as The Boy’s Own Paper (1879–1967) and The Girl’s Own Paper (1880–1956). The intersections of language, bodies, and socialization performed by such periodicals linked femininity with stories of romance and domesticity, and masculinity with stories of adventure and empire. Not coincidentally, such publications appeared roughly contemporaneously with the so-called “Golden Age” of children’s literature, which produced children’s books that are still canonical. Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1907), Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), and J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911) all demonstrated that, even when its characters are represented as animals or fantastic figures, children’s literature inculcates a range of gendered norms. While these books both shape and are shaped by their context of production—for example, Grahame’s privileging of male homosocial bonds or Barrie’s conceptualization of motherhood—their continuing popularity suggests that such models of gendered behavior are still perceived as normal (and thus work as normative).
In keeping with nineteenth-century ideologies of “separate spheres” and “biology as destiny,” children’s texts “presented boys in fiction as movers, doers, explorers, adventurers, creatures of action, guile, mischief, intellect, and leadership. It presented girls as tag-alongs, subordinate to boys in initiative and daring, relatively docile, passive, emotional, and unimaginative; as restraining influences on male daring and excess; as objects of an ambivalent (if not schizophrenic) male adulation and contempt (mirroring that which was prevalent in adult society); as domestic souls in training to be housewives and mothers” (Sutherland 1985). Such representations work to shape readers’ understandings of the “naturalness” of specific behaviors being attributed to sexed bodies, and implicitly link the adherence to such ideas with a cohesive, productive, and forward-moving society.
On the one hand, a relatively stable set of signifiers or codes of gender across several decades of children’s literature might suggest a similarly stable understanding of gender in the surrounding social contexts; on the other hand, the extent to which children’s literature produced and reproduced these codes may also signal an anxiety about any such stability. Certainly, the fin de siècle cultures of the New Woman/Girl (Mitchell 1995) and dandyism (Moers 1960) suggest that “gender” was far more troubled in the decades preceding the Golden Age of children’s literature than that literature might itself seem to suggest. In turn, it would be problematic to suggest that child readers passively or unthinkingly took on the gender roles prescribed to them, even in times of seemingly stable gender codes. As Mitzi Myers (1989) has pointed out in discussions of eighteenth-century children’s texts, there are almost always possibilities for resistance encoded within texts as well as in actual readers. Even so, the success of series fiction such as the Stratemeyer syndicate’s Hardy Boys (1927–) and Nancy Drew (1930–) books perpetuate and reveal tensions in inherited modes of gendering children’s texts and changing social contexts. There seems to be no doubt in the Stratemeyer universe that male bodies should exhibit masculine traits and female bodies feminine traits.
Women’s movements in contemporary Western cultures have challenged and disentangled historical conflations of gendered bodies and language in order to re-imagine bodies and the bodies-politic they make up. What is now known as the First Wave of feminism in the late nineteenth century sought bodily equality in order to achieve social equality, and in doing so laid the groundwork not just for a politics of sex but for a challenge to the sex-gender model that dominated Anglophone cultures. Second-Wave feminists in the 1970s and beyond have extended the object of critique to a politics of language that seeks to enact and enable a politics of bodies. The OED notes that modern “(esp. feminist) use” of “gender” has been as “a euphemism for the sex of a human being, often intended to emphasize the social and cultural, as opposed to the biological, distinction between the sexes.” In understanding gender as distinct from sex, the goal is at least in part to recast the dyad of male/masculine and female/feminine as a non-binary opposition. If the ideology of patriarchy both derives from and scaffolds a binary logic of sex and gender identities and relations, then it makes sense that critiques of gender in and around children’s literature have focused on individual and social levels. That is, gender critics have focused both on representations of characters “as” gendered, and on the ways in which cultural texts produce a gendered effect by socializing readers into specific ways of thinking and being in relation to gender.
Bob Dixon’s influential 1977 contribution to the debate about gender and children’s literature encapsulates anxieties about socializing young readers into rigid gender roles:
There’s no foundation, at present, for any of the fierce sex-role indoctrination we’ve seen in children’s fiction. Nor need it go on in life. There’s no reason why girls shouldn’t play football, climb trees and get dirty, no more than there’s any reason why boys shouldn’t play with dolls if they want to and take an active interest in cookery. Why shouldn’t boys, or men, for that matter, cry? (35)
Published in the same year as Dixon’s critique, Gene Kemp’s The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler offered a fictional illustration of Dixon’s assertions that all behaviors should be seen as available to all young people, regardless of their sex. Kemp’s novel deploys familiar genre tropes—the school story, individual development, and friendships—to tell, seemingly, the story of a group of schoolboy friends. The novel shows Tyke engaging in a range of stereotypically masculine behaviors, but near the novel’s end Tyke is revealed to the reader to be a “naughty, disobedient girl” (120). By inverting the patriarchal binary of male/masculine and female/feminine as active/passive, superior/inferior, such texts engage politically with the question of gender, marking a shift away from gender being understood as deriving from sexed bodies and toward understanding it as a set of socially constituted practices, as a repertoire of behaviors, actions, and ideas—or, as Stephens puts it, “schemata” (17)—whereby “socially desirable” (19) gendered subjects are both interpellated by and represented in children’s fictions.
The late-twentieth-century combination of theoretically literate critical communities of librarians, teachers, and scholars and a creative community conscious of gender politics resulted in children’s books that explicitly sought to challenge preconceptions about gendered schemata. Robert Munsch’s well-known picture book The Paper Bag Princess (1980) exemplifies the strategy of recasting and regendering traditional narratives in its account of Elizabeth, a princess who decides “to chase the dragon and get [her paramour] Ronald back” after he is abducted. The inversions of familiar fairy-tale tropes are obvious and powerful in Munsch’s text, but the book still works to naturalize “feminine” traits such as outwitting rather than physically overpowering the dragon. Similar attempts at inverting gender roles appear in Anthony Browne’s Piggybook (1986), which tells the story of Mr. Piggott and his sons, Simon and Patrick, who must learn to contribute to the housekeeping when Mrs. Piggott abandons them, leaving only a note reading, “You are pigs.” In her absence, the house becomes a pigsty, and the males literally become pigs; once Mrs. Piggott returns, the domestic duties are shared equally, leaving Mum free to happily work on mending the car—so inadvertently re-inscribing the belief that it’s better to be a dirty boy than a clean girl.
More complex engagements with theories of gender and subjectivity emerge in recent children’s fiction that engages self-reflexively with debates about identity and gender. The extent to which such models have become normalized in understandings of gender can be seen in the self-conscious (and playful) deployment of Freudian tropes in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (2002). Gaiman’s parodic psychoanalytic plot enables an equally parodic plot of gendered subjectivity, when Coraline realizes she can defeat her enemy by a pretense of juvenile femininity: “[S]he served each doll a slice of invisible cake on an invisible plate, chattering happily as she did so. From the corner of her eye she saw something bone white scamper from one tree trunk to another, closer and closer. She forced herself not to look at it. . . . She pretended to clean up spilled cake and then to get Jemima another piece” (166–67). In strategically deploying stereotypes of girlhood, Coraline achieves empowerment and agency within a novel clearly conscious of its critical and social contexts.
Interventions in feminist discourse that have shaped this shift in theory and practice include Judith Butler’s enormously influential conceptualization of gender as performative. Her Gender Trouble (1990) revolutionized gender studies across a range of disciplines through its use of linguistic and psychoanalytic theory to postulate that gender is constantly called and re-called into being through performative strategies of which individuals are likely to be unconscious. Butler’s point that “performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration” (xv) returns us to the bodily and linguistic contexts of gender that have been present since its coinage. Children’s literature can itself be seen as a site of such performative action, as it constructs and reconstructs often seemingly neutral or natural representations that are in fact gendered representations (cf. Nodelman and Reimer 2003). The complexity of a performative understanding of subjectivity can be seen in Lauren Myracle’s ttyl (2004), wherein one young woman seems conscious of the performative aspect of subjectivity when she wonders, “how much of other ppl r just images they made up. like maybe ppl lie about all kinds of things—how would we ever know?” (68). However, this same character participates unthinkingly in performative policing of femininity when she writes, “i could never not shave my pubes. that is just gross. but even if i did have a pubic hair problem, which i do not, u and zoe would still luv me, right?” (3).
Just as feminist theory and practice has been affected by contributions from poststructuralism such as those by Butler, so too has postmodernism (Flax 1987) and postcolonialism (Spivak 1985; Mohanty 1988) challenged models of gendered subjectivity that fail to take into account the ways in which gender is necessarily modified by categories such as race, nationality, class, and sexuality. By extension, the imagination or realization of “equality” narratives that fail to take such intersections into account becomes problematic. When Amal, the adolescent female protagonist of Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big in This? (2005a), decides to wear her hijab full-time in Melbourne, Australia, she and the reader quickly realize that familiar feminist narratives of “all women are equal” may not be as true as one might wish. Amal’s access to agency is affected by her visible difference from the imagined “woman” of liberal, white, Second-Wave feminism, and thus reminds readers that there can be no “one size fits all” approach to gender or subjectivity. Intersectional consciousness can also be traced in Markus Zusak’s Fighting Ruben Wolfe (2000), which illustrates that particular modes of privileged masculinity are determined as much by the protagonist’s working-class location as they are by his male body. Such novels respond to increasingly diverse sociocultural sensibilities just as surely as complex theories of gender and subjectivity do. They also suggest that for all of the stereotypical or normative gendering of children’s literature, progress has been made since the birth of children’s literature: in short, for every Gossip Girl there is a Does My Head Look Big in This? (even if the former enjoys far greater commercial success than the latter).
Just as “feminist” studies have evolved into “gender studies,” a shift mirroring moves from essentialist to constructivist understandings of gendered subjectivity, one highly visible development in the meaning of gender has been the relatively recent development of “masculinity studies” (Connell 2005). This field has engaged specifically with children’s literature in works such as John Stephens’s edited collection of essays, Ways of Being Male (2002), or Kenneth Kidd’s Making American Boys (2004). Such work, rather than viewing “masculinity” as a stable category against which femininity might be measured and critiqued, seeks to challenge the very meanings of “male” and “masculinity,” just as feminism sought to redefine the meanings of “female” and “femininity.” Most importantly, masculinity studies has invited consideration of masculinity as a gendered spectrum of behaviors and ideas that may or may not be linked with a male body.
The results of such interrogations can be seen in the young adult novels of authors such as John Green, who makes heroes of young men who may historically have been viewed as “unmasculine” or “effeminate,” as in the case of Colin, the intellectual protagonist of Green’s An Abundance of Katherines (2006). One particularly resonant narrative of masculinity as constructed or acculturated can be seen in Frank Portman’s King Dork (2006), when the protagonist Tom tells the reader, “I suppose I fit the traditional mold of the brainy, freaky, oddball kid who reads too much” (5). Recognizing his lack of hegemonic masculinity, Tom seeks guidance from his dead father’s copy of the canonical novel of adolescence, The Catcher in the Rye, and thus Portman’s novel foregrounds alternative models of masculinity at the same time that it engages the ways in which young people acquire their understandings of acceptable masculinity. Both Green and Portman complicate masculinity within a white, American, middle-class, heterosexual milieu, which suggests that our understandings of gender in general and masculinity in particular still have some way to go before children’s literature can be seen to truly reflect the fluid complexities of lived gender for most people.
Although the effects of mainstream feminism can be felt in anxieties about stereotypes of sex and gender in children’s literature, one need only cast the most cursory eye over lists of recent bestsellers and prize-winners to note a continuing, deep investment in gender as stable, essential, and “safe.” For all of the theoretical and cultural debates about the meanings of gender, the field of children’s literature continues to reflect and shape young people’s understandings of themselves as the occupants of sexed bodies and as the bearers of gendered identities that are seen as “most appropriate” when “least unstable.” Tracing competing meanings of gender from essentialist, biological, dyadic sex roles through to constructivist, social, fluid gendered subjectivities (in critical or creative fields) does not, by itself, alter the lived experiences of those young people who continue to be socialized and acculturated by texts written for them. As long as “gender” is understood to be a constituent aspect of identity or subjectivity, what and how gender “means” must continually be queried, challenged, redefined, and recast. Doing so offers hope for shifting from the OED definition of gender as a noun, toward its definition of gender as a verb, to “come into being,” without reference to being male or female, masculine or feminine, but instead, as human.