Gender Roles in Children and Young Adult

Literature
MARCH 23, 2017

A gender role is “the public image of being a particular gender that a person presents to others.” This

public image is largely a construct of society, and has the ability to change based on the ideals and opinions of

society. The literature that students,

especially those in high school and middle

school, study for school and read for

pleasure is full of gender roles, and the way

that they are displayed in books impacts the

way that these students view gender roles

for men and women. The presence of gender

roles in literature impacts teenagers in both

positive and negative ways.

One positive effect that the study of

gender roles in literature has on students is

that it gives them the ability to identify the

abuse of these roles. Studying the ways that

gender roles are misused or stereotyped can
allow students to become aware of the issues that surround society’s views of men and women. When I was in

an AP Language class in high school, we studied the short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins

Gilman. This story takes place in the late 1800s-early 1900s, and follows the narrator, a woman who is

suffering from a mental illness (most commonly believed to be postpartum depression) and is under the care of

her husband, who is a physician. Her husband is a dominant force in her life, and tells her what to do. He says

she must stay inside, sleep, and not to come in contact with many other people. He assumes that because she is

a female, she is weak and cannot handle her illness as well as her normal responsibilities and activities. The

narrator is confined to her room under the direction of her husband and becomes more and more mad, until

the end, when she completely snaps and tears all of the yellow wallpaper off of the walls in her room. In this

story, we can see how the narrator’s husband was oppressive and dominant, and how that affected her life. It is

also a good example of how detrimental it can be to a woman to have a gender stereotype--such as women

being the “weaker sex”--to be forced upon them. By identifying the dangers of stereotyping gender roles, it

allows for students to have a greater awareness for the problems that it may cause.

On the other hand, if students do not identify when stereotypes are being abused in books, then it could

lead them to have a skewed view of the roles of men and women. In the article “Children's moral orientation:

Does the gender of dilemma character make a difference?” by Carole R. Beal and Andrew Garrod, they discuss

the effects of children’s literature in creating “stereotyped expectations about male and female story

characters.” In an experiment the two conducted, they found that “many third graders remembered story

characters as male even when female pronouns were explicitly used to refer to them, unless illustrations were

included in which gender was clearly and stereotypically depicted.” The confining nature of gender roles and

stereotypes are a big issue in the world of children’s literature. In an article titled “Gender Stereotypes in

Children's Picture Books,” by May M. Narahara, talks about how gender development is critical in the life of a

young child, and that the confining nature of stereotypes can be detrimental to that development. The

presence of “gender stereotypes and sexism limit children's potential growth and development,” and the books

that are popular for young children today definitely display stereotypes. In the children’s section of any given

bookstore, there are pink books with little girls in dresses that are clearly “girl books,” while the “boy’s books”

show dirt and mud and cars--things that are stereotypically male. Most of the time, there are no crossovers in

“girl books” and “boy books” that allow for gender neutral topics and depictions. This can have negative effects

on the developing world view of children. If young girls and boys believe that they are confined to the roles that
the children’s books display, it could greatly limit their chances of reaching their full potential. If Elizabeth

Blackwell thought that she was only meant to wear pretty dresses and be a stereotypical female like some books

suggest, would we even have female doctors today? Gender role can limit the dreams that children can have

and that is the danger in such stereotypical gender norms in the books that teens read.

However, a positive effect that may occur by having archetypal male and female characters in books is

that students can learn from good role models. Many children do not have strong male and female role models

in their personal lives, and reading about positive men and women might help them to see what they good men

and women should be like. This may even influence their character to become better people in their own lives,

especially concerning men. For boys, examples for good and strong men can be seen in characters like the

Giver from Lois Lowry’s novel and Brom, from the popular fantasy novel Eragon by Christopher Paolini. The

Giver is a nurturing and gentle man, who teaches the main character about life and truth. Brom is a mentor

who instructs Eragon and is a father to him. Both of these male characters can represent good men who teach

and care about the main characters, which can haves a positive impact on young men. Some positive female

characters that can become role models for young women are Katniss, from The Hunger Games, and Molly

Weasley, from the Harry Potter series. Molly Weasley is a strong mother. She is nurturing and loving while

being a fiery protector of her family. Mrs. Weasley is an excellent example of a woman who is strong and also

feminine. Katniss Everdeen is a fighter who is fiercely loyal to those she loves. She makes hard choices and

consistently stands up for what it right. Girls can learn a lot from these two fictional women.

As we can see, the presence of gender roles in literature impacts teenagers in both positive and negative

ways. We as a society have come a long way in improving the traditional roles of men and women, and as long

as we focus on the positive aspects of gender roles, and make students aware of the possible dangers that they

might create, we can continue to make vast improvements in the area of gender roles and stereotypes. As

scholars of literature, as educators, and as members of this diverse and wonderful human family, it is our

responsibility to use books and reading to inspire more positive, equal and true world views in the students and

other young people we come in contact with.

MADOLYN DUNCAN, IDAHO

The writer is the head of the English Department at Brigham Young University-Idaho
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