A Preponderance of Pink: A Conversation with Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (a research library of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education), which has been documenting publishing statistics concerning children’s books by and about people of color since 1985. The newly expanded CCBC database allows for a deeper examination of picture books through a variety of lenses. Our conversation with K. T. about gender presentation in picture books is the second in a series of columns based on the CCBC’s data. (See the July/August 2017 Horn Book or visit hbook.com/ccbc-2017 for an introductory discussion centered on those diversity statistics.)

Martha V. Parravano: So it looks like the CCBC now tracks a lot more than diversity statistics.

Kathleen T. Horning: Yes, we started keeping much more detailed information for picture books in 2016. In addition to the usual statistics on books by and about people of color, we are now also keeping track of other aspects of the principal characters of picture books: gender, species (thanks to Roger Sutton for inspiring this with a blog post a few years ago: hbook.com/very-good-question), disability, sexual identity, and 
religion, and we’re also noting the same features with secondary characters. For example, if the protagonist is a white girl and she goes to school or to a playground, 
is there a diverse cast of characters? Is there someone in a wheelchair? Are there two moms with their child? In addition, we’re taking note of genre — e.g., contemporary, historical, animal fantasy, etc.

MVP: A wealth of information to mine for future conversations…but let’s focus on the gender stats here. With this data we can see that 2017 picture books feature significantly more male characters than female — particularly if a book’s characters are animals.

KTH: True, and that really surprised me. There’s a fairly equal gender division between male and female human characters. But when we look at animal characters (which amount to about forty-six percent of the total), just fourteen percent of those protagonists are female. Forty-one percent of the picture books have male protagonists, thirty percent feature both male and female protagonists, and fifteen percent have protagonists whose gender is unknown or unspecified. That divide grows even wider when we look at characters that are neither human nor animal — trucks, crayons, milk cartons, etc. Just twelve percent of them are female. It turns out that Virginia Lee Burton’s inanimate characters (in books such as Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and Katy and the Big Snow) were an aberration.

Elissa Gershowitz: And so often those “gender unspecified” characters are still referred to as “he” on flap copy or in book reviews or during read-alouds. Why do you think that male default is so pervasive?

KTH: I’m not sure. There is a common belief in library circles that girls will read about both male and female characters but boys will only read about male characters. So the logic, I suppose, is that a male character will attract a wider audience. In the real world, I have not found this to be true. I have found boys to be just as interested in female characters as male ones if the story grabs them. It is more about the story than the gender of the characters. But adults often make assumptions about children’s interests and make those choices for them. I think we often sell boys short in this regard.

EG: How does character behavior figure into appearance, do you think? I’m thinking of a hypothetical character engaged in activities deemed typically masculine (playing with trucks, tossing a football) but dressed in pink.

KTH: Behavior is a factor. If a character is playing with a truck or a ball, we take that as a signal in our culture that the character is male, even if there are no other gender markers. They could just as easily be female. I’d encourage adults to play around with pronouns when reading aloud. Why not refer to a mouse construction worker as “she”?

EG: And on the flip side, I’m thinking of a boy engaged in typical “girly” activities (playing dress-up or with dolls or having a tea party). We don’t see lots of books with those sorts of images unless the book is specifically about being a gender-nonconforming child. Isn’t the problem with society’s rigid gender roles?

KTH: Yes. Misogyny runs deep in our culture, so one of the “worst” things for a boy is to be feminized. There was a picture book out just last year (No More Bows by Samantha Cotterill) about a male dog that was forced to wear a bow on his head. It was portrayed as so humiliating that he became the subject of ridicule among his fellow dogs and eventually ran away from home. And despite the fact that we tell girls they can be anything they want to be, society still has very rigid gender roles for them, too.

MVP: As we know from tracking Caldecott information here, the majority of illustrators of Caldecott-recognized picture books are men. Do you keep statistics on the sex of illustrators and how that might figure in?

KTH: We haven’t kept those stats so far, but are adding it for 2018 because we do get this question a lot. For a recent presentation, however, I took a quick look at who was illustrating the books with gender markers, and it looks to be about even. Just as many women illustrators use them as men.

MVP: Let’s talk about pink.

KTH: Pink is the most persistent gender marker for girls in our culture (try buying a blue or green birthday card for a girl), and picture books are no exception. You can see that just from looking at the picture book spines on a library shelf. What’s interesting is that girls can be portrayed as strong characters in picture books as long as they are wearing pink. Or are pink themselves, such as in Samanthasaurus Rex, a 2016 picture book (written by B. B. Mandell, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman) about an otherwise nontraditional dinosaur character. It’s a picture book I happen to like quite a bit from a feminist perspective, but even Samanthasaurus had to be portrayed as hot pink. The message little girls can take from their picture books is that they can do anything they want to, as long as they wear pink.

The greeting card aisle: pink cards on the right are "for girls," blue cards on the left are "for boys." Photo: Kathleen T. Horning.

EG: What types of problems do these visual shortcuts create?

KTH: I’m speaking as a girl who was forced to wear pink as a child. I was a tomboy who hated frills, and I really, really hated pink. It made me feel weak, angry, and less-than. But pink was “my color” and I was forced to wear it until I was old enough to buy my own clothes and claim green, then blue, then red. I even now occasionally wear pink, but it’s a choice. It is no longer foisted on me. I think girls’ choices are constricted from the get-go, the moment adults start dressing them in pink clothing as newborns. We are making them conform to a social norm. Pink also serves as a signal to adults as to how they should interact with the child, based on gender.

MVP: You note the use of bows in picture book illustrations to mark gender: hair bows to signify a female character, bow ties to signify a male. Why do you think these particular markers have been chosen to indicate gender in picture books?

KTH: The bow is an easy visual 
shortcut — on the head for a girl, under the chin for a boy. And little girls — even babies with no hair! — wear bows in reality, although not too many little boys wear bow ties these days. But in picture books, it’s not just humans: female ducks, penguins, chickens, and even pieces of fruit wear bows to signify gender. What surprises me about so many picture books is how often the clothing worn by females, particularly women, is from a completely different era from the clothing worn by the male characters. The women wear long frilly dresses that a grandmother in a Warner Bros. cartoon might have worn in the 1940s; carry old-timey handbags; or wear June Cleaver pearls and aprons, even outside the kitchen, while the men are shown in contemporary fashion, such as jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers. To my mind, this says something about what’s in the head of the illustrator when he or she imagines a female character. These stereotypes seem to run deep in our psyches. They likely have been absorbed early from popular culture, certainly not from reality, and then they are continually perpetuated in picture books.

MVP: The data shows that eyelashes are another typical gender marker. Obviously many adult women in our Western culture use makeup to augment their lashes — but how odd, in fact, to use long eyelashes this way in picture books since female children don’t do that…

KTH: It’s another visual shortcut that’s used, especially on animals, to indicate “female.” I think it probably originated in cartoons. Think Betty Boop. The problem with these shortcuts is they can lead to stereotypes. Big eyelashes on a woman have come to signify “bimbo.” You can take one look at Betty Boop and think you know everything there is to know about her. She’s pretty but not very bright. She’s nothing more than her external appearance. Unfortunately, that’s a view many men seem to have of women today, even women in high positions.

MVP: It seems like we may be regressing. Look at James Marshall’s George and Martha — Martha adorned herself with a red flower (not pink!). Snowplow Katy was bright red. Sal in Blueberries for Sal had short tousled hair and 
wore overalls ­— not a bow in sight.

KTH: And Katy was Katy, not Al or Jerome. But I don’t know if picture books have really changed that much, or if we just begin to see patterns once we start looking for them. Once you see them, they’re hard to unsee. I admit that I didn’t really notice them much at all prior to about midway through 2016. There really needs to be a longitudinal study to answer that question. Were Martha, Katy, and Sal the norm in ages past? Or did they speak to us then and continue to speak to us now because they broke the walls of the little boxes girls are typically put into?

MVP: Are we seeing many contemporary counters to such pervasive reinforcement of stereotypical images?

KTH: Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Any time there is a picture book with a strong female character and/or a feminist message, it stands out and feels purposeful, while the books with wispy girls dressed in pink with bows in their hair don’t seem to strike many people — at least not people who are creating children’s books — as outdated. I hope our girls will one day see more possibilities for themselves in picture books.

From the March/April 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Elissa Gershowitz and Martha V. Parravano

Elissa Gershowitz is editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc. Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Data driven

In 2017, do we have an actual count for the raw number of books published for ages 4-18 by women authors versus men authors? How about illustrators -- books illustrated by men versus illustrated by women? Has CCBC done this count? Seems like it would be an two hour's work, but I can't find that reporting anywhere. If not for 2017 because the data isn't all in, how about 2016? If we're counting protagonists, we should be able to count authorship and illustratorship.

Posted : Mar 09, 2018 09:15


I like blue so bought blue striped receiving blankets for my first child who turned out to be a girl. I was waiting for my ride home when someone wntednto see my baby "boy".

Posted : Mar 07, 2018 05:48


Wonderful article.

Posted : Mar 07, 2018 04:22



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