Here are three beloved literary characters from children’s books. Give yourself a cookie if you can figure out the two things they have in common.
“On Tuesday, he ate through two pears. But he was still hungry!” – The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.
“Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path…” – The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.
“‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best,’ and then he had to stop and think.” – Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne.
Well, for one, they are all animals. And two, they are all male!
It’s really not a coincidence that many of our cherished literary animals are male. Let’s see now, there’s The Jungle Book motley crew of Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther, and Shere Khan the tiger; then there’s Clifford the big red dog, gentle Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger, Pete the Cat, the Very Hungry Caterpillar — it’s a really, really long list, when you think about it.
This was one of the topics of conversation a couple of weeks ago on Genderlog India, a Twitter-based crowdsourced hub that invites guest curators to talk about gender. As tweets flew across the virtual universe, we talked about the accepted fact that while girls will read books with either girl or boy protagonists, boys will mostly choose those with boy heroes. That aside, gender biases creep up in innocuous ways in storytelling, often manifesting in the form of a predominant male voice in children’s literature.
You’d think that adding anthropomorphised animals in a storyline would contribute to defying gender stereotypes, but it turns out, they often reinforce them. These social constructs run deep, and it’s not surprising then that they crop up in storybooks as well.
In an analysis of the Caldecott award-winning books, a 2011 study titled Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books, found: “Books with male animals were more than two-and-a-half times more common across the century than those with female animals.” In fact, from the North American books, only Have You Seen My Duckling? had a distinct female lead. “Together with research on reader interpretations, our findings regarding imbalanced representations among animal characters suggest that these characters could be particularly powerful, and potentially overlooked, conduits for gendered messages. The persistent pattern of disparity among animal characters may reveal a subtle kind of symbolic annihilation of women disguised through animal imagery,” wrote the authors.
Of course, there are distinct female voices in the literary animal kingdom. The most evocative among them being the eponymous spider from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. During the Genderlog India Twitter chat, writer Nilanjana Roy also recommended Olga Perovskaya’s Kids and Cubs, in which a female wolf cub lives alongside other baby animals including a fox-cub, a baby donkey, and humans. Yasmeen Ismail’s I’m A Girl has a little girl-donkey who keeps getting mistaken for a boy because she is messy, loves to win, and is fast as the wind. The picture book is a celebration of childhood and being who you want to be.
The popularity of the Olivia book series by Ian Falconer shows that many of the gender biases don’t hold for younger children. An anthropomorphic piglet, Olivia is a feisty bundle of energy; she is constantly up to something or the other. In a 1996 paper titled Children’s assignment of gender to animal characters in pictures, the researchers found that the younger children — aged four to five years — “assigned their own gender to the characters”, but the older ones — seven to eight and 10 to 11 — were impacted by gender stereotypes, with boys in the oldest age groups most influenced by them.
Closer home, there’s Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings, which has been shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Prabha Mallya’s illustrations conjure up the majestic Beraal, “the most fierce of the queens” among cats in Nizamuddin. Then there’s Mahasweta Devi’s Our Incredible Cow and Our Non-Veg Cow and Other Stories, featuring Nyadosh the cow with an insatiable appetite, who will not turn up her nose at any food, be it books or clothes or inanimate objects. Padmaparna Ghosh’s Up World, Down World features Gopa the dormouse who takes young readers on a tour of canopy forests.
There may be more feminine voices in the animal kingdom, but they are still very much in the minority. And this not for a dearth of inspiration. While we hear real-life stories of Tilikum the SeaWorld Orca, and Suraj the one-eared elephant who was rescued by Wildlife SOS, we are equally fascinated by Elsa the lion cub raised by Joy and George Adamson in Kenya or Tara the tigress that Billy Arjan Singh attempted to reintroduce into the wild, or even Tardar Sauce, who’s better known virtually as Grumpy Cat.
More recently, The Washington Post reported that Wikipedia had placed the Garfield page on lockdown, after an argument broke out over the character’s gender. Garfield’s creator Jim Davis later stepped in to clarify that Garfield is male, but added, “I’ve always said that I wanted to work with animals because they’re not perceived as being any particular gender, race, age or ethnicity.”
The bottom line is that literary animals are memorable. Even as adults, we remember many of them with fondness. It’s imperative then to bridge the gap for more gender-neutral and female representations in the animal kingdom in books.