Every night, my daughter picks out bedtime stories from the picture books on her shelf. And every night, my husband gamely asks me the same question before starting to read: “The gorilla [or dog, or pigeon, or llama, or snowplow, or crayon, or bear, or monster, or dinosaur, or fly, or cat, or tank engine] is a girl, right?” “Right,” I say. In our house, she is.
Our daughter doesn’t know how to read yet, so she can’t know that my husband and I are deviating from the text when we gender-swap Pete the Cat or Elliot the elephant or Pigeon the pigeon, and there’s nothing in the books’ illustrations or plots to suggest that these characters need to be male. In fact, it took me a while to notice the disparity myself. But once I started paying attention, I realized I’d have to do on-the-fly editing if I didn’t want my daughter to think that the non-human world is predominantly the province of males.
A 2011 Florida State University study found that just 7.5 percent of nearly 6,000 picture books published between 1900 and 2000 depict female animal protagonists; male animals were the central characters in more than 23 percent each year. (For books in which characters were not assigned a gender, researchers noted, parents reading to their children tended to assign one: male.) No more than 33 percent of children’s books in any given year featured an adult woman or female animal, but adult men and male animals appeared in 100 percent of the books.