Gender Bias in Literature
Men Fix ThingsGirls Have Dolls
-Shirley B. Ernst
I have thought about many different ways to organize this paper and have come to the conclusion that the best way to approach the topic is on a book-by-book basis. My perceptions of the gender biases in these books vary greatly and I did not want to begin altering my views on each so that they would fit into certain contrived connections. What interests me most in these stories is how the authors utilize certain characters within their given environment. Their instincts and reactions are a wonderful window into how the authors perceive these people would interact with their surroundings and often are either rewarded or punished by the author through consequences in the plot for their responses. Through this means we can see how the authors expect their characters to behave in relation to their post in the world. We must be very careful as readers to judge these biases based only on evidence within the text and not invent them from our own psyche due to the individual world we know.
In Louis Sachars award winning book Holes, we see gender biases in many characters. The first and most obvious bias in this book can be found in the way Sachars characters address Mr. Pendanski, one of the staff members at Camp Green Lake. Many of the boys refer to him sarcastically as mom, and it is not because of his loving nature. Mr. Pendanski is neurotic about things the boys consider trivial and he has a tendency to nag them. Because Mr. Pendanski is portrayed as the antithesis of Mr. Sir, who simply drips testosterone, others view him as a female for his weakness. The fact that Sachar allows his characters to equate weakness with femininity, or more accurately motherhood, shows a certain bias towards the supposed strength that innately accompanies masculinity. This attitude is only furthered by the fact that the rest of the book as almost totally devoid of female characters other than the witch-like caricature presented to us in the form of the warden. She comes complete with a vicious disposition and poisonous fingernails.
The most interesting part of this bias is that the boys chose to name Mr. Pendanski mom in light of their own personal family histories. I think it can safely be assumed that not many of these boys had a functional relationship with their parents or they probably would not be in Camp Green Lake to begin with. These boys chose to place Mr. Pendanski, a whiny and unrespected man in the grand scheme of things at camp, in the role of mother. They did not turn to the only woman present at the camp, nor the man who disciplines them each day, to fill their maternal needs. Instead they turn to the weakest figure in their lives and mock him by referring to him as a woman. This demonstrates to us that Sachar considers femininity a weakness in this world and has no issues showing us. As Ernst wrote, How easy is it to relegate girls to second class citizens when they are seen as second-class citizens, or not at all (Ernst 67).
This point is only furthered by the fact that the only woman present is such a fairy tale character. She is portrayed to us as all but a sorceress and it can be assumed she has taken on this persona in order to survive in a predominately male post in a totally male dominated environment. Even in our class it was evident that many readers were taken aback by the fact that Sachar chose to make his warden a female. And so it again can be seen that Sachar has imparted onto us a bias that a real woman could not function in this world so he had to invent a completely fictional and grandiose one. With all the other characters in the book appearing so human, it seems obvious he turned the warden into a beast because he felt he had to.
In What Jamie Saw, by Carolyn Coman, gender bias shows itself in a new way. In this book masculinity and evil seem to go hand in hand. There is the character of Van, who is pretty much the same abusive man from every after school special and info-mercial we see during primetime, doing terrible things to a defenseless family. Then there is Jamie, who by my estimation is one of the meekest male characters I have encountered in a childrens book. Finally we have Earl, who is such a hollow character that I truly believe he is merely Comans out for this book and nothing more. He is the not threatening to Jamie and his family because he is not anything or anyone; he is simply the idea of a man. He is not developed as a character nor does he give any insight into the situation he encounters and therefore can be disregarded as a tertiary character either passive or emotionally absent from the world around him. Van and Jamie however, serve a much more prominent and functional purpose.
Van strikes me much the same way the Warden does in Holes. Although he is presented in a slightly less fantastic light, one cannot help but see him as the embodiment of evil and destruction within Comans world. This not only demonstrates a stereotype of men as violent, but it also is a necessity to the book because it does not ever actually detail the violence occurring in the book other than the opening. By making Van the animal that he is, we as readers have an easier time believing he is capable of the horrors inherent within this book. He takes on almost a Neanderthal-ic feel as the book progresses and the lives of everyone involved become more complicated. I do not mean to suggest that power and masculinity always must go together, but Van most certainly is shown to us as the stereotypical dominant male from the start. Using his brawn to solve problems rather than his brain, Van is our worst nightmare of what a man is capable of becoming: a thoughtless, guiltless tornado of destruction. Coman uses these biases present in our minds to amplify her character and thereby increase the power of her story.
The gender bias in Virginia Hamiltons Cousins is very obvious and straightforward in the form of Patty Ann, who is described many times the way we would talk about a porcelain doll. Hamilton places on her character the two most common stereotypes women encounter: the image of perfection and an innate insecurity with themselves. She does this very blatantly, as is evident in her writing. This image of perfection can be seen in Cammys description of Patty Ann, Patty Ann had her special expression again, the kind that made folks say she was the best. That made people not notice the rest of her was just skin and bones. Her face was just perfect (Hamilton 93). This image of fragile perfection is what has kept women (especially those of beauty) from being perceived as equal or intelligent. I was surprised to see this image so obviously presented until I realized it was necessary for the character to function properly within the story. However it is still obvious that one of the oldest female stereotypes exists in full force within the character on Patty Ann. In addition to this doll-like quality, Hamilton shows us the insecure underbelly of her character. Patty Ann shows throughout the book how much she fears what others think of her through her attitude. She has a tendency to be rather mean at times because of her insecurities and it serves to distance her from many people in her life. Hamilton uses Patty Ann to demonstrate the perceptions people may have of girls and then allows Cammy to digest Patty Anns short life in order to debunk them. The image of Patty Ann while she is alive and Cammys view of her after she is gone differ greatly, which serves to remove the validity from the very stereotypes Hamilton is presenting.
Edward Bloors Tangerine presents us with a gender bias we encounter more commonly in TV sitcoms than in literature: that of the athletic, mean spirited, adolescent male. Eriks tirades and terrors are well documented in the book, and though I will not rehash them I will say that they are tragic. Bloors character is menacing and torturous towards his little brother for his own amusement and spite. Eriks ability to cover his tracks and allow everyone to believe he is a normal young man turns him into a conniving villain in this piece. Erik fits the jock/bully role perfectly and Bloor amplifies this by using Pauls voice in his writing. Paul deems Eriks goals as The Erik Fisher Football Dream and even comments on his love life. I guess Paige and Tina want to date football players, so these two will do. Erik and Arthur want to date cheerleaders, so these two will do (Bloor 39). Erik now is shown to us as a materialistic social climber with no regard for anyone but himself. The egotistical Adonis we now see serves as the villain to the sensitive and humble Paul. Bloor does this because to the modern reader the dominant male character is very easy to hate, what with his well-documented oppression of every other major group he encounters.
Bloor further stereotypes the Fisher family, but for a very different reason than the other authors I have discussed. He is attempting to satirize our stereotypes of the nuclear family through the over-the-top nature of this family. This is an approach that I have not encountered and found most enjoyable. Bloor has a tendency to write many of the family interactions in a rather tongue-in-cheek tone, which adds humor to the story and allows us as readers to laugh at the ridiculousness of our own preconceived notions about what a family should be. By showing us the augmented version of our stereotypes Bloor hopes to show us how silly they truly are.
Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech is a book that I believe presents a very well rounded and complete character in Sal. She is a warm and intelligent girl and Creech does not encumber her character with the pitfalls of any evident stereotypes as far as I can see. She interacts with her environment in a logical and intelligent way, and at times, such as when her mother lost her baby, demonstrates amazing strength. It appears that Sals strength is derived from her family, which is a very endearing feature. This is probably why Creech employed this characteristic, in order to make Sal someone we would want to know and care for. It is important in this book for Sal to be someone the reader can relate to because she is not only a central character but also a storyteller. We must trust and care for her in order to feel the emotions Creech is trying to evoke.
Sals charming, simple humor and perseverance through tough times make her one of the only characters we have encountered whom I feel is truly a complete and noble person. Creech does an excellent job of getting into her psyche and displaying it to us throughout the story without becoming overly dramatic or sappy. Creech uses Sal to show us the human spirit that can exist within a good and intelligent person, regardless of their sex or social category.
All of these books deal with gender roles, either unwittingly or in order to display them as falsehoods. They present to us a reflection, however warped it may be, of the world we live in and the perceptions inherent within it. In order for us to recognize and deal with these ideas, we must continue to discuss them through real-life situations or literature we encounter. Only by dissecting obvious examples of these biases will we ever be able to abandon them. Censoring books such as these merely avoids the problem and allows future generations to go on clinging to the same stilted social values we fault now. Each author presents to us an image of the world and then displays the principles they hold dear by controlling their characters within it. It is by analyzing these images and principles that we will be fully able to understand the views present around us and thereby form a more educated one of our own. Ernst wrote, changes in childrens books often come long after they have been seen in reality (76). We as teachers have a responsibility to dialogue these notions with our students so that they will have the insight to write about it in the future.
Bloor, Edward. Tangerine. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1997.
Coman, Carolyn. What Jamie Saw. New York: Puffin Books, 1995.
Creech, Sharon. Walk Two Moons. New York: Harper Trophy, 1994.
Ernst, Shirley B. Gender Issues in Books for Children and Young Adults. Battling Dragons. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995.
Sachar, Louis. Holes. New York: Frances Foster Books, 1998.