“Educational” Activity Books Teach Gender Stereotypes
Today’s guest blogger is Emily Brooks. She is a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes to change perceptions of gender, sexuality, and disability. She is currently writing a book on kids and gender-nonconformity and working with children and teenagers with special needs. I appreciate Emily’s guest blog in particular because I always wanted to write a blog about these books she discusses but didn’t have the energy. After all, there is just so much to say. Thankfully, Emily did it so I don’t have to. To read more of her work, check out www.emilybrooks.com.
The Big Book of Just for Boys and The Big Book of Just for Girls (2012) are activity books that each boast over 260 pages of demoralizing gender-based stereotypes. Beginning with the pink and blue covers that promise parents “educational” fun, the books are most likely to teach kids narrow expectations of who they can become.
Fashionistas and Slobs
Whether through fashion, clothing, makeup, hair, or shopping, nearly one-quarter of Just for Girls centers on appearance. Knowing that the books are marketed toward girls ages six to nine, this is all-the-more disturbing. The book features “Glamour Tips”. These activities promote “buying into” being a girl, which is easily accomplished through shopping for the right clothing and accessories and applying the right look through makeup. Just for Girls authors teach girls to “Kiss dry, flaky lips goodbye! Say hello to a magnificent-looking mouth with a honey lip exfoliator. Pucker up!” (46) Our six-year-old readers learn how to avoid those pimples that plague them, question their deepest feelings on a hair dye job gone awry, plan their own glamour parties, and “create” fashion designs by literally coloring within the lines of pre-drawn dresses and outfits.
Much as in real life, boys’ clothing options are limited in Just for Boys. There’s a how-to guide for wearing neckties, a plain t-shirt design, and a crossword about clothing types that only lists masculine-associated or neutral clothing styles. Their fashion design activity gives boys the parameters within which to color, telling them to put “a favorite band or a retro graphic” on their t-shirt and thus leaving out those little boys who’d prefer butterflies, glitter, or a tighter-cut t-shirt (205). “You might not be bombarded with invitations for fancy parties right now, but learning how to tie a tie is essential for any dude’s future. Practice!” suggests the book, implicitly not condoning the idea that a “dude” might choose a skirt for a party instead (233).
Health Freaks and Fatsos
We live in a time of extremes—obesity epidemics and eating disorders, both appearing in ever-younger children. Intriguingly, authors subtly incorporate factors that contribute to disordered eating into both books.
Just for Girls has dozens of snack ideas, something Just for Boys left out. (I guess the Just for Boys writers forgot to talk to my brother, who’s been a chef since he was little.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with recipes… but without fail, these snack how-tos emphasize thin body types as a goal for all girls. “Banana-Berry Kabobs” are for those female youngsters who are “looking for a new way to eat healthy and still have fun” (42) while “Popcorn Paradise” trailmix is “packed with healthy bits of nuts and dried fruit to keep busy girls like you satisfied between meals!” (236).
Just for Girls exhorts readers to stay “fit”. “The key to sticking to an exercise routine is finding the type of workout that you find the most fun,” advises the book in a quiz (110). Even worse is the questionnaire “How Healthy Are Your Habits?” If you indicate interest in watching TV, chomping on chips and ice cream, and playing video games—a.k.a., if you are a typical American kid—you are “unhealthy” and “you need to make some more ‘active’ changes… It’s time to get off the couch and start making smart food and exercise choices” (207). On the other hand, if you organize the neighborhood softball game and eat a balanced breakfast, you are “athletic”: “You know that a healthy body helps you feel great about yourself and have fun” (207).
I’ve seen identical words about healthy snacking and finding the best exercise in women’s magazines. Marketers call this “kids getting older younger”, and they play it up in children’s products like Just for Girls.
At the other end of the spectrum, Just for Boys is chock-full of unhealthy food. In stark contrast to the girls’ book, which included just one candy-based activity, boys got an ice cream sundae maze, a “Yummy Breakfast” crossword, an ice cream truck puzzle, a “Halloween Maze” where you “guide the kids to the candy” (29), a food fight-themed Mad Lib activity, and a drawing prompt about mixing “a whole bunch of different cereals together”: “What did your concoction taste like? What would you have named it? Here’s your chance to design your own brand of cereal” (34). Accompanied by an illustration of a personified chocolate doughnut, one writing activity instructs boys to “Create Your Fave Junk Food List”: “If junk food was healthy and you could eat as much of it as you wanted, what would you choose?” (237).
Just for Boys suggests eating is a hobby to be cultivated, whether or not the food-of-choice is edible. One drawing activity asks readers to “turn this ice-cream sundae into the grossest, smelliest, most heinous sundae in history! Add worms, ants, tar” (248). Other odd food suggestions include tarantulas, crickets, mud, and chalk.
Girls and boys take in body-based stereotypes that can contribute to disordered eating. Telling girls everything they do must keep them fit is just as dangerous as telling boys to choose between downing “25 hot dogs or 25 hamburgers” (250). Girls must exercise and their choices are dance, dance, more dance, a little soccer or basketball, and one hike. Many Just for Boys activities are about eating food, watching television, and playing video games. Boys get information and activities about golf, darts, football, hockey, baseball, basketball, and camping, but these activities focus more on learning the rules than actually playing the game.
Nerds and Slackers
Although both books are marketed as educational, Just for Boys promotes an attitude of hating school and being stupid, while Just for Girls leans toward perfectionism and being a good student. Girls get tips on how to “Be a Whiz at School”, which suggests that while “schoolwork can be a drag”, it’s “facts of your life” so girls should “avoid putting off work”, “get organized”, “keep a schedule”, and “make yourself comfortable” at a study area at home (139). If you are female, you can also enjoy a “Ready For School” crossword, write an “I Love School” Mad Libs-esque story, and “List your Dream School”, brainstorming new lunch menus, uniforms, celebrity teachers, school mascots, and classes. One creative writing prompt is about “what school subject you’re great at”(263). Tying school back to appearance, the “geek chic” fashion collection coloring page proves that even in 2013, the easiest way to make somebody geeky is give them glasses.
Just for Boys’ school-based activities are about enjoying time outside of the classroom, like vacations, field trips, and days off. There’s a “Ready for the Weekend” Mad Lib-type story, a “School Trip” picture puzzle with speeding school buses, a “Snow Day” activity, a word search about places “you like to hang when school’s out” (188), and a crossword called “No School Today!” Overall, Just for Boys does not position boys as smart or studious. The Sudoku puzzles attribute words like “genius” to boys while they do number-based activities, but boys who dare read might get “Lost in the Library” at night; the Mad Libs activity claims that for boys, “The library turns into a (adjective) and (adjective) place during the night” (246).
What do other shoppers think about gendered activity books? In a chain bookstore, I head into the activity book section. Holding up one of the store’s copies of Just for Girls, I ask a young woman around my age for her thoughts on whether I should buy this book for my imaginary niece.
She frowns and shows me another activity book. “Look at this diary. Pink, just for girls, stereotypical questions.” Discussing her nieces, for whom she was shopping, she explains, “Sometimes I try to get something good for them,” (in the context, gender nonstereotypical) “but they like the corny stuff better. I’m like, ‘Why don’t you read some Amelia Bedelia?’ And they’re like… ‘Thanks…but we like Hannah Montana.’”
When a lesbian couple and their elementary school-aged son begin looking at activity books, I ask the parents for their advice, and one stays to help me while the other browses. I hold up Just for Boys this time and ask if I should buy it for my imaginary nephew, who likes activity books. It says it’s “educational”, after all, but isn’t this gender stereotyping?
While this mom says that “there is something to the stereotype”, she is equally unhappy with the book’s content. As I flip through the pages, she searches them with her eyes. “Tying Knots…Draw a Minotaur…Baseball,” she reads aloud, turning to me. “You know, it’s offensive, because there are girls who like this stuff too.”
Finally, I speak to a sales associate, who is helping a child find a “drawing book” in the activity book section. “Not too many parents ask for them,” the sales associate says of Just for Boys and Just for Girls, “but they are very likely to buy the American Girl books”, which she sees as similar. She muses about how books are funneled into gender categories and stereotypes “from the very beginning.” “Look,” she says, pointing at another pink sparkly activity book. “Girls’ fashion design book. There are so many of them now!” She is frustrated with the idea that all girls like fashion.
I suggest that boys’ activity books are just as limiting. “Yeah, it’s bad to think that every boy is going to like… dinosaurs, and cars,” she agrees. Although she hasn’t had to sell too many of these books by parents’ requests, their sheer presence bothers her. “Whatever it is that will sell, they’ll make it,” the sales associate sighs.
I find the sales associate’s reference to capitalism interesting, because it is exactly how Just for Girls and Just for Boys’ publishing company excused their stereotype-filled books. After I complained that their books promoted stereotypes, and they responded to me in an email last year.
“We appreciate your concerns but we created & published due to large customer request,” they wrote without apology. A year after I first sighted these two books, they are still present on the shelves.
Paging through the books saddens me because constant stereotypes limit children’s potential. Why do so many activity books reinforce gender stereotypes? To make money for adults.
These books fit the easy idea of girls and boys, something marketers can cling to. They don’t embody the whole humans that children are, regardless of their genitalia.
Each gender-specific activity book gives different but equally harmful and limiting ideas about how to be a girl or a boy. Key “lessons” from within these “educationally sound” books included gender-segregated instructions on how to look, care for your body, and approach your education.
Yet some boys want to bake cupcakes and some girls want to drive racecars. Some girls want to learn animal tracks and some boys want to design the best dress for their body types. Many kids don’t want to be put in either extreme box. They want it all, and they deserve to have it all.
Please check out more content by Emily Brooks at her blog Changing Perspectives About Gender, Sexuality, and Disability Through Writing.