The popularity of gender reveal parties has spread like wildfire in many countries, and it’s customary for parents to celebrate girls with pink and boys with blue. Images that popular culture throws at us cements this idea of gender binarism; girls get ‘girly’ playrooms, painted pink, with many dolls, sequins, and princess and unicorn-themed toys. Boys get a more masculine décor with blue walls, action figures, toy weapons, and cars. Babies are born into expected and definitive personality types before they can even perceive colours, let alone their associated genders.
Recent discourse has, however, been challenging the idea of binary and rigid genders. While there is more mainstream acceptance of the non-binary population, there is also a deeper exploration of whether this binary truly exists. The accepted perception of masculinity as a form of strength and femininity as a form of passivity, fragility, and even grace, deepens the gender divide and distances us from the goal of equality. While feminism is largely understood to be a women-centric movement that strives for equality between the two genders, there is an increasing understanding of the damage that gender roles do to men too.
In the midst of this increasingly nuanced discourse, people continue to copulate and populate. Given how important upbringing is to the overall cognitive development and psyche of a person, parents have an uphill task in raising children without instilling harmful gender stereotypes. This is especially so given how consumerism has exploited and deepened the gender binary by producing books, toys, stationery, and clothing in an unnecessarily hyper-gendered fashion. One can, however, always rely on literature to rescue the psyche; since literature can mould the brain from an early age, parents can now look to bedtime stories to raise children with an understanding of equality.
The Little House on the Prairie series
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic series is comforting because it is nostalgic and speaks of a simpler time. But with nostalgia comes the extreme sexism of the late 1800s. However, the books in the series gently and unobtrusively introduce the concepts of female strength and initiative. The books are semi-autobiographical and relate to the author's childhood in the American Midwest. While the books are not outright about issues such as patriarchy or equality, they speak eloquently on universal aspects of rebelliousness, individuality, and girlhood, and are set in a semi-magical rural prairie. They also provide a teachable opportunity about racism given their simplistic portrayal of the native Americans.
This relatively unknown gem by Mitra Phukan discusses co-existence with wild animals from a female perspective. The protagonist, Mamani, is a young Assamese girl whose family picks tea leaves and cultivates sugarcane. Elephants from the surrounding forests frequently cause destruction to the sugarcane fields. While everybody else is inclined to opt for a violent solution, Mamani has other ideas.
An incredibly enjoyable tale for children and parents alike, this story by Roald Dahl has a wide range of female characters in its spotlight. The story centres around Matilda, a young precocious girl who discovers that she has super powers. Other notable characters include kind and motherly Miss Honey, and the hammer-throwing and ill-tempered antagonist, Miss Trunchbull. Matilda is intelligent, compassionate, and has strong morals; the book, through Matilda’s curious mind, focuses on the importance of reading and encourages girls to be bold and fearless. It indirectly addresses misogyny through a determined, adventurous, and rebellious young protagonist who shows that girls have no limits to their potential.
Princesses Wear Pants
A fun take on princess culture, this book by Savannah Guthrie celebrates young women while taking a firm stance against harmful stereotypes. It celebrates fierce individuality through its protagonist, Princess Penelope Pineapple, who wears pants to be comfortable while performing a wide array of activities such as yoga, gardening, hosting a science fair, and piloting a plane, showing that if desired, looking fabulous and being intelligent are not mutually exclusive.
I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark
The Notorious RBG requires little to no introduction. A brilliant, hard-working, and blazing feminist icon, she has been celebrated widely, and her marriage to Martin Ginsburg is a feminist utopia for its mutually supportive and respectful companionship. This picture book by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddely makes RBG’s incredible accomplishments more accessible to young children, boys and girls alike.
Harriet the Spy
Louise Fitzhugh’s classic and revolutionary children’s book was written in the 1960s. The protagonist is 11-year-old Harriet who is fiercely career-minded and shrugs off gender stereotypes. Harriet dresses like a boy for the freedom it affords (keep in mind the culture of ‘60s) and is an 'outsider' because she does not fit in. However, she has unflagging determination and is fiercely individualistic. The book also openly challenges accepted gender roles for men through a young boy who cooks. The story is incredibly realistic and a breath of fresh air in a genre clogged by literal fairy tales.
It is troubling that character traits and preferences are universally considered as being gendered. There is a harmful stigma surrounding masculinity in women and femininity in men, which results in alienation of persons that don’t fit in this imposing matrix of normalcy. In India, the prevalence of rape culture makes it abundantly evident that something needs to change. This change needs to begin at home. And what better way to do that than through stories?
(Edited by Varsha Roysam)