Why feminist children’s books and media matter
Most of the African children’s books I read growing up in Ghana described girls helping their mothers in the kitchen while their brothers went to school and explored the difficulties and opportunities of the world. Women in these stories were depicted as submissive homemakers, men as educated and ambitious, the sole providers of the household. One popular series of folktales in particular — The Makola Romance, a series of low budget-books — depicted Ama, whose sexual liberation and attempts to achieve her goals made her “bad.” In one book, Ama is even described as being bad for “letting” her uncle touch her. In others, she is described as a “witch.”
Stories like these unfortunately reflected the reality of our communities. In my school, girls were told that, as the weaker gender, we could not excel more than our male counterparts. Our brains, we were told, cannot process complex information, like that related to STEM subjects. Girls were encouraged to take classes like home economics and general arts and discouraged from taking business and general Science courses. Teachers sometimes went so far as to make discouraging comments like “Ladies are allowed to fail because they will have rich, successful men take care of them.”
The problematic nature of this socialization first dawned on me when I began to plan my life goals after graduating high school. When I shared my plans with my family, they rejected the possibility of most of my ideas just because of my gender. I would often complain to my sister that I had never understood why I could not explore a number of options just because I’m a girl. After a few rants, my sister told me: “You are a feminist.”
At the time I had no idea what it meant to be feminist, so I googled it. I immediately found the famous TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The issues she highlighted, many relevant to her Nigerian upbringing, were relatable to my experiences in Ghana. I began to follow more feminist literature, including Mona Elthahawy's book Headscarves and Hymens, which also resonated with me as a Muslim girl.
I shared my newfound knowledge with a friend, who dismissed it by remarking that bias against women is just a “cultural thing.” I interpreted her acceptance of this cultural norm as the result of many years of socialization and education that had normalized these biases. In fact, the environments in which we are raised do shape the way we think about the world. This process starts early: At 5 years old, many children begin to pick up habits and information, usually through children’s media and games, that can form problematic ideologies, according to a study by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child. Basically, a person’s view of a particular gender or race as inferior to another is most likely a result of their childhood associations and education. If kids are socialized to view sexism, homophobia, violence, and other discriminatory practices as normal at a young age, they will repeat them by perpetuating things like wage inequality, sexual abuse, gender-based violence, and body shaming.
Take, for example, the phrase “boys will be boys.” Every time a parent uses this as an excuse for their son’s bad behavior, they reinforce the problematic nature of this statement. Many atrocities committed by men can be linked to the acceptance of the idea that boys are naturally impulsive, aggressive, and abusive, especially when they are young. This defense was most recently used in the case of Brett Kavanaugh. New York Times journalist Emily Bazelon said that the adolescent brain is still developing, and teenagers on average aren’t good at impulse control. Professor Jonathan Zimmerman backed her up, writing in USA Today that “Of course [Kavanaugh] was different then; he was a third of the age he is now. And teens do stupid, dangerous, and destructive things.”
In my culture, we have a version of this phrase. Women are told to practice “sabr” — which means “patience” in Arabic — when they are physically and emotionally abused by their partners. This patience is expected from women because the idea is that men are administering this abuse, and that “boys will be boys” or “he is a man.”
It seems clear, therefore, that we need to change the message we’re sending kids at a young age. it is necessary to provide children with books and media that provide positive representations of gender equality, and do not associate particular abilities or responsibilities with any gender. Yet there have been and still are few globally mainstream feminist children’s book writers who have accomplished this. I surveyed a small group of people at my university about the books they read while growing up, and four out of five said they read mostly Western books, like those by Dr. Seuss and Mills and Boon, and watched cartoons by DreamWorks and Disney — choices were mostly influenced by the lack of quality choices in our market.
Luckily, this is starting to change. Chidera Eggerue, author of the book What A Time To Be Alone, will soon publish a children’s book called Scribble Yourself Feminist, which is a journal designed to inspire, empower, and entertain girls through motivational quotes, coloring pages, and identifying feminist heroes. Another author trying to change the African narrative for young girls is Peace Kwizera; She wrote Oh Rwandan Child to empower and equip the upcoming generation of Rwandan youth to dismantle the oppressive, patriarchal systems in which they are generally raised.
Teaching young feminists how to strengthen their activism and fight oppressive systems must also include deconstructing the problematic mindsets with which we were raised as children. We need to advocate for educational reforms in our communities, like restructuring the content we teach our children in schools so that they’re more unbiased and promote equality. We need to enforce policies that hold teachers and schools accountable for making and accepting misogynistic and otherwise problematic remarks to their students. The way our children are educated, including the media they consume, contributes to maintaining oppressive systems. As feminists, we need to use education to instead decolonize the mindset of the upcoming generation.
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