My ten-year-old daughter, like her friends, is all about female heroes. If there isn’t a woman kicking butt in the latest superhero movie, she’s not seeing it. If she’s asked to write about a pioneer of science, you can bet her report will be about a woman. And don’t count on her picking up any book that doesn’t feature a strong female character front and center.
Those books make a difference. A recent, nationally representative study shows that adolescent girls now believe they can be or do anything they want. They see themselves as the heroes we’ve given them.
BUT—and this is the part we need to pay attention to—they also feel that what they do isn’t as important to society as how they look.[i]
This breaks my heart. I’m betting it breaks yours too. It should break the heart of every writer and illustrator of books for young people. Because it means we’re failing our readers.
What can we do? Craft more kick-ass female heroes?
That’s been done. Really well. In lots of books. For decades. It isn’t enough.
Which is why I’m going to try to convince you to spend more time with your monsters.
Every book has one, in some form or another. And they are the key to understanding where your own implicit gender bias shows up.
No, I’m not saying you’re intentionally sexist. I don’t even know you.
I’m saying just the opposite. Implicit bias means “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, decision-making, and behavior, without our even realizing it.”[ii] As Project Implicit, an international research collaboration puts it: “An implicit stereotype is one that is relatively inaccessible to conscious awareness and/or control.”[iii]
Put the two together, and you see the problem. Implicit biases are “inaccessible to conscious awareness and/or control” and yet so much a part of our understanding and decision-making that we assume they’re normal. When we assume they’re normal, we unknowingly perpetuate them—and they become even more normalized.
And the adolescent girls who’ve been told out loud that they can be heroes receive the unspoken message that how they look is more important than what they do.
Wondering where books for young readers fit into this? Start paying attention to their female monsters. I did. And I saw, over and over again, three indicators of female evil. In book after book, I found that female characters were marked for readers as evil when they were:
- ugly (or extremely beautiful to hide the ugliness underneath)
- bad mothers
These stereotypes are so much a part of our culture that all we have to do as writers and illustrators is create a female character with some combination of these traits and our readers will assume, without our having to lay it out explicitly, that she’s a bad guy. Do some targeted reading and see for yourself.
So what can we do as writers and illustrators?
We can avoid these tropes, complicate them, interrogate them. But remember, implicit bias is unconscious. You may still be engaging in it without realizing you are.
So here’s what you do first. As soon as you finish reading this.
Take the Implicit Association Test. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/
The IAT measures how long it takes you to respond to stereotypes and their opposites. That fraction of a second it takes your conscious mind to overcome your immediate, and unconscious, reaction. (A recent study found that it took people an average of 1/3 of a second longer to associate the word “president” with a woman than with a man.[iv] That’s implicit bias.)
Seeing your results probably won’t be pretty. But pretty isn’t what we want anymore.
Implicit bias isn’t about where our hearts lie. It’s about what we’ve been taught, what’s embedded in the very language and images we use in our work—without our even realizing it.
We owe it to our readers—girls, boys, and gender-fluid—to face up to our own implicit gender biases so that they can begin to see a world where they can not only be heroes but be themselves.
[i] Miller, Claire Cain. “Many Ways to Be a Girl, but One Way to Be a Boy: The New Gender Rules.” The New York Times, The Upshot, 14 Sept. 2018.
[ii] Kang, Jerry, et al. “Implicit Bias in the Courtroom.” UCLA Law Review, Vol. 59, 2012, pp. 1124-1186.
[iii] Project Implicit. “Education: Overview.” implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/education.html.
[iv] Bennett, Jessica. “She’s the Next President. Wait, Did You Read That Right?” The New York Times, 24 Jan. 2020.
Melissa Cole Essig writes middle-grade and YA fiction and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Asheville with her spouse, two kids, and a hound dog who always needs walking. You can follow her on Twitter @MColeEssig.