German Study: Gender Stereotypes Stick In Children's Literature

We know that children's books educate, shape, socialize. And yes, according to a new study based on key words, they still assign antiquated roles and characteristics for boys and girls.

Gender marketing, one German kids' book at a time
Gender marketing, one German kids' book at a time
Irene Caselli

MUNICH — Boys go out on adventures to far-away lands, they are brave and strong. Girls help out their mothers at home, are sweet side-kicks for their male counterparts, and every now venture out to ride their beloved pony. These gender roles seem to be from another era, yet after analyzing the data of 50,000 children's books in Germany, four journalists from Süddeutsche Zeitung still found the country's children's literature is stained by stereotypes.

Katharina Brunner, Sabrina Ebitsch, Kathleen Hildebrand and Martina Schories used the world-renowned Library for Children's and Young Adult's Literature at Goethe University Frankfurt to help quantify their findings. The selection covers a period of 70 years, and while it is not exhaustive, it is certainly a good representation of what is out there in the market.

The analysis looked at 1.4 million key words that characterize the books, and connected them. So, for example, the word adventure is 2.6 times more likely to appear in a book with a male leading character. Moreover, the worlds of female protagonists are usually much poorer than those of male characters. The words associated to males include foreign trips, island, danger. Those associated with girls: school holidays, animals, friendship.

"Girls receive more of a one-sided diet, too sweet, too bland, too low in calories. Often, boys and girls do not have the same rights in children's books. And that's a problem, because children's books educate, shape, socialize. And they can change the world. Or could," say the authors.

Book covers also tell a story: blue remains the main color for boys and pink for girls. In this case we may have to blame so-called gender marketing: publishers know that any product can sell well if it specifically targets boys or girls.

Children develop their idea of gender between the ages of two and three.

There appears to be some improvement in gender equality in children's literature from more recent years, as well as a growing number of books that talk about same-sex families and other issues that were previously taboo, such as suicide. Germany also is hardly the only country where children's books follow gender stereotypes. A study by The Observer last year came up to similar conclusions about the UK: male characters are twice as likely to take leading roles and are given more speaking parts than females.

Lars Burghardt, a pedagogist from the University of Bamberg, told Süddeutsche Zeitung that children develop their idea of gender between the ages of two and three, and books are one of the many ways through which they can question their surrounding world or reaffirm it. He also warns against being rigid about gender parity in literary portrayals.

"No one wants to display only politically correct books in children's rooms. Children should be allowed to decide for themselves — even if the glittery, pink book contradicts my noble pedagogical goals," says Burghardt. "But the variety in children's books is important for girls to realize that they may be a good princess and at the same time a wild tomboy. And so that boys can see that they can also have long hair and cry."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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