I see a lot of picture books submissions that challenge gender stereotypes by presenting the stereotype and then knocking it down. I am all about knocking down gender (and all other) stereotypes, but there is a problem inherent in this method, which is that in order to knock something down, it has to be set up first. For instance, a typical line might be, “Who says pink is just for girls?”
This is not the only example. It could be about a stay-at-home dad, or a boy who likes dance. But I will use pink and girls for this case. Within that question, clearly set up to knock down later, lies the statement “pink is just for girls”. And now that idea is planted in the mind of a kid who may never have thought that colors only belong to one gender or another. The only reason to ask that question is to challenge an idea already in place. It gives a reader the chance to say “lots of people” or “I do”, and when they do, we haven’t moved very far.
But, maybe more problematically, it also sets up the reader as though they are breaking from the norm, which can be uncomfortable. The reader is forced to acknowledge that some people think pink is just for girls before considering which side of the equation he or she is on. And there is always the chance that they will side with convention. And that is the opposite intent of a writer who is challenging gender stereotypes. Once these characters are presented as unique or unusual or breaking from the pack, or even brave or bold or daring, the notion that pink isn’t just for girls can be scary. It takes guts to speak against that, and not everyone is willing to pipe up.
The best way to deny stereotypes is to speak as though we have already moved on beyond the stereotype altogether. This way, newer ideas—like all colors being for everyone without it even being a question—sound comfortable and “normal” and not something it takes guts to get away from.
Of course, I’m not suggesting we re-write history. Old books give a great window into old ways of thinking. When And Tango Makes Three and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding came out, ideas about gay marriage were not where they are today. And so those books made a splash. They paved the way for us today. Now, seeing two dads or moms at school with their kids isn’t unusual, and since it’s a normal thing we see, presenting two dads in a picture book without comment is a modern reflection of our time and a better approach to good storytelling.
So why do we keep publishing picture books about princesses who like to get dirty as though this is a new and novel idea? Girls who like soccer and boys who like to bake are not revolutionary ideas. Free to Be You and Me included “Billy Wants a Doll” in 1972, 43 years ago. It’s much more progressive to assume everyone already knows pink isn’t just for girls, and show some boys in pink doing other kid things, like fishing or competing in a quilt-off. We’ve moved on, and so should our stories.