“Mummy, make it SHE!”

National Women’s Day seems like a good time to post something that’s been sitting at the bottom of my list for some time now.  It feels like a small gripe, but it’s actually enormous. Isn’t that always the case when it comes to representation?

Jungle animals of both sexes

This gripe is second hand, in fact, and it says a lot that it’s always my daughter, now almost seven years old, who to my shame still needs to remind me to change the pronouns in story books.  “Mummy, make it she!” is her routine request.

We then choose which characters – mice, birds, monsters or humans – will be switched from he to she. Last night we revisited old favourite The Great Dog Bottom Swap (Peter Bentley and Mei Matsuoka, published by Andersen) we LOVE this book, but why do animal characters always have to be male?* When Disa was born I made a vow to myself that she should never doubt her potency in the world just because of linguistic laziness. So everything thought to have personhood, real or imaginary, is not always he but also (and often) she: the spiders we watch spinning up flies are female; we ask ‘what is she doing’ about the person wearing jeans in the distance; the monkey in Animal Fair slides out of her bunk; the traveller in the dark is guided by her tiny spark.

It’s not an easy habit to cultivate!  But it’s a publisher’s job to pay attention to every single word that makes it to the printing press.  So how about we have a few more ‘she’s’ in our pages? Smatterings of minor characters are just as important as protagonists – so are antagonists for that matter. If we can’t get our gender balance right in books for children, no wonder there’s still so far to go in the battle for BAME representation.

Or… set me straight if you know of any books with balance!

*I’m aware that these labels are considered questionable and that there are some who’d prefer ‘they’, but I’m happy to speak from the back of the curve for now and I believe there’s still a place for this argument.

2 thoughts on ““Mummy, make it SHE!”

  1. I completely agree with you, Helen! I am currently tying hard to redress this in my own writing. I am an aspiring picture book writer and also fell into the default position of making most of my characters male. There was no good reason at all for this! I now try to mix things up a lot more and am enjoying giving feistier roles to my female characters– whether they are humans or animals!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s great Frances. What I worry is that female characters are codified in some way. So, a male character is a neutral, but a female one brings certain qualities. Is a female spider ‘more deadly than the male’ (as Space had it) for example? Interesting!


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