Researchers from the University of Lincoln have recently presented the findings of a study which has concluded that gendered stereotypes can be found in the Mr Men and Little Miss books. The findings have since been discussed in the media and led to many claiming the books are ‘sexist’.
When I saw that this story featured on Good Morning Britain, I felt personally compelled to comment. The popular children’s books by Roger Hargreaves were an integral part of my own childhood reading and I have always been something of a superfan of the colourful characters, so I felt the need to defend the franchise where possible.
This does not mean I am going to deny that these stereotypes exist. In fact, I’m more inclined to question why any ‘researchers’ felt the need to launch a study into the books to point this out – perhaps because they felt the ‘findings’ would make for good headlines? You see, the fact there are gendered stereotypes in these books is not an item of news. It’s obvious.
The fact there are gendered stereotypes in these books is not an item of news
Roger Hargreaves first released the Mr Men books in the 1970s and the Little Miss books followed in the 1980s, at the request of Hargreaves’ wife. The society in which these books were produced was a gendered society in virtually all aspects, and so stereotypes such as the ones identified in the Little Miss books could be found in abundance. And so, for example, the stereotype that girls are ‘bossy’, propagated in the character of Little Miss Bossy, may have had a subliminal effect on young readers. But this effect is unlikely to have resulted from the character alone. Rather, the stereotype becomes harmful because it would have been repeatedly encountered in the society of the time: in literature, in schools and in everyday interactions.
I am not arguing that we are necessarily in a society where these stereotypes have completely vanished, but the very fact that we can all recognise them in the first place shows that we are no longer living in the society of the 1980s, in which this stereotype would have been continually affirmed with no alternative. What I do want to argue is something that I have not seen mentioned in any of the recent articles on this topic: that the Mr Men and Little Miss books have far too much merit to be dismissed on the grounds of stereotypes which, in any case, have been exaggerated for media attention. For example, I found it particularly frustrating to read that Little Miss Chatterbox was being used as an example of a harmful ‘gendered’ stereotype, seeing as the character of Mr Chatterbox also exists alongside her.
The books have remained enduringly popular for decades because they are so wonderfully relatable in a way that is (mostly) timeless. The traits which the characters possess are universal across gender, age and nationality, which is why for almost fifty years the books have not left the shelves of bookshops worldwide. The books tell vibrant stories that can be easily enjoyed by children, and that often include useful ‘lessons’ about not being too mean, too stubborn, too grumpy, and so on. On top of that, I personally found the books to be an incredible creative inspiration. My long-held dream to become a children’s writer stems back to the hundreds (this is not an exaggeration) of Mr Men and Little Miss books that I myself created when I was younger.
The society in which these books were produced was a gendered society in virtually all aspects
And if you’re still not convinced that these merits are enough to outweigh the potential harm of any old-fashioned stereotypes, then it is worth remembering that the series is still going strong today with new books being released all the time. And these books are not being created in the gendered context of the 1980s. In fact, earlier this year, Little Miss Inventor joined the line-up of Little Miss characters as a ‘positive role model’ for girls.
It’s good to be aware of the stereotypes that may exist in things that we love. And, in the end, we can each be our own judge as to whether we deem the merits to outweigh the potential harmful effects or not. In the case of the Mr Men and Little Misses, I hope that people are able to look and think for themselves beyond the recent headlines in order to see that the books should not be dismissed so easily.