Revamping gender in old children’s stories

Fri, 10 Aug 2018

One of the side projects I’m working on is editing and republishing children’s stories by Thornton W. Burgess. I often read the stories to my daughters, and they’re delightful. Burgess was a naturalist, so the animal characters are anthropomorphized with personalities that give you an idea of the animals’ different behaviors and habits.

But I noticed something as I read the books: more than 90% of the characters are male, and the few female characters exhibit stereotypical traits (emotional Mrs. Quack, nagging Jenny Wren). So as I’ve been reading the stories and marking them up in HTML as I go, my daughters and I have been dutifully switching a bunch of the characters from male to female or from female to male. We have a 50/50 ratio going.

This is good, but I wonder what other improvements I could be making. Now’s the time to figure that out. It feels terrible to admit this, but I feel completely ignorant when it comes to gender issues.

Should I make some of the characters’ genders ambiguous? Should I use different pronouns? What percentage of the characters should be like this? Are there specific animals that lend themselves best to the right kind of portrayal? — I don’t mean to be insensitive by asking that, but I think about birds, for example, and the tendency for male birds to be more brightly colored.

Anyway, I’m not sure where to begin. If you have any tips, I’d appreciate them.