Q: You’ve written a lot about negative media portrayals of fathers. But aren’t they just presenting life the way it is? Isn’t it a reality that men just aren’t the most responsible parents when it comes to childrearing?
A: One can reasonably argue that the images of men and women in children’s literature are simply reflections of reality. It’s still true that for a variety of reasons women in this country do the bulk of the childcare. But if children’s literature only reflected reality, why aren’t fifty percent of the families divorced? Why aren’t fifteen to twenty percent of the single parents in these books fathers? Why, for that matter, aren’t smokers, alcoholics, and drug abusers adequately represented?
The answer is that literature doesn’t always reflect reality. In fact, it could be said that it sometimes does quite the opposite, reflecting some kind of reality that doesn’t exist; the world the way we imagine it rather than the way it is.
Remember all those gender-neutral firefighters from Richard Scary and other authors? The truth is that in the real world, only two percent of the 1.2 million people who risk their lives to fight fires in this country are women. But that hasn’t prevented us from all but banishing the word “fireman” from the English language. Far more than two percent of all the nurturing parents are men, and, in raw numbers, there are far more actively involved, nurturing, loving fathers than there are female firefighters. Still, images of nurturing fathers are practically nowhere to be found.
There’s little question that reading about female firefighters (and police officers and construction workers and just about any other profession where women are a small minority) boosts girls’ self-esteem and reinforces in their minds-and everyone else’s, for that matter-the idea that women have lives beyond the home and that there’s nothing girls and women can’t do. Little boys, on the other hand, are given a far more restricted list of life options: they can do anything they want, as long as they financially support their families and leave the nurturing to the nearest female.