Examine: Which gender norms does the picture book have?

Is the girl in the picture book described as passive, beautiful, kind and the one who helps others? Is the boy in the book a silent hero who saves the day, without any description of what he is thinking and feeling? Using the other analysis strategies, the norm critic checks the gender patterns in the picture book and assesses whether it confirms or contradict these. Which gender patterns do you see in your book, and are they uncontested?

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Why take on the role of norm critic?

In picture books and elsewhere norms are expressed as to how girls and boys should appear, what they should do and what they should feel. Such norms are unfortunate because they highlight the practices of some children, directly or indirectly, stating “You’re good!”, “What you’re doing is good!”, while the message to others is “You’re weird!”, “You’re not a normal boy/girl!”, “What you’re doing is not what is normal for a boy/girl to do!”

A norm critical analysis may help to make us aware of these norms so that we will ascribe them less importance (Kärrholm and Tenngart 2012). The norm critic analysis strategy can also be used to draw our attention to norms connected to skin colour (Ahmed 2010), origin, family, attraction, (dis)ability and class.

Illustration: Kenta och Barbisarna [Kenneth and the Barbies]

(Forside og nest siste side av Kenta och Barbisarna, Pija Lindenbaum, Rabén&Sjögren, 2007, oversatt til norsk og dansk)

Front page of Kenneth and the Barbies, Pija Lindenbaum, Rabén&Sjögren, 2007, translated into Norwegian and Danish

Kenneth and the Barbies, Pija Lindenbaum, Rabén&Sjögren, 2007, translated into Norwegian and Danish

Kenneth and the Barbies, Pija Lindenbaum, Rabén&Sjögren, 2007, translated into Norwegian and Danish

Pija Lindenbaum has written the book Kenta och barbisarna (Kenny in Denmark, Kenneth in Norway). Using the norm critic analysis strategy we can ask ourselves which gender norms are expressed, and also assess whether gender norms are confirmed or contested.

Through the title on the front of the book it is clear that the issue of gender norms connected to playing with Barbie dolls is being raised. If we read the book we also find that the Author Pija Lindenbaum raises issues relating to gender norms in connection with wearing dresses. Other gender norms are also present in the picture book. At the start of the book Lindenbaum contrasts boys’ play-fighting and playing war games with the girls playing with dolls and in the sandbox. The former is described as destructive play which does not include everybody, and which makes the younger children afraid so they start to cry. The latter is described as constructive and social play.

Let us use the norm critic analysis strategy to attempt to assess whether these gender norms in the picture book have become narrower or broader. The composite description of Kenneth who is good at playing football and who brings the Barbie he likes to play with at home to day care is convincing. We follow Kenneth whose playing with dolls is gradually accepted by Agnes, Gitte and Mira (all girls). At the end of the book they have moved on from playing with Barbie dolls to wearing dresses. When the boys suddenly enter the room, Kenneth becomes uncertain. It turns out he has no reason to worry: “After a long pause Kenneth checks whether the boys have left. They have not, actually. They are browsing through the clothes. ‘I’ll take this one,’ says Åge. ‘Cool!’ says Anton.”

The book powerfully opposes norms indicating that boys are not interested in or enjoy playing with dolls or wearing dresses. When it comes to the description of war games and play-fights, these are often considered to be a boys’ thing, and many have an undivided negative perception of this type of play. From an educational point of view, it is clear that play-fighting and war games may have problematic aspects which children need support and guidance in avoiding. But such play fills some needs and therefore belongs in the children’s play repertoire. The description of this play in the book may therefore be considered a dramaturgical ploy, but it may also be interpreted as criticism of this type of playing, hence also as confirmation of a general disapproval of boys’ play-fights and war games.

One of the reasons why the book and the Kenneth character are credible in terms of gender-transcending play is that initially in the text and pictures he is established as clearly masculine and that he is better than the other boys at football. This makes Barbies and dresses more than a simple switch of gender roles.

Checklist for examining the main character

How the main character is described in text and pictures is often decisive for whether a picture book expands or confirms traditional gender norms. Examining how the gender of the main character is described is thus a vital part of the norm critical analysis.

The main character is:

  • – Primarily action-oriented and brave
  • – Primarily oriented toward presenting own emotions and those of others
  • – Dutiful or does the opposite of what the authorities demand/is rebellious
  • – Good-looking or beautiful (and this is a key part of the book)
  • – Homely, ugly or monster-like (and this is a key part of the book)
  • – Physically large or strong
  • – Girl/woman
  • – Boy/man
  • – Gender transcending

Go to the Examination form for more detailed questions about the main character and other persons in the picture book.

Which gender norms are expressed in the plot?

The description of the main character is not the only thing that influences the gender message given by the book. It may often be even more important which challenges the author lets the girl or boy contend with and how this ends. Through the challenges and the solution the reader is given an impression of the gender of the main character, his/her strengths and weaknesses and not least what the reader should learn from this.

Lussi in the picture book Snill [Kind] (Dahle 2002) is a good example. She is so nice, quiet, clean, kind and careful that her mother, father, teachers and the others hardly know that she is there. In frustration and anger she explodes, and changes into a slightly grimy, scruffy and highly visible girl. Another example is Diktatorn [The Dictator] (2010), by Ulf Stark and Linda Bondestam, about a self-fixated boy who softens.

The classical fairy tales are action-driven stories and have the same feature in picture books, whether they are directly retelling the fairy tales or are inspired by them. The trials encountered by the girl or the boy, and how they end, give us a picture of them, whether the fairy tale concerns the Ash Lad, Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks or others. The child imagines being in the main character’s shoes and envisions what it can and cannot do.

The trials and messages of the traditional fairy tales often reflect the times when they were written, where the gender role pattern was quite different from today. How they end and the morals of the stories, whether in Norwegian fairy-tale collections (Asbjørnsen and Moe) or the German Brothers Grimm, are often determined according to the gender of the main character. In the stories about the hero, the Ash Lad in Norwegian fairy tales, there is usually a princess who must passively accept what the Ash Lad and her father the king decide. The Ash Lad is a character who does everything he should not do. He wastes time, goes off the main track on a whim, has a wondering inquisitive nature, but is also kind and smart. His less than humble attitude to authority figures is appropriately rewarded. This is not the case for the characters Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks (from the Brothers Grimm), who are harshly punished for disobeying the authorities, i.e. leaving the path and eating someone else’s porridge.

The fairy tales have many literary qualities that make them suitable for children. They raise universal themes such as greed, envy, loneliness and friendship. They make it clear that if you are to achieve something you have to undergo trials and often sacrifice something. They have a narrative structure that can develop children’s reading skills. Therefore many educators and parents use fairy tales.

Bearing in mind the criticism of the traditional gender patterns in the fairy tales, some people have suggested switching the gender of the main character when reading for children. Fairy tales and their structures also serve as models for new picture books, and new ones are regularly made with a more updated gender pattern. Examples of this include Sagan om prinsessan Bulleribång [The Saga of Princess BulleriBång] and Per Gustavson’s princess books. In the Sagan om prinsessan Bulleribång (Taivassalo 2006) the knight tale is reversed. Here the princess proposes marriage, but the prince is taken prisoner and the princess must do everything in her power to save him. The princess in Gustavson’s books wears a crown and is pink, but is not a sweet mindless girl waiting for decisions and actions by her bothers. She is the active party, the driving force for the plot, capturing dragons, holidaying or partying. (Several of the books have been translated from Swedish into the other Nordic languages).

What gender norms are expressed in the portrayal of parents and job roles?

In addition to the description of the main character in the book, the description of adults, jobs and family can influence whether the picture book confirms traditional gender roles or not. An example of a picture book confirming gender traditions could be something like “mom is sewing, dad is working with his tools”. In several books from the Nordic countries the descriptions of the tasks and duties of adults do not automatically comply with traditional gender roles. Two of many titles exemplifying this are Pinnsvinmamma [Hedgehog mommy] (Saanum 2006) and Vesta-Linnéa och monstermamman [Vesta-Linnéa and the monster mommy] (Appelgren 2001).

Quantitative surveys of picture books have generally found that women are less often presented in a job context, and that men are less often presented in family and caregiver roles (Hamilton et al. 2006). So the question focuses on how this gender norm is dealt with in the picture book. Is it silently accepted as is, or is the gender norm commented on or contested in any way?

We undertook a study of a bookshelf of picture books to see which jobs the children could see men and women doing. We also found that women are less often depicted in a work situation than men. Look up This you can do in day care! if you would like to try this method. (Noting gender statistics this way is part of the counter’s repertoire, but we have included it here for comparative reasons.)

How this general pattern is dealt with in the various books is interesting. One of the books, one about Postman Pat (Cunliffe 1998), reinforces and naturalises the picture of men who are doing a job. All the vocations in the book are occupied by men, the postman, the police and the vicar. Another book in the sample, a book about Pippi Longstocking, where she is in the circus (Kjenner du Pippi Langstrømpe? [Pippi Longstocking], Astrid Lindgren and Ingrid Nyman. Damm), also displays very gender typical jobs and roles: A male circus director, a female tightrope walker and the world’s strongest man. But in the illustrations and story everything is reversed. The little girl Pippi steals the stage and silences the circus director, she walks the tightrope and proves to be stronger than the world’s strongest man. She “just wanted to have fun” and breaks the mould of habitual notions by assuming all the roles herself. The Pippi character functions as a contrast and comment on the very rigid gender roles that were prevalent at the time the book was written.

Books that only reverse the gender roles in the narrative, whether the main character’s or the parents’ role, are often filled with clichés, predictable, and also less exciting and interesting in a gender equality perspective. When the norm critic is to assess whether a gender pattern confirms gender norms, ranks genders and reinforces gender differences, there are a number of things to be considered. If a book or a character in a picture book is to expand traditional gender norms, it will often help if the main character or description is credible. A complex description of the main character or his/her environment may increase such credibility. It is quite rarely feasible to contradict all norms at the same time – some elements must be constant and recognisable.

Are hetero norms reproduced?

Often, being a real man or a real woman is connected to having a girlfriend or boyfriend or a spouse of the opposite gender. “Is she your girlfriend?” or “Will he be your boyfriend when you grow up?” are not uncommon questions asked of the adults and also the children of opposite genders in day care when playing together. Children of the same gender are not asked these questions. This is an example of how children can encounter social hetero norms and expectations of having a girlfriend/boyfriend of the opposite gender in the future.

Sexuality as such is hardly problematized in picture books for children, but is expressed indirectly through descriptions of boyfriends/girlfriends and family relationships. An important issue for the norm critic is whether the picture book practises a form of heterosexualisation (Österlund 2010). Does it contribute to a social pressure saying that life must be lived heterosexually in quite particular ways, or are ideas about heterosexuality set aside or played with?

Examples of both approaches are found in films, other literature and picture books. For example, Robin Williams in the main role as Mrs Doubtfire in the film of the same name (1993) is the father and the nanny, thus playing with what it means to be a responsible woman and mother, and what it means to be a father and provider (Pugh 2011). Else Marie och Småpapporna [Else Marie and the small daddies] (Lindenbaum – 1990) also plays with paternal authority and what “family” is. Else Marie has a normal mother and seven abnormal, small but quite identical daddies. Drømmeprinsen [The Dream Prince] by Justyna Nyka (2010) also features a twist. The princess cannot find a suitable prince during her long and arduous adventure. Finally she is helped by a magician to make the prince, but when all the ingredients have been mixed, a princess rises up from the cauldron.

All in all, there are many picture books in the Nordic countries with different family types. Children grow up in all kinds of families; families with parents of opposite gender, same gender and also a transgender parent. There also may be families with more than two parents. In Min familj [My family] by Anna-Clara Tidholm (2009), 12 children describe their families, including step families and a family with same-gender parents. In Familjeboken [The family book] (Summanen 2008, also in new printing), different family types are presented. The book also tells how families can come about through the sex act, artificial insemination and adoption.

We also find several picture books with plots featuring same-gender parents. Most common are two mothers, such as in Niller Pilfinger åbner Bakken [Timmy Tinker opens the zoo] by Stine Josefine Dige (2013), about Niller on a trip to the zoo.

But it is still uncommon that two parents have the same gender rather randomly without this being the focus of the narrative or book. The situation still seems to be that same-gender parents tend to either have been made invisible or highlighted as something special (Heggstad 2013). You can find lists of children’s books with LGBT families and identities, such as this one from RFSL: http://www.rfsl.se/?p=5560.

What is norm critical pedagogy?

One of the underpinnings of the norm critic is norm critical pedagogy. What then, is norm criticism, and what is norm critical pedagogy? Do not all societies have gender norms, as in norms for how girls, women, boys and men should dress, behave, speak, and which vocations or professions they should have. Is it really possible to abolish gender norms?

Norm critical pedagogy is based on a philosophy of non-discrimination, that women, men, transgender people, persons of various colours, origins, abilities and different sexual orientations, all groups must be included on equal terms. Therefore the aim is to change the actual structures that discriminate and which contribute to ranking persons. Another aim is to change the rankings of what is more or less interesting or valuable for the genders, for example allowing for boys to play with Barbie dolls.

Gender norms influence actions precisely by being taken for granted, where they are not problematized and not reflected upon. The idea is not to remove the gender norms, but rather change them through a critical look so we can become more aware of them and take them into consideration.

This work is called norm critical pedagogy and has much in common with equality pedagogy or gender sensitive pedagogy. One difference is that norm criticism often comprises more causes than gender, and that a diversity philosophy is supplemented with a clear critical jab at power differences (Bromseth and Darj 2010, see also Dolk 2013 and Lykke 2012). A third related construct is pink pedagogy which in particular seeks to highlight and appreciate femininity and female sexualities (Ohrlander et al. 2011).


Children’s books

Appelgren, Tove och Salla Savolainen. Vesta-Linnéa och monstermamman. Schildts & Söderströms 2001.

Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen & Jørgen Moe: Norske folkeeventyr. Font forlag. 2010.

Brødrene Grimm: Illustrerte eventyr. Aschehaug. Oslo. 2013.

Cunliffe, John, Stuart Trotter & Ivor Wood: Postman Pat og udyret i Grønndal. BlibriArte. Oslo 1998.

Dahle, Gro & Svein Nyhus: Snill Cappelen. 2002.

Dige, Stine Josefine & Maria Tran Larsen: Niller Pilfinger åbner Bakken. Inblik. 2013.

Gustavsson, Per: Så gör prinsessor. Natur & Kultur. 2003.

Lindgren, Astri & Ingrid Nyman: Kjenner du Pippi Langstrømpe? Damm. 1993

Lindenbaum, Pija: Else Marie och Småpapporna. Bonnier Carlsen. 1990

Lindenbaum, Pija: Kenta och Barbisarna. Rabén&Sjögren. 2007.

Nyka, Justyna: Drømmeprinsen. Mangschou. 2010.

Stark, Ulf & Linda Bondestam. Diktatorn. Söderström. 2010.

Saanum, Kari og Gry Moursund. Pinnsvinmamma. Omnipax forlag. 2006.

Summanen, Eddie & C.  Kåberg: Familjeboken. Vombat. 2008.

Taivassalo, Hannele Mikaela & Lena Frölander-Ulf: Sagan om prinsessan Bulleribång. Schildts & Söderströms. 2006.

Tidholm, Anna-Clara: Min familj. Olika. 2009.


Other references

Ahmed, Sara: Whiteness and the General Will: Diversity Work as Willful Work. In philoSOPHIA. State University of New York Press. Volume 2, Issue 1, 2012. 1-20

Bromseth, Janne & Frida Darj (red): Normkritisk pedagogik: Makt, lärande och strategier för förändring. Centrum för genusvetenskap. 2010.

Dolk, Klara: Bångstyriga barn – makt, normer och delaktighet i förskolan. Stockholm: Ordfront. 2013.

Hamilton, Mykol C., David Anderson, Michelle Broaddus & Kate Young: Gender stereotyping and under-representation of female characters in 200 popular children‘s picture books: A twenty-first century update. Sex Roles, 55, Nr. 11-12. 2006. 757-765.

Heggstad, Eva: Regnbågsfamiljer och könsöverskridande barn. Bilderbokens nya invånare, Samlaren 2013, s. 222-250 Last ned som pdf:  http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:765959/FULLTEXT01.pdf    

Kärrholm, Sara & Tenngart, Paul (red.):  Barnlitteraturens värden och värderingar. Studentlitteratur. Lund. 2012.

Lykke, Nina: Interseksjonell genuspedagogikk. I Genusvetskapens pedagogik och didaktik. Anna Lundberg & Ann Werner (red.) Nationella sekretariatet för genusforskning. 2012. http://genus.se/digitalAssets/1393/1393127_pedagogikochdidaktik.pdf

Ohrlander, Kajsa Hillevi Lenz Teguchi & Linnea Bodén. En rosa pedagogik. Liber. 2011.

Pugh, Tison: Innocence, Heterosexuality, and the Queerness of Children’s Literature. Routledge. 2011.

RFSL: Boktips för barn. http://www.rfsl.se/?p=5560

Österlund, Mia: Heterosexualisering pågår. En queer omvärdering av barnet i bilderboken. Ahlund, Claes (red.) Omvärdering : perspektiv på litteratur och Litteraturvetenskap. Litteraturvetenskapliga institutionen. Åbo. 2010, 63-75.