The relative importance of 'She' - #RKEFest23
What children read impacts on their socialisation and notably their development of gender identity. Elizabeth Poynter, Senior Lecturer in the department of International and Global Studies, is researching children's fiction from the mid-twentieth century, set against the background of World War II, as well as Second Wave Feminism. In this post, as part of our Festival of Research and Knowledge Exchange blog series, Elizabeth shares her investigations into the literature of this period – is it still, as it is widely considered to be, wedded to traditional gender stereotypes? Or were the authors influenced by the great social changes going on around them?
I am chiefly looking at adventure fiction, as the period 1930-70 was when 'mixed' adventure fiction featuring, typically, a group of boys and girls as protagonists, developed. I have already explored some of the themes (physical activity, leadership, courage) in a large body of series fiction, not to mention cross-dressing in some of the texts. Now, being primarily a linguist, I have created a digital body of selected texts in order to examine the language. The aim of this is to provide a baseline for studying more recent children's literature (and other media).
Corpus linguistics is a tool for studying language: a set of texts - which could range from a few newspaper articles to hundreds of millions of words - is digitised and run through specialist software which can pick up things the mere reader would not notice. Sometimes the findings are even counter-intuitive. For this study I have created a corpus of 1.2 million words of adventure fiction (Adventure) and one of 0.5 million of girls' fiction (Girls) for purposes of comparison.
A keyword analysis (identifying words which are significantly more frequent in one corpus than in another) found, predictably, that while he and his were keywords in Adventure, her and she were keywords in Girls. However, I was slightly surprised that both she and he came up key when I compared Adventure with a corpus of general texts for the period, with she being the third most prominent such word, while he was ranked eleventh.
Collocations can also be revealing; these are words which occur together with more than chance frequency, like torrential + rain. Readers absorb impressions from repeated collocations: if you read one book which talks of a pretty girl, it may carry little weight, but if every book you read mentions that the girls are pretty (or lovely, or beautiful, or slim) but fails to describe the boys in such terms, you may come to believe that looks are important for girls but not for boys.
A study of the collocations of woman, man, girl and boy did indeed, as others have found show that females, especially young females, are often described in terms of physical appearance. However, on the whole there were few clear distinctions between the genders as regards collocation. In line with my earlier studies of thematic content, I am not finding that the language in these texts is strongly gender-stereotypical. Our memories of Enid Blyton may be colouring our impressions of the whole period!
Elizabeth is a Senior Lecturer in the department of International and Global Studies (formerly Languages). She has worked at Leeds Beckett since 1999.