May 11, 2018

A new study suggests Mr. Men Books are sexist


Many of us will have grown up reading the adventures of Mr. Happy, Little Miss Naughty, and friends, with their colourful illustrations and quirky stories. But have you revisited them of late? Research now suggests these childhood favourites are sexist.

Analysis was presented at the British Psychological Society annual conference last week, addressing gender stereotypes in children’s books, particularly within the Mr. Men series. Madeleine Pownall, a psychology undergraduate at the University of Lincoln, reported to the British Psychological Society:

“I think it’s interesting how parents may not necessarily be aware of how powerful messages in books can be, particularly how ideas about gender, power, and relationships can be transmitted through story books. I’m also interested in exploring the different ways that parents choose, use, and interact with books for their children.

“…The Mr Men series lends itself well to critical discussions about gender because they are so popular and memorable.”

What were her findings? Apparently, as reported by John Thalassites at the Express, female characters say less in the books—on average twelve words fewer per page—and they utter an avergae of 53.5 words per story, compared to male characters who average 61.5 words. And Little Misses need to be rescued in 51.5% of storylines, compared to 32.6% of Mr. Men.

Not even going in to the attributes given the characters in their names. We get, for example, Mr. Strong, Mr. Brave, and Mr. Cool for the guys, and Little Miss Bossy, Little Miss Chatterbox, and Little Miss Princess for the gals.

The debate was recently taken up by trash morning television show Good Morning Britain by trash human Piers Morgan. Arguing that the books are sexist was Eleanor Mills, editorial director of the Sunday Times, and Morgan’s co-presenter Susanna Reid. Arguing against was Morgan and Chris McGovern, the chairman of the Campaign For Real Education (and obvious personal friend of Morgan’s if you watch the clip below). McGovern read out a mock letter written by Mr. Silly, because apparently this debate is so “silly” only Mr. Silly could have started it, and now he’s in the running for the “nonsense cup.” I mean, you couldn’t make this crap up.

Mills responded with incredulity, saying:

“Its all very well for you to ridicule it as Mr Silly, but we actually still have a massive gender pay gap. We may have girls doing well at school, but we do not have lots of women running companies, there are still only seven women running FTSE CEO companies, and that goes back to the stereotypes that we feed our daughters…. If you say to them that if they’re a leader they’re bossy, [or] if they talk they’re a chatterbox, [we’re] never going to get women running things.”

According to Piers, we have a Queen and a female Prime Minister in the UK, so all things are fair (head, brick wall).

The debate was picked up a few days later by Good Morning Britain again, with Morgan speaking to Labour MP Emily Thornberry. Morgan asked Thornberry to pick which Little Miss she identified with, helpfully suggesting Little Miss Trouble. “I don’t like this thing about being little,” Thornberry responded. “I think that’s what my problem with the Mr Men books is. Why is it that you have Mr Men, and then Little Miss? Do you see what I mean? There is something about women being less.”

And, miracle of miracles, Piers did in fact agree that the term “Little Miss” was demeaning.

The tabloid press latched on to Good Morning Britain’s coverage with typical rigour. The Mirror’s Kyle O’Sullivan declared “Good Morning Britain viewers were stunned,” and the Express’s John Thalassites calling the claims “sensational,” and lamenting that the “PC brigade strikes again.”

The brilliant thing is that Morgan has helped to illustrate that there is a problem. That some entitled, white, middle-aged men still believe their voices and opinions matter most and that little women should shut up and stop moaning.

The Mr. Men books, originally written by Roger Hargreaves and later taken over by his son Adam Hargreaves, were first published in 1971. It was not until 1980 that Little Miss characters were added to the mix. Is it a surprise the thirty-eight-year-old books are dated? While it maybe be depressing to realise gender stereotypes and sexism were rife in such recent history, we surely can’t be too surprised — after all, it’s taken until 2018 for the #MeToo movement to gather ground, finally giving a voice to previously silenced women. As Tracy King wrote for the New Statesman last November:

The bar for female representation is so low, it’s easy to mistake sexism for progress.

The first is a simply issue of male default. Mr Tickle was created in the late 1960s by Roger Hargreaves and the first six Mr Men books were published in 1971, before women existed. Around 10 years later—when the first human girls were invented—the Mr Men empire generously allowed a few scatter cushions into its man-cave and created Little Miss. But the universe both genders inhabit is literally called “Misterland”, and the Mr Men are… well, they’re men. With a capital M. While the Little Misses are, we’re to understand, either girls or (gasp) spinsters. They are not Mrs Women, and I promise you can’t come up with a justification which isn’t sexist somewhere along the line.

A new Little Miss character was added to the canon this year, lauded as a progressive and positive addition: introducing Little Miss Inventor. As King writes:

Little Miss Inventor’s sole personality trait is inventing things… she is being hailed as a feminist godsend (where god is the Hargreaves estate) because she’s a SCIENTIST. Society has a problem getting girls interested in science, technology, engineering and maths (known as Stem), and Little Miss Inventor is supposed to help with that. But she’s still a Little Miss. She’s not Ms Inventor. She’s not Dr or Prof Inventor. She still sits alongside Little Miss Hug and Little Miss Don’t be Bossy Even Though Only Girls Get Called Bossy Gee I Wonder Why That is. Girls inspired to get into Stem because of her will still know it’s OK to call them little, and miss, when boys are called no such things.

Little Miss Inventor is a step in the right direction, but a small one that has been a long time coming.

Decide for yourself how seriously you want to take the Mr. Men debate and whether you think it’s been blown out of proportion. Do the Mr. Men books reflect societal opinions of their time? Certainly. Does that mean we should scrub them from history… no, I don’t think so. But then again, should we be presenting outdated attitudes to today’s youth? Perhaps not. What is clear is that we need to think about the books, opinions, and ideas we are feeding impressionable children.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.