Young children’s Christian entertainment is some of the most demeaning, dismissive, and demonizing media for the under-8 set. With Christians making up 70% of the American population, we must address this or we will forever have only a partial understanding of gender socialization in our society.
First, some examples.
While 280 women appear in the Bible, only one of the 25 most popular kids’ Christian songs contain the name of a woman. When looking at song titles and chapter titles, one finds 60% of them contain a man’s name while only 13% contain a woman’s name. A First Bible Story Book (Hoffman: 1997) has an illustrated table of contents with 31 living creatures.
21 are animals.
15 are men or boys.
4 are women.
In the pages of that same book, readers find the story of Noah’s Ark, which takes eight pages to tell. On those eight pages, not one woman is mentioned.
There is no textual or illustrated indication that a female person existed anywhere on the face of the Earth, despite the Bible specifically and repeatedly referring to at least four women who were on the Ark.
The story of Daniel takes four pages. No women or girls.
The story of Jonah takes six pages. No women or girls.
The story of the feeding of the five-thousand takes four pages. No women or girls.
The story of the Last Supper takes four pages. No women or girls.
This demonstrates that it is possible to write a story in young children’s entertainment that totally excludes one gender, but it is only done when the exclusion is female.
As a result, young Christian girls – and boys – regularly read and watch stories that have no female characters at all, but never read or watch a story without male characters, socializing them to believe females are supplementary while males are a necessity in any event of importance.
Veggie Tales, a video series in which animated vegetables teach kindness, sharing, and other lessons, has ten episodes dedicated to Biblical stories. One is about a woman. Like so many other examples, Esther: The Girl Who Became Queen (2000) defines her by her relationship to men. A grown woman in the Bible, Esther is portrayed as a young girl, manipulated by her husband, his aide, and her uncle, with almost no independent thoughts other than self-doubt.
In Eve and Her Sisters: Women of the Old Testament (Zeldis: 1994), a female-focused chapter book, a man’s name appears in every single story. Similarly, Tapestries: Stories of Women in the Bible (Sanderson: 1998) is explicitly gender conscious, telling the stories of Biblical women. Of course, the term “women” appears in the title. Women are the main subject of every page. Women are, indeed, the subject of the entire book. And the first word on the first page is “Adam.”
Abraham is named in the very first sentence of page two.
Isaac is named in the very first sentence of page three.
Of the thirteen women from the Old Testament in the book, eleven have a man’s name in the first sentence of their story, a rate of 84%. Of the ten women from the New Testament in the book, eight have a man’s name in the first sentence of their story. The message to young girls is that the most important aspect of a woman’s life is her connection to a man.
It is difficult to imagine a book specifically designed to highlight men of the Bible in which a woman is named in eighty percent of the stories, much less, the first sentence of their stories.
The cover of the book Who’s Who in the Bible: An Illustrated Guide (Motyer: 1998) features eleven illustrated figures on the cover. Ten of them are men and one is a woman. Further emphasizing the importance of the woman (or rather the lack thereof), all ten male characters are portrayed standing, while the lone woman in hunched over on her knees.
In John Green’s coloring book Women of the Bible (2006), many of characters are rendered practically invisible by extremely passive narratives and an almost burdensome over representation of men. Some examples include Rachel, Dinah, and Zipporah. Below are the words that accompany the coloring images, in their entirety.
Rachel: “Jacob, grandson of Abraham, meets Rachel, a young and beautiful shepherdess, at the well of Haran. He later asks her father Laban for Rachel’s hand.”
Dinah: “When Prince Shechem lays eyes on Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah, he falls in love with her instantly. However, his bold and aggressive actions towards Dinah bring the wrath of Dinah’s brothers on Shechem and his people.”
Zipporah: “Moses meets Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, when she and her sisters bringtheir flock of sheep to the well. Moses marries Zipporah, but as Moses becomes a great leader, he and his wife spend little time together.”
What exactly have young children learned about the women on these pages? Each is a silent bystander in her own story. In telling the experiences of three women, seven men are referred to by name.
Both young girls and young boys notice when more than twice the number of men appear in a story than women, and reasonably infer the meaning to be that men are more important.
The series Animated Stories from the New Testament uses fictionalized characters and scenarios to teach moral lessons (Rich: 1987 – 2005). There are twenty-four episodes, many of which have no major female characters. When women or girls are included, it is usually in negative, often sexual, terms.
For example, one episode features three characters who need forgiveness.
Matthew the publican.
Jonah the sick man.
Miriam the harlot.
This kind of messaging is particularly damaging to young girls, who use entertainment to find their place in the world. When children’s behavior is compared to their parents and their favorite characters on TV, boys tend to imitate their parents more. But girls imitate their parents and television characters equally (Donohue: 1975). This means Miriam the harlot may have as much influence on a young girl as her Christian mother does.
Another problem area for the imaging of women in young children’s Christian entertainment is the over-representation of “bad” women coupled with a pervasive minimization of the misdeeds of men. From Green describing Shechem’s rape of Dinah as the result of love to The Story Keepers’ Justin being described as “sometimes bossy… [but] this is balanced by a good heart and sense of compassion” (2010), men are rarely portrayed as “bad.”
Ten percent of the women in Green’s book are David’s wives, two of whom were married to other men when David met them. Young children are given a picture to color of Bathsheba bathing that includes David leering at her from the corner of the page. (They married after he manufactured a deadly battle to ensure her husband’s death.) The non-judgmental presentation of David’s peeping, polygamy, abuse of power, and murder reinforces the gender norm that men are important, strong, influential, and beyond reproach.
In the Amazon description of the coloring book, Bathsheba is defined as “the mother of Solomon, whose beauty drove David to murder,” a statement which simultaneously excuses the behavior of a man and lays responsibility for it at the foot of a woman.
In Green’s book, women are presented to young children as “bad” almost twice as often as they are presented as “good.” By comparison, men are presented as “good” and “bad” almost equally, with slightly more positive portrayals than negative.
|Positive||Neutral/ Beyond the Control
of the Woman
|Caretaking||Having been made aware||Arrogant|
|Courageous||Rescued||Bad influence on her husband|
|Generous||Unable to bear a child||Bitter enemy|
|One of Christ’s most||Hiding out|
|devoted disciples||Lying in wait|
|Protective||Plying a man with wine to kill him|
|Unable to resist temptation|
|Positive||Neutral/ Beyond the
Control of the Man or Boy
|Founder||Grandson of Abraham||Aggressive|
|Object of Wonder and Adoration||Selfish|
|Possesses large herds (rich)||Spying|
|Saving his people|
|Vanquisher of the enemy|
*Euphemism for rape
The religious entertainment industry is damaging young Christian girls, and no one is saying anything about it. Feminists need to step up and help create change for millions of American girls. Christian parents and churches need to demand equal gender treatment for their entertainment dollars. This is just one strand of the larger fight to have equal, fair, and positive imaging of women in American media, but feminists, parents, and the Church must work together to demand that all American daughters get the message that they are important.
Donohue, T.R. 1975. “Black Children’s Perceptions of Favorite TV Characters as Models of
Antisocial Behavior.” Journal of Broadcasting 24: 549 – 560.
Green, John. 2006. Women of the Bible. Mineola, NY: Dover Publishing.
Hoffman, Mary. 1997. A First Bible Story Book. New York, NY: DK Publishing.
The Story Keepers. 2010. “The Story Keepers.” Accessed Dec. 28, 2016. https://www.storykeepers.com/characters.