Research / BFI Working PaperMay 26, 2022

Portrayals of Race and Gender: Sentiment in 100 Years of Children’s Literature

Anjali Adukia, Callista Christ, Anjali Das, Ayush Raj

The way that people of different identities are portrayed in children’s books can send subconscious messages about how positively or negatively children should think about people with those identities. These messages can then shape the next generation’s perceptions and attitudes about people, which can have important implications for belief formation and resource allocation. In this paper, we make two contributions: (1) we examine the depiction of race and gender in award-winning children’s books from the last century, and (2) we examine how consumption of these books relates to local beliefs. First, we analyze the sentiment associated with the famous individuals mentioned in these books. While the sentiment surrounding women is positive overall, on average, we see that Black women are more often portrayed with negative sentiment in Mainstream books, while White women are more often portrayed with positive sentiment. Because children’s books in the United States depict more White women overall, this disguises the more negative intersectional portrayals of Black women. Books that center underrepresented identities are more likely to portray all characters with more positive sentiment. A century ago, women were much less positively spoken about than men, but the average sentiment of females and males has converged over time. The difference in sentiment connected with Black people and White people has also decreased over time, but there still remains a substantial gap. Second, we then analyze the relationship between book purchases and local beliefs to understand the potential messages being transmitted to children in different parts of society. We see that more purchases of books with positive sentiment towards Black characters are associated with a larger proportion of individuals who believe that White people in the United States have certain advantages because of the color of their skin and who are angry that racism exists. Understanding the messages that may be implicitly – or explicitly – sent to children through highly influential books can lend insight into the factors that may shape children’s beliefs and attitudes.

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