Gender Politics and Construction Equipment: The Eyelashening
File this one under the category: Stuff Parents Notice But Don’t Discuss
You have a child. The child is quite young, let’s say two years of age. The child loves books about tools, ladders, and banjos (and you would be shocked just how many books for kids contain at east one of those three items). What the child loves most in this great big, wide, wonderful world, though, is construction equipment. Excavators and backhoes (don’t call them diggers). Cement mixers and forklifts. And so you, good dutiful parent that you are, go off and attempt to find as many construction equipment books as possible so as to feed this insatiable need.
Time passes. The child is very fond of the books you have chosen. So fond, in fact, that they’ve taken to having you read them over and over and over again in succession. And the adult brain, while capable of doing this, begins to realize that the information coming in is the exact same information that came in five and ten and fifteen minutes ago. So the brain begins to search for meanings in the books. Connections. Something, anything really, to keep it occupied. And that’s when you notice it. Right there. Clear as crystal.
The genders of various pieces of construction equipment.
Because, you see, you cannot check out endless books on crane trucks and steam rollers before you notice how these books choose to gender their anthropomorphized mechanicals.
Today, ladies and gentlemen, we pick apart precisely why one book or another chooses to make a wrecking ball a boy or a grader a girl. Bear with me here. I’ve read a LOT of these books. I need to do something with this information or I may burst.
But first, some history!
Go to your shelves and pick yourselves up a copy of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever. A staple of the toddler set, and a fixture on living room bookshelves since the year of its publication, 1963.
Now if you’ll take out your copy of Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature and turn to page 69 you will find a remarkably well-written passage (*puffs self up*) regarding Mr. Scarry and gender in his books. It reads, “By the 1970s, author/illustrator Richard Scarry was the object of much feminist criticism for his repeated portrayal of female characters in passive domestic roles in his many picture books showing community workers. But Scarry eventually heeded the cries of sexism aimed at him.” He updated the characters in his book. Back in 2013 I wrote a piece called “Are there any girl bears?”: Gender and the 21st Century Picture Book featuring this fun bit of side-by-side comparison between the original Word Book and its revised edition:
Of course, once you know about the update, the changes are shockingly obvious. Scarry didn’t really bother to match the linework when he redid his art. Or maybe it’s just that the printing technology of the day made for a stark difference in the original and updated characters. Here are two good examples of what I mean:
As you can see, the original images are using these deeper watercolor shades while the new images are much lighter and simpler. I do, however, have to give the man credit for the taxi driver in pearls.
And you know what? I don’t care if the female characters do look Photoshopped in. I’m grateful, dammit, that there are some women doing labor above and beyond secretarial work. Scarry even occasionally put men in roles traditionally considered to be the women’s territory. Mr. Bunny makes breakfast for the family, for example.
Which brings us, naturally, to the present day. In the 1970s there was a big push for diverse books and titles with gender equal characters. Time passed and this pressing need became just a bit less pressing. So let’s take a group of construction equipment titles as an example and see how the ladies fare. After all, if Scarry updated this bear to look like this:
then how hard can it be for books today?
I’ll separate these books into two categories. The first are anthropomorphized vehicles. The second, construction workers. This is by no means a complete listing. It’s just what I’ve observed in my own life.
Gendered Construction Equipment
Digger, Dozer, Dumper by Hope Vestergaard, ill. David Slonim
MAN, I love this book. I recently got a copy for my son to see, having remembered it a little late. The edition I received from the library was sparkling and pristine. You know why? Because it’s shelved in the poetry section of the library and few folks think to look there for their construction books. Now I love the way Vestergaard never cheats on a rhyme, that’s true. But really and truly what I adore about the book is the variety of genders she grants her unusually animate objects. The skid-steer loader, excavator, ambulance, steamroller, and forklift all identify as female.
Slonim does give big long eyelashes to all the female vehicles, which seems a bit excessive. You don’t need eyelashes on a Skid-Steer Loader, after all. But as it happens, eyelashes are the preferred method of gender identification on trucks. You can see this as well in:
Go! Go! Go! Stop! by Charise Mericle Harper
In this book there’s only one female piece of equipment and it’s the dump truck.
Not quite as extensive as Vestergaard’s book, but it’s still good to have her there. Again, Harper goes in for eyelashes. Scarry used bows. It’s all relative.
Mighty Dads by Joan Holub, ill. James Dean
An interesting case. Dean doesn’t go in for eyelashes and Holub seemingly gives some of the little construction vehicles female names (“Mitzy” is one of them). It’s not 100% clear, but you can read into it what you like. I think it counts.
Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site by Sherry Duskey Rinker, ill. Tom Lichtenheld
Ah. Alas. My son adores this book. He recently got a stuffed version of the excavator for his birthday and he simply could not be more pleased. But while the pieces of equipment do have genders, they’re all male.
Bulldozer’s Big Day by Candace Fleming, ill. Eric Rohmann
All boy, all the time too.
Gender of Construction Workers
I’ll be the first to tell you that of all the construction workers who have been helping to build the duplex next door to my house, not one of them has been female. Still and all, there is a benefit to young readers seeing girls build in some way. So with that in mind . . .
Dig, Dogs, Dig: A Construction Tail by James Horvath (and subsequent sequels like Build, Dogs, Build and Work, Dogs, Work)
I’m writing this at a bit of a disadvantage. I’ve seeing Dig and Build but I haven’t seen Work quite yet. Still, on the basis of the first two books in the series, I have one comment: Roxie needs to do some real work. You see, in the book there’s this pink dog named Roxie who joins the apparently all-male crew on their digs (yes, she has eyelashes). The problem is that Roxie doesn’t have much to do. For example, on the back of Build, Dogs, Build you can see her welding:
But inside they changed it so that the dog doing the welding wasn’t her. All Roxie got to really do in this book was install a doorbell. Dig, Dogs, Dig wasn’t much better. There she just handed down hammers. I’ll be looking at Work, Dogs, Work soon. Hopefully they put that gal through her paces. She needs to earn her keep!
Construction by Sally Sutton
Very nicely done. It’s not overt but the construction workers do include female crew members.
Whose Trucks? by Toni Buzzeo, ill. Jim Datz
These board books are fantastic. Men and women work together everywhere. Also, the kids playing with the trucks at the end of the book are a boy and a girl. If you haven’t seen this, as well as its companion piece Whose Tools? then you are missing out, my friend.
Diggers Go by Steve Light
My son doesn’t have many words but one word he does have is “man”. “Man? Man?” he asks as he points to the construction equipment in this book. He’s not wrong. You might argue that since the faces are in silhouette there’s no way to really tell if the drivers are men or women, and you’d be right. Still and all they look like dudes. When Light puts women in these positions, they tend to have ponytails. The sole ding in what is otherwise a magnificent series.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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