I had no idea just how prevalent gender roles are in Children’s literature. Charlotte’s Web was not a book that I expected to see distinct gender roles in. Yet, they make an appearance in many places throughout the book.
From just the first chapter, Mrs. Arable is portrayed as the stay at home mother who takes care of the house and the kids. She is the one making breakfast and rushing the kids out the door in the morning while Mr. Arable is the one tending to the farm. It’s funny how gendered housework is when you think about it. Mrs. Arable does wash Wilbur closer to the end of the story which isn’t typically something I would think of as a women’s job. That gives me a little hope because housework should not be divided solely based on gender. Personal feelings toward a certain chore should be taken into account.
Another example is when Fern won’t eat her breakfast until she is able to give Wilbur some milk. This is typical stereotype associated with mothers; they care for their family members before they even think of caring for themselves. Mrs. Arable is also portrayed in this light. She goes off to find Fern a bottle for Wilbur while Mr. Arable and Avery have already sat down to eat.
The compassion Fern shows for the little pig, Wilbur, is an emotion typically associated with women. When Fern’s brother Avery enters for example he doesn’t show any compassion for the pig. He even insults Wilbur’s size right off the bat. Mr. Arable does show some compassion for Fern when he sees how upset she is about the pig and decides to let her keep it.
Seeing the undertone of gender roles in children’s literature makes me wonder just how much of it is being absorbed unconsciously by the children. I’ve seen firsthand the gender division in my mother’s preschool classroom. The girls tend to gravitate toward the home living center and the boys the blocks. I wonder how much of what they know of gender roles comes from books. That being said I do like the way that Charlotte’s Web demonstrates some examples of men being compassionate and women doing outside chores. Gender roles should not dictate what we can and can’t do. I think these two instances in Charlotte’s Web are a good example of that.