'They're just like me' – the importance of seeing yourself as the protagonist

A woman with brown hair standing in front of an Our Watch awards banner. She is wearing a white top and the image has a dark background.

Tasma Walton is an author, actor and Our Watch ambassador. In this piece, originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, she discusses the power of gender stereotypes in children's books and why we must do better if we want to achieve equality.

As a child of 2 or 3, story time was my favourite part of the day. I loved escaping into a fantasy world, having my imagination engaged and my mind opened to infinite possibilities.

Distant lands, fantasy creatures, talking animals and magic faraway trees – this was my chance to see the world, and my place in it, through an exciting and magical lens.

I’m lucky that my daughter Ruby shares this love of bedtime stories, which has become a valued nightly ritual in our household. I adore watching her fully embrace magical worlds of fiction, discovering new concepts and embarking on imaginative adventures.

Although, it is not without its challenges. When I look through the contents of Ruby’s bookshelf, or search the bookstore or library, I quite often struggle to find stories that feature strong female characters.

For the most part, in both classic and contemporary tales, women and girls either have a peripheral role or are portrayed as stereotypically feminine. The princesses, the stepmothers, the cheerleaders, the maids; waiting for princes, sitting on the sidelines or cleaning up the mess.

The brave, heroic ones, getting their hands dirty and leading from the front, are almost always male. And the quirky ones, or silly ones, or clever ones, or naughty ones are also mostly male.

As her mother, I know Ruby finds it harder to relate to the male protagonists in her stories.

She may identify with their thirst for exploration or inquisitive nature, but because the character is a boy, it can be hard for her to picture herself in the story.

To combat this as parents, we will often switch the genders of all the characters in the book. Suddenly, the girls are responsible for moving the story forward, and the boys cheer them on.

Although this might seem like an immaterial change, it’s a profound one for Ruby.

We want her to know that certain characteristics don't belong to a particular gender. That because she's sensitive and empathetic, doesn’t mean she can't be confident and ambitious.

We want Ruby to be able to see herself as the protagonist in stories, because she is the protagonist in her own life.

As much as we might like to downplay it, the characters that occupy our screens and flood our story books have a substantial impact on our lives.

They help us define who we are, what we want to be and how we view the society in which we live.

Representing many different types of children in the mainstream media tells all kids that their lives and experiences are valued, and it’s something that must start at the very beginning.

From the moment they're born, children are absorbing messages about gender and how that fits into society.

As Ruby’s parents, we fully appreciate that as her first role models and ultimate protectors, we have the fundamental privilege of broadening her opportunities.

We want to widen her horizons, encourage her individuality and build her resilience to be able to defy the societal pressures to conform if she doesn’t want to.

We want to instill these qualities so she can not only advocate for herself, but for others who dare to step outside of the box.

According to research released by Our Watch even though most parents of 0-3 year olds want to treat boys and girls the same in the early years, almost 60 per cent believed that their young children are not influenced by gender stereotypes.

The gaping absence of things like rich and diverse female characters in children’s stories sends the message to girls, like Ruby, that they have a less important role in society.

That because she’s a girl, her most prized possession is her looks. Or, because she’s not a protagonist, she can’t save the world, or overcome adversity without the help of a male.

Conversely, because stories often feature boys and men who are brave and stoic, we’re sending the message to young boys that ‘crying is for girls’ and that it’s okay to use aggression to solve problems.

Little boys need to be encouraged to express their emotions and be given toys and read stories that instil values of nurturance and compassion.

These skills help them to become the best students, partners, employers and fathers they can be.

As well-meaning parents, we can harness our powers to open up a world of varied possibilities and paths for our kids.

It could be as simple as letting them enter an imaginary world where boys can wear pink and princesses can go on an action-filled adventures, without the fear of being judged or being told they’re wrong.

The more we do to untangle the deeply entrenched gender stereotypes that pervade our children’s stories, the more we will encourage them to do and be, whatever they want to be.

And hopefully one day, fiction will mirror reality.