The fictional worlds of children’s books and films are ripe with gender stereotypes. Female characters are underrepresented, simplified, and typically hold back their anger to appear like ‘good girls.’ Meanwhile, male characters typically appear strong, domineering, and entitled.
Signý Kolbeinsdóttir, co-founder and creator of Tulipop, sees that these stereotypes have no basis in reality. Humans are complex and act in ways that transgress traditional ideas of gender. She wants her stories to portray such characters so that children may relate to them and find inspiration to be themselves.
Girls are not just pretty When Signý reflects on children’s TV shows and books, she remarks that most of them do not display girls in an interesting way. “I see stereotypes on TV that don’t exist in the real world,” she says. “I see girls who are fragile-looking flowers, who don’t dare to speak their minds and are just there to look pretty.”
As a little girl, the only books Signý could relate to were created by Scandinavian writers and illustrators such as the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. She explains that these stories did not limit the scope of the characters’ humanity.
“Astrid Lindgren didn’t simplify what girls ‘like to do’ to mean only one thing,” Signý says. “Her female characters were brave and adventurous, but they could also be girly girls. Her stories didn’t make assumptions about what it means to be a girl.”
Relatable characters For Signý, such depictions are essential because they are reflections of real human beings.
“No one is just their gender,” she says. “Human beings are far more complex. Not just adults; children are also complex. I want to create something that children can relate to. I do not want to create an ideal they think they have to aspire to in order to act their gender and please our world’s understanding of what it means to be a boy or a girl.”
Signý Kolbeinsdóttir the co-founder and creator of Tulipop
Kids learn from TV Without a focus on creating multidimensional characters, Signý believes that children’s TV shows and books may harm how children perceive themselves. “The fictional worlds we create for children become their reality. They learn how to behave, they learn what it means to be a boy or a girl, in part, from the stories we tell.”
“When a boy sees Spiderman, he might think masculinity means being physically strong and protective,” she continues. “We don’t have a representational balance whereby we show little boys that it’s also ok to show emotions, to read books or play with dolls if that’s who you are and what you like to do.”
Storytelling as healing As children observe characters in books and films that challenge gender stereotypes, Signý hopes each child will find characters they can relate to – characters who freely express themselves and who can help children feel free to be who they are.
“TV shows that use gender stereotypes don’t help kids figure out how they feel,” she says. “For me, that’s a big part of storytelling – helping children process their own feelings. That’s why I like to create stories.”
Instead of telling children how to behave through stereotypical portrayals of gender roles, Signý is cognizant that her stories could help children question such roles. Confident that fictional characters can support children as they process the world and their feelings, Signý stands by Tulipop’s aim to transform limiting perceptions of gender.