Transgressie in die voorstelling van gender in Die avonture van Wilde Willemientjie deur Riana Scheepers en Vian Oelofsen

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Prenteboeke kan kragtige werktuie in die manipulering van jong kinders tot die aanvaarding van gestereotipeerde genderrolle wees. Kinders identifiseer met die karakters in storieboeke en vorm sodoende ’n eie mening oor die self en die wêreld om hulle. Die prenteboek met sy potensiële magte van kreatiwiteit, verbeelding en vryheid kan dus ’n belangrike rol in die ontwikkeling van genderidentiteit by klein kinders speel. Volgens ’n redelik onlangse studie onderneem deur Hamilton, Anderson, Broaddus en Young (2006) is seksisme in kinderboeke ongelukkig steeds aan die orde van die dag. Literatuur kan beskou word as die draer van die kultuur van ’n gemeenskap. Binne hierdie dominante kultuur word manlike karakters meestal voorgestel as sterk, dapper en slim, terwyl meisies die stil, stadige moederlikes sonder ’n wil van hul eie is. In hierdie artikel word die voorstelling van gender in die kinderboek Die avonture van Wilde Willemientjie deur Riana Scheepers, met illustrasies deur Vian Oelofsen, deur middel van diskoersanalise ondersoek. Daar is bevind dat die vroulike protagonis in hierdie boek sterk, eiesinnig, slim en selfhandhawend is. Met hierdie boek bied die skrywer en die illustreerder die jong leser ’n humoristiese alternatiewe diskoers tot dominante genderideologie. Die term genderideologie verwys na die algemene opvatting oor gepaste rolle vir, en verantwoordelikhede van, vroue en mans binne die gemeenskap. Deur patrone van klank, herhaling en ritme skep die skrywer-digter ’n alternatief tot, en ’n parodie op, die dominante kultuur se reëls van sogenaamd “behoorlike” gedrag vir seuns en meisies. Die illustrasies ondersteun die subversiewe aard van die teks. Dit is my bevinding dat die bestaande orde van gendervooroordeel suksesvol uitgedaag word.
From birth onwards children are exposed to gender stereotyping. When a baby is born, response to it is defined by its biological sex. Researchers in the field of early child development argue that through language and discourse, culture constructs the boundaries that define properly manifested expressions of gender (Wickens 2011:150). Picture books can be powerful tools in the manipulation of young children into accepting stereotypical gender roles. Children identify with the characters in the books to which they have access and through them the young child constructs an own opinion of the self and the surrounding world. The picture book, with its potential forces of creativity, imagination and freedom, can play an important part in the development of gender roles in small children. According to research undertaken by Hamilton, Anderson, Broaddus and Young (2006:757) sexism in children’s books unfortunately is alive and well and literature can be seen as the transmitter of society’s culture. Male characters are often portrayed as being the strong, brave and clever ones, while the girls are quiet and motherly, with no will of their own. This behaviour is not innate but a result of the pressure of societal roles thrust on women/girls and men/boys by a male-dominated society. According to Hamilton et al. the stereotypical representation of women in children’s literature can be harmful to the development of children. It can hamper their career aspirations and their attitude towards being a parent. It can also impede their personal development. As children are not mere passive observers, they develop within the reigning order of structure. They develop a set of rules to live by in accordance with the world they perceive around them. It is within this strong and rigid gendered society that picture book characters find themselves and it is within this stereotyped milieu that these characters must be presented as subversive and exciting. Unambiguous gender transgression in picture books gives children liberating access to an adventurous subversion of existing socio-cultural notions. In this article I utilise discourse analysis to explore the ways in which an Afrikaans picture book has constructed and represented masculinity and femininity in text and image. I chose Die avonture van Wilde Willemientjie by Riana Scheepers and Vian Oelofsen because it is boldly subversive. Throughout the analysis I indicate the ways in which assumptions are dealt with subversively. A simple coding chart was used and on every page (including the cover page) both text and pictures were analysed. The actions, characteristics and language of main and co-characters were investigated according to a list based on the model as presented by Williams, Vernon and Malecha (1987:153). Aspects investigated include appearance, activities, roles and language, as well as the sex of the main and important co-characters. The aim was to investigate ways in which masculinity and femininity were portrayed in a picture book for young children. Although it is certainly not the only way to read a book, feminist theory allows one the opportunity to look at things you have “cheerfully ignored before” (Paul 1998:17). I was looking for questions to ask, not necessarily for answers to those questions – it was more a way of looking and investigating. Some of these questions were: Whose story is this? Who is named and who is not? Who is on top (hierarchical ordering)? Who gets punished and who gets praised? Who speaks and who is silenced? Who acts and who is acted upon? The text in Die avonture van Wilde Willemientjie is in rhyme format. Poetry can be associated with the irrational, the imaginary and natural feelings. In this text the reader finds a free flow of rhythm and rhyme. The sound patterns are lyrical, almost ecstatic. Through these sound patterns the writer-poet supports the female protagonist in the transgression of gender boundaries. The illustrator also challenges gender boundaries with his imaginative illustrations. He offers the reader a magical milieu in which the characters live. Willemien is portrayed as a symbol of uninhibited, independent girlhood. In this book the protagonist is a wilful, strong, clever and assertive little girl and through it Scheepers and Oelofsen offer the young reader a humorous alternative discourse to dominant gender ideologies. This implies attitudes regarding the appropriate roles and responsibilities of women and men in society. Through patterns of sound, repetition and rhythm, Scheepers and Oelofsen create an alternative to and parody of the dominant culture’s rules of so-called appropriate behaviour for boys and girls. As part of the reading experience children make sense of cultural notions of gender – probably the most basic dimension through which children can observe and decide where they fit in. Their perceptions of gender influence the way they interact with one another as well as the way they see themselves. The picture books to which they are exposed can also introduce them to notions and views that challenge cultural norms. Scheepers and Oelofsen sensitively reflect the changing role of women and girls in society. When choosing a book, parents and teachers should be on the lookout for well- written books which portray well-rounded individuals with well-defined personalities. It is very important for characters to be judged in terms of who they are and not in terms of their gender. In this book gender construction is subverted by emphasising that the female protagonist has freedom of choice and that her value is not limited by physical appearance or gender. Scheepers and Oelofsen’s robust humour offers young readers access to an alternative discourse that challenges existing ideologies of gender bias. The question could be asked whether sexism in picture books for children really matters. According to Hamilton et al. (2006:757) there can be no doubt about the importance of this issue. It is only logical to assume that gender bias in books is real and that stereotyping of gender roles and the under-representation of female characters will be negative for the development of children. Picture books can offer children an introduction to opinions other than their own. Their notion of sexuality can influence the way they regard themselves and others. Picture books can be the first conveyors of ideas to confront cultural norms of gender bias. Die avonture van Wilde Willemientjie allows gender restrictions to fade. It represents a shift away from gender stereotyping. The presentation of gender is subject to the story/illustrations. Gender construction is subverted by emphasising that the protagonist can be worthy irrespective of gender.
CITATION: Loubser, H. 2012. Transgressie in die voorstelling van gender in Die avonture van Wilde Willemientjie deur Riana Scheepers en Vian Oelofsen. LitNet Akademies, 9(1):1-8.
The original publication is available at
Gender identity in literature, Scheepers, Riana, Oelofsen, Vian, 1974-, Avonture van wilde Willemientjie, Cartoon characters -- Juvenile literature, Stereotypes (Social psychology)
Loubser, H. 2012. Transgressie in die voorstelling van gender in Die avonture van Wilde Willemientjie deur Riana Scheepers en Vian Oelofsen. LitNet Akademies, 9(1):1-8