Gender Roles in Children's Literature: An Analysis of Walt Disney's Cinderella

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Sex Roles (2007) 56:717–727
DOI 10.1007/s11199-007-9236-y

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

The Production of Meaning through Peer Interaction:
Children and Walt Disney’s Cinderella
Lori Baker-Sperry

Published online: 5 June 2007
# Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2007

Abstract For many years researchers have understood that
gender roles in children’s literature have the capacity to create and reinforce “meanings” of femininity and masculinity
(Currie, Gend. Soc., 11: 453–477, 1997; Gledhill, Genre
and gender: The case of soap opera. In S. Hall (Ed.),
Representation (pp. 339–383). London: Sage, 1985; Tatar,
Off with their heads!: Fairy tales and the culture of
childhood. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993;
Zipes, Happily ever after. New York: Routledge, 1997). The
purpose of this study was to investigate children’s interpretation of a popular gendered fairy tale at the level of peer interaction. Walt Disney’s Cinderella was used in elementary school reading groups to investigate the ways that children

understand messages regarding gender and the influence of
peer culture on the production of meaning. The findings
indicate that gender and gendered expectations were essential to the process of interpretation and the construction of
meaning for the children. Gender unified the boys and girls
into two distinct groups, particularly around the “girls’ book,” Cinderella. Gender was reinforced along traditional lines in the peer group, serving as a deterrent to the production of
alternate interpretations to traditional messages in the text. Keywords Gender . Peer interaction . Children . Agency .
Cinderella

Introduction
Children’s literature has long been cited as a vehicle for the transmission of gendered values and messages (Weitzman et
L. Baker-Sperry (*)
Department of Women’s Studies, Western Illinois University, 500 Currens Hall,
Macomb, IL 61455, USA
e-mail: L-Baker-Sperry@wiu.edu

al. 1972; Agee 1993; Zipes 1997). The ability of children’s literature to impart meaning and reflect social constructions of masculinity and femininity to its readers has also been
documented (Currie 1997; Gledhill 1985; Zipes 1997). More
recently, particular attention has been paid to the influence of peer culture in the construction of meaning derived from
media sources, children’s literature included (Corsaro 1997; Currie 1997; Davies 1990; Milkie 1994; Pike and Jennings
2005). The purpose of the present study was to examine how
children’s peer culture influences the interpretation of
gendered messages derived from children’s literature.
Interpretive Reproduction and Children’s Peer Culture
Children are inventive and resourceful social participants in the preservation (reproduction), interpretation, and formation of their social world as they actively interpret the social world by constructing the meaning of social messages

(Corsaro 1997, 1992). Corsaro (1997) stated that children
“quickly appropriate, use, and transform symbolic culture
as they produce and participate in peer culture” (p. 100). This view of the child’s active interpretation of the social world, termed interpretive reproduction, conceptualizes
children as research participants and social individuals.
Children appropriate messages and meanings from the
world of adults and filter them through their own understanding and experiences. Children’s responses to social messages indicate their ability to understand and make meaning of the social world. This does not occur simply as the child’s

reaction to social messaging, however. The process of
interpretation is most effectively negotiated at the level of interaction where understanding is conceptualized, organized, and reaffirmed through peer identity (Corsaro 1997; Currie
1997; Davies 1990; Miller et al. 1990). Through interaction
that occurs within everyday routines (Corsaro 1997),

Sex Roles (2007) 56:717–727

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children are able to learn the rules of the social...
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