Dynamics of Gender Construction in Children's Rhyme

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This research aims at bringing out the way in which the male and female characters are stereotyped in the nursery rhymes viz-a-viz their roles and expectations which is brought forth by comparing and contrasting the two.


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From a very young age, gender stereotypes have been implanted into our minds through various ways especially through the things we read at that time, prominently the nursery rhymes. People are not born as man or woman they are conditioned to be either of the one. “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman”, -Simon de Beauvoir’s formulation in ‘Second Sex’ distinguishes sex from gender and suggests that gender is an aspect of identity which is gradually acquired. Men and women are conditioned to behave in a particular manner based on the societal norms and expectations which are predominantly patriarchal. Children tend to internalize these behavioural patterns which they pass on to the future generations. While boys are seen playing and depicted as the earning and responsible member of the family, girls are often seen playing with dolls, doing household chores, gardening and other menial tasks. Hence, the stereotypes imposed on children restrict the development of their identity otherwise. The gradual internalization of these norms lead to the conditioning of the children to follow these constructed gender roles strictly when they grow up.

This paper attempts to highlight the major role that nursery rhymes have in making the children internalize these gender stereotypes.


Domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning and washing are life skills. A person whether male or female has to do it individually for a living. In a family set up, when people come together under the same roof, they tend to divide the roles and responsibilities based on who feels most comfortable doing a particular task so that it doesn’t become tiresome and tedious for a single person. The problem arises when the roles chosen by a particular gender are made typecast for them and with this the societal expectations are set-up in a rigid manner. With time this social construct is conventionalized and stereotyped; deviation of which is disregarded. Thus, a structure develops which the society blindly follows.


The researcher has selected a group of nursery rhymes of English language which began to be taught in schools during the colonization of India by Britishers and are taught in Indian schools even today, after more than 70 years of Independence.

These rhymes originated in Britain talking about the culture and society of England at that time. The authorship of these rhymes is still in question. It is believed that these rhymes were jingles sang in order to entertain the children by their grandmother, Mother Goose, which later gained popularity as Mother Goose Rhymes. Charles Perrault was the first to actually publish a Mother Goose collection of rhymes and other folk tales in 1697.

The following nursery rhymes of English language would be taken into consideration for analysis. From each rhyme the words, or phrases which are gender specific would be identified along with the implication that they have. All the rhymes would be analyzed individually as well as in references to the others in the group which will lead us to uncover the ideologies lying behind these texts.

Sing a song of Six pence.

Chubby Cheeks.

Queen Anee, Queen Anee.

Polly put the kettle on.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

Jack and Jill.

Ten little firemen.

Miss Polly had a Dolly.

Thank you for my mother dear.

A wise old owl.

Little boy Sunny.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary.

Molly, my sister and I fell out.


Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater.

Gender Construction through Nursery Rhymes:

Human mind is a ‘tabula rasa’ at birth and the nursery rhymes are the earliest things that they come in contact with during the formative years of their cognitive development. Hence, these have a lasting impact on the minds of the young toddlers, in shaping their perception of the world around them.

In most of the rhymes we find a secondary role prescribed to woman. Females are usually depicted as ‘damsels in distress’ who need a hero, a savior to help them out of the situation. Females are just portrayed as being pretty or doing menial tasks of lesser importance. If we look at the poems like, ‘Sing a song of Six pence’, here, the female persona like the queen and the maid are shown as ‘eating bread and honey in the parlor’ and ‘ hanging out clothes in the garden’ respectively. On the other hand, ‘the king’ has some actual work to do that is ‘counting his money in the counting- house’. Also, here we see that women, especially belonging to the lower strata of the society (maids), are subjugated to violence, where the blackbird ‘snipped her nose’.

Other instances are there where we see how beauty standards are defined in the poems like ‘Chubby cheeks’ and ‘Queen Anee, Queen Anee’, where one propagates the notion that for being a ‘teacher’s pet’ one has to be beautiful, having ‘Chubby cheeks’, ‘dimple chin’, ’rosy lips, ‘curly hair’, ‘ blue eyes’ and has to be ‘very fair’ while the other states how a Queen is always ‘As fair as a lily, as white as a wand’.

‘Polly put the kettle on’ is a classic example where the female of the house are expected to ‘put the kettle on’ to prepare tea for all. Also, ‘the old woman’ who lived in a shoe had so many children to look after, she had to ‘give them broth’ and had to ‘put them all to bed’. Mothers are always shown as ‘caring’ and ‘loving’, as in the rhyme ‘Thank you for my mother dear’. In ‘The Ten little firemen’, all firefighters are men, there is no mention of a firewoman. Similarly, the ‘postman’ of ‘Rat-a-tat tat!’ is a ‘man’ who bring the letters. The ‘Polly’ of ‘Miss Polly had a Dolly’ is a timid girl with a ‘sick doll’ which resonates the notion that she is in need of help and that she gets from a doctor who is a male. She had ‘phoned the doctor’ and ‘the doctor came up with his hat and his bag’. We see similar disparity when it comes to ‘Jack and Jill’ where Jill acts a subsidiary to Jack. So, when Jack fell down Jill also ‘came tumbling after’. When we see the second half of the poem we realize that the poem talks much about what happened to Jack after the fall but Jill completely vanishes from the scene. Jack ‘got up, and home did trot’ and the ‘old Dame Dob’ ‘patched his knob’. Another aspect to focus on here is that the job of nursing which as always is ascribed to the female persona. On the other hand the qualities of being ‘wise’, ‘bold and courageous’ is ascribed to male figures, ‘A wise old owl’ is a classic example where an owl is shown to be wise where the use of pronoun ‘he’ make it prominent that it has to be a male, which indirectly develops a link between wisdom and male sex.

And when we talk about exchanging roles or demeanour, it is considered inappropriate or funny. When ‘little boy sunny’ and ‘little girl bunny’ had ‘exchanged dresses’, they looked extremely ‘funny’. Such kind of role reversal is considered highly in appropriate. The controlling behavior of males is also reflectd through these rhymes, where ‘Peter-the pumpkin eater’ had a wife and couldn’t keep her well. So, he locked him up in a shell and there he kept her very well.

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