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Our Data: In and Beyond the Gender Binary

A particularly challenging part of our project has been dealing with gender identity within our data. We have a limited amount of information about authors and protagonists, especially since our research has been affected by the spread of COVID-19, and have relied on the pronouns used in primary and secondary materials to assign gender to protagonists and authors. This has lead to issues with the labels we choose to describe our findings.

For example, our data does not show any trans or non-binary authors. This does not mean that our data does not include trans and/or non-binary authors because (1) an author’s gender identity might not be known to the public (2) an author might be misgendered by the media (3) some trans people use binary pronouns, even if they do not entirely identify with a binary gender (4) some people, gender fluid or otherwise, might use different pronouns at different times or in different situations. It’s hard to even list all the possibilities of the way this data might mislabel reality, but that is one of the realities of doing this type of work.

Gender identity has only recently become a part of public dialogue. The lack of non-binary gender identities among the authors of the older works is not surprising; however, this is not to say that no winner or honoree has had a non-binary and/or trans identity. In fact, we doubt this is the case. Further, some trans identities could be invisible in our data as a result of how we report it. If a trans woman won the Newbery next year, would labeling her as a trans woman be preferable to labeling her “just” a woman?

In more recent years, the lack of gender diversity is more worrying. When it comes to protagonists, whose genders are assigned by the author, we can more securely point to a lack of non-binary and/or trans representation rather than a lack of accurate gender information in the data itself. Although gender is not the main subject of our inquiry, we hope our exploration of this subject matter might influence others who can further examine our data for their own purposes. 

These uncertainties lead us to another important decision: what do we choose to report about an author or protagonists’ gender identity, and how do we choose to report this? Right now, we have protagonists and authors listed as either male or female. We have assigned these genders using the pronouns in the books or author biographies we have looked at.

We have struggled with how to use this label… the terms male/female are pretty explicitly connected to biological sex, but they present a much more elegant way to describe gender identity because they can function as adjectives as well as nouns. Outside of academia, these terms are probably more easily digestible and require less explanation. But the issue is… when it comes to authors, we are assigning genders based on incomplete data then using labels which don’t actually describe gender but biological sex.

I have suggested that we simply report which pronouns we have found in primary and secondary materials for both authors and protagonists, as this approach does not require us to make an assumption about gender. It remains to be seen what decision we make as a group, but we will definitely comment on it during our blogs so stay tuned!