I have very occasionally been asked the question, “Why are all Mr Men good and all Little Miss bad?” I’m sure this was meant to be rhetorical, with the underlying assumption that all Mr Men are good and all Little Miss are bad, but my admittedly limited recall was not in agreement with this statement. I was sure Little Miss Sunshine existed for start and unless exposure to her was the cause of skin disease, I didn’t remember her being bad as such. I also remembered Mr Uppity, a wealthy character who was rude to everyone and could potentially run for parliament as a member of the Conservative party. I don’t think he could be considered good per se.
For those who are unaware, the Mr Men and Little Miss are a series of semi-popular children books, originally written by Roger Hargreaves, which took shapes, gave them faces and one bit of a personality and asked us to enjoy ourselves by judging their actions. Luckily, their popularity meant other people had heard of these Euclidian protagonists. When I asked others about the Mr Men/Little Miss morality divide, the general response was not that Mr Men were good and Little Miss were bad, but that the characters as a group were sexist. It was generally felt that the characters conformed to harmful gender stereotypes. This is certainly understandable. For a start they all live in Misterland. The place they live in is actually named just after the males of the population. It’s like if the countries were called Manada, Mance or Oman. Which is obviously ridiculous. Secondly, the female characters’, the Little Miss’, creation began in 1981, much later than the Mr Men, whose creation began in 1971. I don’t know the actual reasoning behind this, but it does somewhat make the Little Miss seem like an afterthought. Finally (for this list, by no means for all reasons why Mr Men/Little Miss might be sexist) why don’t the Little Miss follow the same naming convention as the Mr Men? Why aren’t they the Ms Women? Or something better? “Little Miss” seems a little demeaning, like describing something that’s demeaning as “a little demeaning.”
There is very little reason to even divide the characters based on binary gender. If they were real people, we could say that they each identify with a gender or different aspects of genders i.e. they all have different traits as people, and that would be fine. Except that these are characters which have been assigned a traditional gender and a specific characteristic. We don’t know how this decision is made other than the gendered title is not based on primary or secondary sexual characteristics. There’s nothing specific about the characters that even make them stereotypically male or female other than their names. They’re all just shapes with personalities. Technically I suppose this is true for most people.
So far these are all opinions based on perceptions. Perceptions, psychologically speaking, are prone to an enormous amount of bias. For example, Distinction Bias, where there is a tendency when considering two things to see them as more dissimilar when evaluating them at the same time than when evaluating them separately. Like when comparing different pairs of jeans in a shop and tiny differences are magnified, but really they’re all incredibly similar because they’re just blue trousers for crying out loud! Or potentially when comparing Mr Men and Little Miss. Or there’s Trait Ascription Bias; where individuals consider themselves to be variable in terms of behaviour and mood, while considering others to be much more consistent and predictable. To be fair, this may be understandable when it comes to the Mr Men and Little Miss. Our judgement on the relative goodness of Mr Men and Little Miss may therefore be influenced by such bias. Can the morality of these shapely (literally) populations be objectively examined?
Each book in the original Mr. Men and Little Miss series introduced a different title character with a single dominant personality to convey a moral lesson. The dominant personality trait was also their name. Luckily this is not how humans or Piers Morgan are named. To examine whether the Mr Men and Little Miss are separated by some sort of weird moral judgement, it should therefore be relatively easy to use their names to observe if there are any trends.
The populations of Mr Men (n=50) and Little Miss (n=37) were examined. Based on their names alone, each character was assigned a moral weighting of good, bad or neutral. For example, Little Miss Brainy was considered good, Mr Greedy was considered bad and Mr Bounce was considered neutral. These decisions were just made by me, which will almost certainly introduce a source of bias towards my own values, determined by upbringing, culture, socialisation and so on, regarding what’s good, bad and neutral. I could have attempted to correct this by hiring a suitably varied team of Hargreaves-trained research assistants and averaging their judgements, but I haven’t the money, time, inclination or money.
The proportion of the total population for each moral assignation was then calculated. No further statistical tests were performed to compare the two populations, as the numbers involved weren’t large enough to make these comparisons meaningful. Any differences observed can therefore be considered trends or as a real statistician might technically call them, “nonsense.”
As Figure 1 illustrates, contrary to what was originally proposed, there were fewer good (18 vs. 24%) and more bad (48% vs. 38%) Mr Men compared with Little Miss. So it would seem that generally Mr Men are (a bit) morally worse than Little Miss.
Figure 1. Moral Proportions of the Populations of Mr Men and Little Miss.
However, we know that what is considered morally good or bad changes over time. For example, it was formerly considered a moral failing to be left handed. This attitude is now agreed to be a bit sinister. Previously there was a lot of public judgement as to the type of clothing women should wear. Nowadays, this is also done on social media. There may be one or two other examples in history. Perhaps the moral association of the Mr Men and Little Miss has also changed with time. To examine this, the populations of Mr Men and Little Miss were divided into new and old characters based on whether the book featuring them was published before or after 1990. This year was selected as a fairly natural cut-off as in 1988, Roger Hargreaves unfortunately died and his son, Adam, began writing and illustrating new stories and characters.
Figure 2. Moral Proportions of the Populations of Old and New Mr Men and Little Miss.
Figure 2 illustrates that there are fewer good (10% vs. 24%) and more bad (56% vs. 48%) old Mr Men compared with old Little Miss. It can also be seen that there were fewer good (18% vs. 25%) and more bad (25% vs. 18%) new Mr Men compared with new Little Miss.
From a slightly different perspective we can also see from these data that (numerically at least) there are more good and fewer bad new Mr Men than old Mr Men and approximately the same number of good, but fewer bad new Little Miss than old Little Miss. So it would seem:
- Mr Men have been historically morally worse than Little Miss and continue to be so into the present day
- New Mr Men are morally better than old Mr Men
- New Little Miss are more morally neutral than old Little Miss
Because we’re humans with prejudices and bias, it is easy to interpret these trends in a number of ways. For example, it may be argued that it displays the prejudice of the the Mr Men and Little Miss book series, with the Mr Men being allowed more complex characters and the Little Miss, where they have moral character at all, being relegated to the old “good, sweet and innocent” stereotype. Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little female polygons are made of. Without looking in greater detail at the actual traits assigned, it is difficult if not impossible to say what this may reveal; if there is any stereotyping present or if these trends are simply random.
It could be argued that rather than morals changing over time, these data show the change in morals between Roger and Adam Hargreaves. I don’t know either of them, so can’t really say anything in that regard, but I do know that books are rarely just produced by one person on their own and the differences will at least reflect the views of two teams.
Judgement across gender stereotyping is obviously more complicated than a seemingly simple good versus bad dichotomy. The idea of gender as a binary concept is laden with all sorts of complex and subtle stereotypes and comparisons. It may be possible to broadly determine if there are any obvious stereotypical comparisons by matching the names within the Mr. Men and Little Miss populations to see if they conform to any traditional gender roles.
To examine the roles of the Mr Men and Little Miss, the populations were examined to see if their names could be paired with a counterpart with the same meaning e.g. Mr. Birthday and Little Miss Birthday, with a counterpart with the opposite meaning e.g. Mr Messy and Little Miss Tidy, or if there was no counterpart e.g. Mr. Moustache. Where pairs were available, the moral weighting (good or bad) and the meaning of the names themselves were compared. Again, it was just me that was checking, so interpretation is potentially based on any prejudice I may have lurking within my poor tired brain.
Table 1. Matched and Opposing Mr Men and Little Miss Characters
From Table 1 we can see that is was relatively more common for Mr Men to be matched with Little Miss than for them to be opposing. We should perhaps be pleased about this meagre hint of equality, although it is perhaps notable that the majority of the matching pairs may be considered bad characteristics.
Where the Mr Men and Little Miss are compared in terms of their opposite character, they seem to be reasonably balanced in terms of which group is good or bad. However, when we look at the actual words associated with the Little Miss (tidy, neat, helpful, scary) and Mr Men (messy, brave, mean) it begins to sound too much like the parents in a sitcom for us to be comfortable about the lack of gender stereotyping. The sitcom where the husband is the silly, humorous idiot and the wife is an attractive, home-based nag. I’m sure you know the one. However, these characters represent only 13% of the total pooled population. This is perhaps too small a proportion with which to judge all of the 2D people.
In summary, we have managed to get a few bits of information by looking at the total population of Mr Men and Little Miss. We know that the population of Mr Men contains more bad characters than the population of Little Miss and this is also the case historically. Pretty much just like with humans. We also know that stereotyping is likely present in this population, but we can’t say more without cooperation between more people. Pretty much just like with humans. Finally, we know that gender and how it can be used to stereotype is a complex issue (even the word gender means different things to different individuals) and that there is a lot of thought needed to advance many issues in this field. Pretty much just like with shapes with personalities.