Can an algorithm unpick gender bias in storytelling?

A new illustrated book of classic fairytales uses technology to illuminate gender bias by reversing the gender of the characters and narratives

With their new book of children’s stories, Gender Swapped Fairy Tales, illustrator and author Karrie Fransman and creative technologist Jonathan Plackett are hoping to raise questions and present new ideas around many of the best-known fairytales.

While the problematic history of fairytales is by now well documented, with the likes of Disney recently introducing a broader range of female characters to its stories, the fact remains that many classic fairytales, despite their problematic depictions of gender, continue to be read and watched by children.

Fransman knows this all too well – her three-year-old daughter often asks to be read tales like Little Red Riding Hood. Fransman and Plackett, who are married, decided to create the book after fully digesting the harmful and severely outdated stereotypes embedded in fairytales that would be passed onto their daughter at such an early age. And it seems they’re not alone in searching for revised texts. Due to early demand, the book is already on its third reprint, and Fransman says the book has proven widely popular among parents, children and teachers alike.

The precursor to the idea was Plackett’s observation of how politicians were discussed in the media depending on their gender. The article that triggered it commented on the shoes worn by two women political leaders, and prompted him to try and imagine a world “where David Cameron met Barack Obama and everyone was talking about their shiny brogues,” she recalls.

In response, Plackett started to explore the idea of creating a “gender swapping algorithm”, where a computer would automatically alter the gender of those in stories to see the effect it had. He initially thought about applying it to newspaper articles, since that’s what inspired it, but Fransman insisted on running fairytales through it instead, and started researching Victorian era novelist and poet Andrew Lang, who was known as a collector of fairytales and publisher of Langs’ Fairy Books. While researching, Fransman and Plackett found that Andrew’s wife, Nora, had in fact been responsible for much of the output, yet her name didn’t appear on the covers or spines. And so the material for the project was decided.