The past decade has seen much controversial debate surrounding Disney princesses. Are they positive role models? Do they promote unrealistic ideals of beauty? Are they diverse enough? Should they really be foisted upon impressionable little girls?
We’ve seen Disney’s most popular princesses, from Cinderella and Snow White to The Little Mermaid’s Ariel, re-imagined in a myriad of different ways - with no make-up, with more realistic body shapes, as 'real-life' women, even as hipsters, proving that the fascination with these characters runs deep even among adults.
Now one study has found that concerns surrounding the effect these princesses may be having on girls and their perception of femininity and self esteem, are far from unfounded.
Published in the Child Development journal, the new study explores the effect heavy engagement with Disney princesses has on gender stereotypes, body image and prosocial behaviour among children, by assessing the ways in which 198 pre-school children interacted with Disney princess films and toys.
The researchers gathered reports from parents and teachers about the behaviours of the children following their engagement with the princesses, and also set the children interactive tasks to complete.
When it comes to little girls and their expectations of what it means to be feminine, the results are somewhat worrying. According to the findings, 'princess culture' influences girls in a way that makes them more susceptible to stereotypical behaviours.
What’s the major issue there? As these children grow up, that effect becomes heightened, which can become limiting in terms of life choices, expectations and experiences.
“I think parents think that the Disney Princess culture is safe. That’s the word I hear time and time again—it’s ‘safe,’” says Sarah M. Coyne, associate professor of family life at Brigham Young University, and lead author of the study.
“But if we’re fully jumping in here and really embracing it, parents should really consider the long-term impact of the princess culture.”
That long-term impact, she explains, includes a strong adherence to often sexist female stereotypes, which in later life can affect everything from career choices to roles within the home. Body image should be considered, too.
“Disney Princesses represent some of the first examples of exposure to the thin ideal,” notes Coyne. “As women, we get it our whole lives, and it really does start at the Disney Princess level, at age three and four.”
The study also found that girls with lower body esteem tend to engage more with Disney Princesses over time. The reason, researchers conclude, is that these girls may be seeking out role models of what they consider to be beautiful.
But while princess culture was found to have a negative effect on girls, the findings differed for the boys in the group. Rather than having a damaging effect, exposure to princess culture actually helped to instill more balanced behaviour.
Little boys who watched films such as Cinderella or Frozen, later displayed more prosocial behaviour both at school and at home. They were more likely to share toys and help others.
“Princess media and engagement may provide important models of femininity to young boys, who are typically exposed to hypermasculine media,” the team of researchers write in their summary of findings.
“It may be that boys who engage more with Disney Princesses, while simultaneously being exposed to more androgynous Disney princes, demonstrate more androgyny in early childhood, a trait that has benefits for development throughout the life span.”
So is Coyne and her team calling for a ban on princess culture? No. But moderation is advised, along with more conversation surrounding the portrayals of gender stereotypes within children’s films.
“When we talk to little girls, we hear less of ‘You’re so smart, you worked so hard, your body can do great things,’” says Coyne. “But that is the more important message we should be sending.
“This study has changed the way I talk to my daughter, the things I focus on, and it’s been really good for me as a parent to learn from this study.”
Lead image: Disney