A new study released from Brigham Young University suggests that engagement with Disney Princess culture may reinforce gendered stereotypes in young girls. While it's no secret that Disney Princesses don't always make for the best role models, this study may challenge parents to critically monitor the Disney Princess-themed media and products consumed by their young daughters.
The new study was helmed by BYU family life professor Sarah M. Coyne and was published in Child Development. The study aimed to look at how a group of 198 preschoolers interacted with Disney Princess culture.
The study found that 96 percent of girls viewed Disney Princess media, while 87 percent of boys did. However, only 4 percent of boys played with princess toys at least once a week, while 61 percent of girls did. According to the study, the more a young boy or girl interacted with Disney Princess culture, the more likely they were to engage in gender-stereotypical behavior one year later.
This can be problematic, according to Coyne. "We know that girls who strongly adhere to female gender stereotypes feel like they can't do some things," she said. "They're not as confident that they can do well in math and science. They don't like getting dirty, so they're less likely to try and experiment with things."
For young boys, on the other hand, it seems engaging with Disney Princess culture may actually be a positive thing. According to the study, the young boys showed better body esteem and were more helpful to othersafter engaging with princess culture, perhaps as a counteraction to the hyper-masculine culture of superhero and military media that is marketed towards boys.
The young girls did not fare so well in the study, though. The girls who were subject to more princess culture developed worse body esteem over time, perhaps believing that beauty was only found in the unrealistic standards of the Disney Princess model.
"Disney Princesses represent some of the first examples of exposure to the thin ideal," Coyne said. "As women, we get it our whole lives, and it really does start at the Disney Princess level, at age three and four."
Coyne stressed that this study should not discourage children and their parents from engaging in Disney Princess culture, but rather that it should be one factor among many in a child's life, including other interests and activities.
"I'd say, have moderation in all things," Coyne said. "Have your kids involved in all sorts of activities, and just have princesses be one of many, many things that they like to do and engage with."
Coyne's own daughter was young at the time of the study, and she made sure to engage in conversations with her child about princesses and the way women and girls are portrayed in media. Coyne said, "When we talk to little girls, we hear less of 'You're so smart, you worked so hard, your body can do great things!' but that is the more important message we should be sending."
Coyne stressed that parents should not be afraid to have honest conversations with their young boys and girls about the positives and negatives present in Disney Princess culture. It's never too early to have a conversation with your child; if they're old enough to consume the culture, they're old enough to think and talk about it.
Loving Disney Princess culture and media doesn't have to limit young girls to gendered stereotypes and thought patterns. However, without the guidance and responsible mediation of a parent, little girls could turn out much more like helpless Snow White and much less like brave and complex Merida.