Study finds Disney Princess culture magnifies stereotypes in young girls

June 20, 2016 by Jon Mcbride
Children don't have to completely disengage with princess culture, but parents should foster a wide variety of interests and talk to their kids about media influences, according to new research from BYU. Credit: Mark A. Philbrick/

Parents tend to be careful about what media their children consume and often look to ratings to guide their movie choices. But one symbol might be more powerful than any rating or review—the Disney logo. Heralded by adults and kids alike, Disney Princess animated movies are the quintessential "kids' movies," positive and enjoyable for all.

But new research from BYU family life professor Sarah M. Coyne shows that engagement with Disney Princess culture isn't so harmless—it can influence preschoolers to be more susceptible to potentially damaging stereotypes. These stereotypical behaviors aren't bad in and of themselves, but past research has shown that they can be limiting in the long term for young women.

"I think parents think that the Disney Princess culture is safe. That's the word I hear time and time again—it's 'safe,'" Coyne said. "But if we're fully jumping in here and really embracing it, parents should really consider the long-term impact of the princess culture."

The study, published in Child Development, involved 198 preschoolers and assessed how much they interacted with Disney Princess culture (watching movies, playing with toys, etc.). The assessments of princess engagement and gender-stereotypical behavior were based on reports from parents and teachers and an interactive task where the children would sort and rank their favorite toys from a varied collection of "girl" toys (dolls, tea sets), "boy" toys (action figures, tool sets) and gender-neutral options (puzzles, paint).

The researchers found that 96 percent of girls and 87 percent of boys had viewed Disney Princess media. And while more than 61 percent of girls played with princess toys at least once a week, only four percent of boys did the same.

For both boys and girls, more interactions with the princesses predicted more female gender-stereotypical behavior a year later.


Disney has come a long way, but still has some work to do, says Coyne.
Gendered behavior can become problematic if girls avoid important learning experiences that aren't perceived as feminine or believe their opportunities in life are different as women.

"We know that girls who strongly adhere to female gender stereotypes feel like they can't do some things," Coyne 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."

Greater female stereotypical behavior isn't worrisome for boys because the boys in the study who engaged with Disney Princess media had better body esteem and were more helpful to others. These beneficial effects suggest that princesses provide a needed counterbalance to the hyper-masculine superhero media that's traditionally presented to boys.

However, the negative effects for girls aren't limited to damaging stereotypical behavior alone. The study also shows that girls with worse body esteem engage more with the Disney Princesses over time, perhaps seeking out role models of what they consider to be beautiful.

"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."

Children don't have to completely disengage with princess culture—it's not realistic to avoid the abundant princess movies, toys and branded merchandise. Instead, parents should foster a wide variety of interests and talk to their kids about media influences.

"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."

For both genders, the study discovered that parents who discuss princess media with their children have a significant effect on their children's behavior. Coyne adds that it's important to be careful about the way in which parents talk to their kids about princesses.

"It's frustrating when the dentist sees my daughter and says, 'Look at the little princess!' because she's so much more than that," 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."

Parents also shouldn't be afraid to discuss the good and bad of Disney Princess culture. Coyne says not to get too heavy with younger children, but pointing out the positives and negatives can help kids be more aware of the media they're consuming. She's even done this with her own daughter:

"What drives me crazy is when you get a who's not gender stereotyped, like Merida from Brave," Coyne said. "I took my daughter to see it, and afterward we had a great coversation about how strong, brave and independent Merida was in the movie. And then in the marketing, Disney slims her down, sexualizes her, takes away her bow and arrow, gives her makeup—feminizes her. So then we're at the supermarket and see this 'new Merida' on fruit snacks and soup cans, and I point it out to my daughter and we have a conversation about the difference. And now when we're at the store, she'll see the soup can herself and say, 'That's not the real Merida and I'm not buying it.'

Coyne is not alone in her thinking. In 2013, a petition on change.org from A Mighty Girl has more than 260,000 supporters to #KeepMeridaBrave.

Coyne's daughter was three years old when work began on the study, and while it's rare for Coyne's research to impact her life directly, these findings hit close to home.

"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," Coyne said. "I usually can't say that my research findings have such a personal impact on my life."

Coyne has authored more than 80 studies on media influences, gender, aggression and developmental psychology in top peer-reviewed publications. Her work on how profanity in the media increases teen aggression appeared in Pediatrics and another study on how video games can be good for girls was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Explore further: The science behind your kid's obsession with 'Frozen'

More information: Sarah M. Coyne et al, Pretty as a Princess: Longitudinal Effects of Engagement With Disney Princesses on Gender Stereotypes, Body Esteem, and Prosocial Behavior in Children, Child Development (2016). DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12569

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krundoloss
3.4 / 5 (5) Jun 20, 2016
The issue is that Disney has been making movies for a long time, and they are still getting flak for movies they made in the 30's, 40's and 50's. Anything modern is largely devoid of heroic males and its all about empowering women.

But Disney is still a business, they will do what sells. But in the end, Disney has done more to empower women than any other media company.

I do agree that we should focus more on commenting little girls on their achievements and less on their appearance. Its just so easy to tell a little girl that she is pretty, then it to say that she is strong or friendly.

Sometimes people confuse me, because my daughter is tall and heavy but not fat, and people say "you dont want her to be big do you" and Im thinking "Well how will you have big men if there weren't big women as well." Being petite really means she is less capable, and I dont care about typical female roles enough to downplay my offspring, LOL.
lichdar
1 / 5 (4) Jun 20, 2016
"Coyne has authored more than 80 studies on media influences, gender, aggression and developmental psychology in top peer-reviewed publications. Her work on how profanity in the media increases teen aggression appeared in Pediatrics and another study on how video games can be good for girls was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health."

Glad to know that we have people without any agenda creating "science."
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (4) Jun 20, 2016
The cinderella image signifies the switch from a male-dominated world to a female one.

Males have different reproductive strategies. A male will seek to impregnate as many females as possible to insure that his genes will survive to reproduce. A female however has much more invested in a single pregnancy and will thus seek to secure the best possible donor for each and every child she wishes to bear.

IOW the prerogative for males is quantity while for females it is quality.

The male prerogative was preferred throughout much of history because it could build large armies and populate conquered regions the quickest. This is why females have been restricted to making and raising babies for so long.

But the world is now full and population growth is no longer a preferred strategy. Females have been given the reigns. They are the New World Order. This conversion has taken many gens and considerable effort to complete.
cont>
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (4) Jun 20, 2016
Every girl wants to be cinderella, to hold out for her prince charming, to have the freedom to discern the very best father for her next child rather than to marry the man who has been chosen for her and to stay with him for life.

This is the true meaning of the Freedom to Choose, a freedom that women have not been allowed to have since the Pleistocene.

When women are given the freedom to decide when and if to bear children, growth plummets and society improves dramatically in many ways.

This was what dan brown was talking about in the da vinci code when he suggested that the body of jesus' wife mary magdelene was interred beneath the pyramid in the Louvre courtyard. A symbolic gesture to signify the implementation of this primary reorientation of western culture.
antigoracle
2.1 / 5 (7) Jun 20, 2016
Hmm... Disney harmful to children and they haven't even gotten to alligators.
krundoloss
3.5 / 5 (4) Jun 20, 2016
It seems to me that there is no issue here. Women are empowered, and I do think they really feel that they can do anything a man can do. Stop Fighting this Fight! Its Over. Women Won.

Dare I propose that women are not as prevalent in science, math and engineering and technology because they don't like it as much as men? I find in general that women make better multi-taskers and men make better focus-taskers. Its just how our brains work. Its not anyone's fault.
Otto_Szucks
1.5 / 5 (8) Jun 21, 2016
oh for crying out loud!! The article is about LITTLE GIRLS and how much they enjoy acting out as their idea of a princess. This is NOT about grown women and whether they think highly of themselves or not, or which career they choose. And it shouldn't be, but this Sara Coyne sounds like she doesn't like her daughter to behave like a daughter. She seems to prefer that her daughter (and other little girls) become transgenders or lesbians instead of the sweet little kids that they are.
Let little girls BE little girls. They HAVE plenty of time for all the grownup stuff later. Kids grow up so fast as it is without putting pressure on them to behave and think in a way that is foreign to them, just because some unhappy psychologist needs to unload her own ridiculous misgivings on America's children.
krundoloss
5 / 5 (2) Jun 21, 2016
"We know that girls who strongly adhere to female gender stereotypes feel like they can't do some things," Coyne said. "They're not as confident that they can do well in math and science."


This article is about Little Girls, but at its core its about the effects that stereotypical female role models have on their development.
Gigel
5 / 5 (3) Jun 21, 2016
I think this article is a reaction to an exaggerated action, i.e. media bombardment of people with role models and advice. Maybe people should watch less TV and movies and generally disengage from media and its aggressive hunt for audience, and do what humans have done for thousands of years: go out into nature & society, make some friends, contemplate and look for a state of inner equilibrium and outer productivity instead of numerous role models.
zorro6204
1 / 5 (2) Jun 21, 2016
What a pity we ever let 'em vote.
Forestgnome
1 / 5 (2) Jun 21, 2016
I notice they didn't include Tinkerbell in the study. You know, the princess-like fairy who has to understand how everything works, and fixes machines in spite of the ridicule she receives.
lichdar
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 21, 2016


Its frustrating as heck how we can almost scientifically show that free will isn't a thing, how we can easily demonstrate how neurotransmitters can easily alter behavior and personality, and how certain personalities are better for certain careers.

Yet the single hint that sex might have anything to do with personality is heresy. Even my comment noting bias in social science has to be downvoted to oblivion.

Please be reasonable. The brain is not more sacred than any other body part. Thinkmeats. Variable thinkmeats
lichdar
1 / 5 (2) Jun 21, 2016
What a pity we ever let 'em vote.


Nah, its just an overall issue with social science and quality. Gender science is particularly bad, but its not just specific. While this "study" frustrates me, its better to consider it a wake-up call on how bad social science has become a ground for politicalization. This isn't new and it shouldn't be shocking or to rail about women, its actually pretty old how science justifies politics. Remember phenology? That, too, had /some/ predictable validity. Extremely limited validity, but it didn't stop people from running crazy with it.

Its just something we should call out.
Puzzled
not rated yet Jun 21, 2016
"For both boys and girls, more interactions with the princesses predicted more female gender-stereotypical behavior a year later."

Is this what stands as "science" in the "social sciences"? Since when is correlation the same thing with causation?
kochevnik
1 / 5 (3) Jun 21, 2016
Its frustrating as heck how we can almost scientifically show that free will isn't a thing, how we can easily demonstrate how neurotransmitters can easily alter behavior and personality, and how certain personalities are better for certain careers.
What a pathetic statement to post in the age of quantum computers. Quantum nanotubes were found in neurons years ago. Deal with it
john berry_hobbes
1.7 / 5 (6) Jun 22, 2016
I think all the talk about role models misses the bigger, more direct effect their images have on children, full stop, not just girls. Little boys want girls that look like that and little girls want to look like that. Except people don't look like that. They're freaky. Eyes 1/3 the height of their face... How weird is it to have a nose that is 1/10 the size of your pupil???

So they have cosmetic surgery which is as problematic as gambling. Much more so, based on the rate at which people use it to create big problems in their lives. People that actually fit the "transexual narrative" should be incensed at political/hobby gender changes. It undercuts the whole "it's my biology" argument. The thinking correlated with that obsession is definitely life threatening and lessens its quality. Look at Michael Jackson.
lichdar
not rated yet Jun 25, 2016
Its frustrating as heck how we can almost scientifically show that free will isn't a thing, how we can easily demonstrate how neurotransmitters can easily alter behavior and personality, and how certain personalities are better for certain careers.
What a pathetic statement to post in the age of quantum computers. Quantum nanotubes were found in neurons years ago. Deal with it


If you can demonstrate conscious control over creation of quantum particles, please start by creating endless fishes and bread. Otherwise, randomness doesn't negate determinism by allowing free will, it just creates some randomness(low levels, given we do twin studies and find almost identical decisions).

Now, if you want to pull some Deepak Chopra "wisdom", more power to you....
kochevnik
not rated yet Jun 25, 2016
]What a pathetic statement to post in the age of quantum computers. Quantum nanotubes were found in neurons years ago. Deal with it


If you can demonstrate conscious control over creation of quantum particles, please start by creating endless fishes and bread. Otherwise, randomness doesn't negate determinism by allowing free will, it just creates some randomness(low levels, given we do twin studies and find almost identical decisions).
Determinism is an emergent behavior of quantum mechanics, so your understanding is bass ackwards. There is no true randomness except the number phi, which creates a recursive singularity from which free will emerges. Twin studies beg the question. If they choose conformity they are stereotypical twins. In the other case they are mirror twins. Conformity proves nothing but the will to conform. Moreover twins still have free will, despite correlation
snerdguy
not rated yet Jun 27, 2016
Disney still exposes children gender stereotypes. It's not exactly a news flash. Disney sells cartoons and movies. They appeal to the most profitable market with the products they want and they want too thin princesses to be saved by male heroes. Parents still consistently impart those role models on kids. Many parents live their own fantasies through their kids, present terrible role models for their kids to follow and often, just plain neglect their responsibilities for raising their kids. Even when I was a kid, parents were letting the TV babysit their children and now our kids do similar things to their kids. Disney movies and influences are things that parents can control if they want to. But, they haven't really wanted to since TV was invented. They do like to whine though when their kids grow up to be selfish, unemployable young adults with no sense of responsibility.

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