Children who engage the most with princess culture report more egalitarian attitudes about gender roles, lower adherence to hyper-masculine norms, and better body esteem five years later. This finding comes from a longitudinal study published in the journal Child Development.
Disney’s magical world of princes and princesses has been widely criticized for showcasing gendered stereotypes. Disney princesses tend to embody the thin ideal and be portrayed as submissive and nurturing, while princes are portrayed as brave and strong. Some studies have suggested that these stereotypes are harmful to young children’s gender development, which begins in early childhood.
A research team led by Sarah M. Coyne noted that despite this criticism, there has been very little research on the long-term impacts of princess culture on children’s development. This is particularly interesting given that newer Disney princesses (e.g., Moana) are much less gender-stereotyped than earlier princesses (e.g., Cinderella), with storylines changing to feature princesses in heroic roles rather than romantic ones. The portrayal of male characters has also shifted, with characters taking on feminine characteristics like affection and self-sacrifice.
Coyne and her colleagues conducted a two-wave longitudinal study to investigate how preschool-aged boys’ and girls’ engagement with princess culture would impact their body esteem and attitudes toward gender in later childhood. At the first wave, 307 children and their parents participated, and the average age of children was just below 5 years old.
Parents reported how often their child watched Disney princess movies or television, how strongly their child identified with their favorite princess character, and how often their child played with Disney princess toys. The children completed a toy preference task where indicated how strongly they wanted to play with each toy from a selection of gender-stereotypical and gender-neutral toys. Parents also completed an assessment of their child’s gender-stereotypical behavior and body esteem.
Five years later, 155 of these children participated in the second wave of the study, now with an average age of 10 years old. This time, the children self-reported their engagement with princess culture, their adherence to female gender stereotypes, their attitudes toward women’s roles in society compared to men, and their endorsement of traditional masculine attitudes. The children also completed a measure of body esteem (e.g., “I feel like I am beautiful/handsome even if I am different from pictures and videos of attractive people (e.g., models/actresses/actors)”).
First, it was found that girls who engaged more with princess culture during preschool embraced more egalitarian attitudes toward gender roles in later years. In other words, they were more likely to feel that relationships, careers, and education are equally important for men and women.
Additionally, boys and girls who engaged more with princess culture were less likely to endorse norms of hyper-masculinity, especially if they had a lower socioeconomic status (SES). For example, they were more likely to feel that people should embrace and reveal their emotions within interpersonal relationships rather than hide them.
Moreover, children who engaged more with princess culture had higher body esteem, again especially children of low SES. Themes in newer princess movies often revolve around princesses overcoming obstacles and celebrating achievements instead of their appearance. These body positive themes may encourage children to feel good about their bodies.
The study authors say that it is interesting that some effects were especially strong for children of lower SES. With Disney storylines often featuring characters of lower SES (e.g., Cinderella, a poor girl, and Flynn Rider, a thief and orphan), it may be that children of low SES are identifying more strongly with these characters and picking up the egalitarian attitudes they embody.
Surprisingly, princess culture during the preschool years was not tied to later engagement in female gender-stereotyped behavior. Rather, princess culture appeared to have an overall positive impact on children’s gender development. Coyne and her team say this unexpected finding may reflect the change in Disney’s portrayal of princesses, with princesses shifting toward more androgynous characters that may even be considered feminist.
The study, “Princess Power: Longitudinal Associations Between Engagement With Princess Culture in Preschool and Gender Stereotypical Behavior, Body Esteem, and Hegemonic Masculinity in Early Adolescence”, was authored by Sarah M. Coyne, Jennifer Ruh Linder, McCall Booth, Savannah Keenan-Kroff, Jane E. Shawcroft, and Chongming Yang.