New research published in Psychology of Popular Media sheds light on how engagement with princess culture impacts children. The study found that, among children whose favorite Disney princess had an average-sized body, engaging in pretend princess play was linked to better body esteem and increased participation in activities typically associated with both boys and girls. These findings suggest that certain princess portrayals can positively influence children’s self-perception and encourage a broader range of play activities.
The study was motivated by the widespread cultural impact of Disney princesses on children’s development and the growing concerns surrounding the potential implications of princess culture. With the release of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and the subsequent establishment of the Disney Princess Line in the early 2000s, princesses have become a significant facet of childhood across the globe, generating substantial revenue and a vast array of branded products.
However, alongside their popularity, critiques emerged, predominantly revolving around the reinforcement of gender stereotypes and the promotion of an unrealistic “thin ideal.” Despite these concerns, empirical research on the actual impact of engagement with Disney princesses on young children’s development had been limited.
“There is very little media made with girls and women in mind relative to media created for boys and men,” said study author Jane Shawcroft of UC Davis. “But when media is created for girls, it tends to be extremely meaningful (e.g., the Barbie movie). While Disney princesses are flawed, they are one of the few media genres for children that features women and their stories. I want to understand how media created for girls impacts children’s development. Specifically, I am interested in how we can leverage girl-focused media to support healthy development long term for all children.”
The researchers used data collected from an ongoing longitudinal study called Project M.E.D.I.A., which focuses on child development in a media-saturated world. The participants were recruited through various methods, including mailers, flyers in pediatrician offices, social services offices, and referrals from friends who were also participating. The data for the specific study were collected during the COVID-19 pandemic, with participants completing online surveys.
The sample for the study consisted of 414 primary caregivers of 421 children, aged approximately 3.5 years at Time 1 and 4.5 years at Time 2. The researchers focused on children whose parents reported their favorite Disney princess, resulting in a final sample of 340 children. The majority of the sample identified as White, with smaller proportions representing other racial groups.
Parents reported on their children’s engagement with princesses, including identification, playing with princess toys, engaging in pretend play as princesses, and consuming princess media (TV shows and movies). Child body esteem was assessed using a modified version of the Body Esteem Scale, where parents rated their child’s feelings about their body on a Likert scale.
Children’s gender role behavior was measured using the Preschool Activities Inventory, assessing both stereotypically masculine and feminine behaviors (e.g. playing with guns and playing with dolls). Finally, data on the body sizes of Disney princesses were taken from a larger dataset that analyzed 61 Disney films. Princesses’ body sizes were coded as below average/thin, average, or above average/heavy. This coding was done by trained coders who watched the entirety of each film to ensure consistency.
The majority of children reported Elsa (52.65%) as their favorite princess, followed by Moana (20.88%).
The researchers found evidence that the body size of children’s favorite princesses moderated the relationship between engagement with pretend play as princesses and certain developmental outcomes. Specifically, for children whose favorite princesses had average body sizes, engaging in pretend play as princesses was associated with more positive body esteem and engagement in both feminine-type and masculine-type play behaviors. However, these effects were not observed for children whose favorite princesses were depicted as thin.
“A lot of people are concerned about Disney princesses having a negative effect on children’s body image. This is usually because the princesses are generally extremely thin. This research adds a lot of nuance to that picture,” Shawcroft told PsyPost.
“Specifically, children whose favorite princess had a more realistic body (e.g., Moana or Merida) experience better body esteem the more often children played pretend princess. In contrast, for children whose favorite princess has a super thin body (e.g., Aurora, Cinderella), we did not find a meaningful relationship between playing pretend princess and body esteem a year later.”
“This means not only were the ultra-thin princesses not a negative influence on children’s body esteem, but princesses with realistic bodies had a positive influence on children’s relationship with their body,” Shawcroft explained.
While prior research suggested that boys and girls might be affected differently by Disney Princess engagement, the researchers did not find evidence to support this in their study. Therefore, they did not observe significant gender differences in the effects of princess body size on developmental outcomes.
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“First, while this study looked at children’s body esteem over time, children were only 4 1/2 years old at the end of our study,” Shawcroft said. “It is possible that our findings would change as children continue to grow up. But what we have right now is encouraging. The second thing that is important to note is that our findings found that these positive effects were all a result of children playing princess – not just watching the movies.”
The study, “Ariel, Aurora, or Anna? Disney Princess Body Size as a Predictor of Body Esteem and Gendered Play in Early Childhood“, was authored by Jane Shawcroft, Megan Gale, Sarah M. Coyne, Adam A. Rogers, Sarah Austin, Hailey Holmgren, Jessica Zurcher, and Pamela Brubaker.