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The Problem With Disney Princesses

Girls who intensely engage with them are more likely to engage in stereotypical feminine behavior.

By Tom Jacobs


A crowd of tourists walk toward the Sleeping Beauty castle on main street at Disneyland Paris on August 22, 2002. (Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

While they are rightly acclaimed for their artistry, many of the classic Disney animated films have a pronounced sexist subtext. It’s fair to say they convinced generations of girls the importance of conforming to traditional gender roles — at least until the emergence of stronger, more self-reliant heroines in recent years.

But perhaps we shouldn’t let the entertainment conglomerate off the hook so easily. Newly published research finds young girls who are heavily into videos and merchandise featuring Disney Princesses are more likely to behave in gender-stereotypical ways.

What’s more, this tendency to conform to gender norms was also found in a year-later follow-up. That suggests this popular but problematic imagery may have a lasting impact on self-image and behavior.

“Engagement with the Disney Princess culture … may contribute to a ‘girly girl’ culture in which gendered behavior is common and highly valued,” writes a research team led by Sarah Coyne of Brigham Young University.

“Although there is nothing inherently wrong with expressing femininity or behaving in a gendered manner, stereotypical female behavior may potentially be problematic if girls believe that their opportunities in life are limited.”

Its study, published in the journal Child Development, featured 198 children (47 percent male) who were, on average, approaching their fifth birthday when the first round of data was collected. They were recruited from preschools and kindergartens in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

Their parents filled out a series of questionnaires in which they reported how much time their child spent watching Disney Princess movies and television programs, and playing with related toys. They also reported which princess the child most identified with, and how strong that identification appeared to be. These measurements were combined to form a “princess engagement” score.

The parents also reported how frequently their child played with gender-stereotypical toys (such as dolls for girls and tools for boys), and engaged in gender-stereotypical play (playing house or dress-up for girls, playing sports or climbing for boys).

In addition, the kids themselves indicated how much they liked various toys (including dolls, tea sets, and action figures). And their teachers noted the extent to which they behaved in gender-typical ways, such as “quiet play” for girls and “rough and tumble play” for boys. Finally, one year later, the parents filled out the questionnaires for a second time.

The researchers found that girls who scored high on “princess engagement” also behaved in more stereotypically female ways. What’s more, they did so to an even greater extent a year later, which suggests Snow White, Cinderella, and their friends may have served as role models who nudged them toward greater conformity with gender stereotypes.

Happily, high levels of princess engagement was not related to lower body esteem. (Then again, these were very small girls, perhaps too young to worry too much about their looks.) The researchers also note that, while the films often contain positive messages about helping others, viewing them and playing with related toys did not produce more caring, giving behavior.

“Girls do not appear to be picking up on these themes,” they write.

Not surprisingly, Coyne and her colleagues found very few boys were engaged with Disney Princess material (only 4 percent played with such toys once a week). But it apparently had an impact on them, in that, one year later, they were more likely than their male peers to engage in behaviors more commonly associated with girls.

“It could be that boys who engage more with Disney Princesses, while simultaneously exposed to more androgynous Disney princes, demonstrate more androgyny in early childhood — a trait that has benefits for development throughout the lifespan,” they write.

So for the few boys who engage with it, this material may be a welcome corrective to macho, war-related toys. But for the far greater number of girls who do so, the ramifications are quite different.

“The development of high levels of female gender-stereotypical behavior during early childhood may have implications for later development,” the researchers write, noting that previous research has found “women who self-identified as ‘princesses’ gave up more easily on a challenging task, were less likely to want to work, and were more focused on superficial qualities.”

“Although there is nothing inherently wrong with expressing femininity or behaving in a gendered manner,” they write, “stereotypical female behavior may potentially be problematic if girls believe that their opportunities in life are limited because of preconceived notions.”

So if your little girl is obsessed with Ariel or Aurora, it may be a good idea to make sure she is exposed to other role models as well. Having a little pretend princess may be cute, but you don’t want to instill a mindset that ultimately leads to her sitting idly on your couch at age 25, waiting for her prince to come.