A new US study working with 198 4-year-old children and their parents has found that both boys and girls who engage more with Disney Princess characters engage more in gender-stereotyped female play and activity. But these boys and girls did not show lower body esteem or higher kindness to their peers than other boys and girls of their age.
US Disney Princess toy sales topped US$3 billion in 2012. By 2015 13 Disney Princess characters were available as toys. Despite some variety, they are generally characterised by passivity and needing to be saved by men, being pretty and being thin. Even less gender-stereotyped characters such as Merida in “Brave” tend to be feminised for merchandising. These characters are also very kind to people – Disney films show female characters being kind to others at the rate of about one act of kindness per minute!
Sarah Coyne from Brigham University, USA, and her team asked the children’s parents how much their child identifies with a Disney Princess character – how strongly the child likes such a character, how often they play with a Disney Princess toy and how often they watch films and TV featuring the Princess character.
The researchers then asked the child, the parents and the child’s teachers about gender-stereotyped activity on the part of the child.
The parents were interviewed a second time, one year later, to see what changes had taken place in the child’s play and behaviour.
Each child was asked to do one thing: to sort 12 toys into toys they played with “a lot”, “a little” and “not at all”. Some toys were female gender-stereotypical (e.g,. doll, tea set), some male gender-stereotypical (e.g., action figure, tool set) and some neutral (e.g., puzzle, paint set).
The parents and teachers were asked about a variety of things:
- What toys does the child like most (e.g., guns, dolls).
- What activities does the child like most (e.g., sports, climbing, cooking).
- What behaviours does the child exhibit (e.g., playing with girls, rough and tumble, liking pretty things).
- The child’s body esteem – e.g. ,“my child would like to be thinner”, “my child talks about his/her weight often”.
- The child’s “pro-social behaviour”, e.g., how helpful they are to their friends.
The parents were also asked if they talked to their child about what the child sees in films and TV.
The researchers found a strong difference between boys and girls generally:
- 22% of the girls viewed Disney Princess films at least once a week. 8% of boys did.
- 61% of girls played with Disney Princess toys at least once a week. 4% of boys did.
- Girls tended towards female gender stereotypical play and activity more than boys.
- Girls were rated to be more “pro-social” or helpful to their peers than boys.
There was, however, no difference in body esteem between boys and girls.
Girls who identified more with Disney Princess characters than other girls, and whose parents talked to them more about what they see in the media, were more gender-stereotyped in their activities and behaviour, and this increased more over the following year than for other girls. The same held true for boys.
An increased engagement with Disney Princess characters, however, did not make a difference to body esteem. There was an average decrease in body esteem in the year between the two surveys with parents, but the average was not different for children who liked Disney Princess characters more.
However, children with lower body esteem at the start identified more with Disney Princess characters after one year, as if their play had some kind of compensatory role.
Higher identification with Disney Princess characters was not associated with higher pro-social behaviour except among boys, and then only if their parents talked to them a lot about what they were seeing. The researchers wonder whether the portrayal of pro-social feminine behaviour is so strong in our culture generally, that girls identifying with Disney Princess characters makes little difference.
Does all this matter? This research does not answer that particular question! The researchers suggest it might, however. They quote other research showing that adult women who identify themselves as “princesses” were more likely to give up on a challenging task, less likely to want to work and more focussed on superficial activities.
Coyne SM, Linder JR, Rasmussen EE, Nelson DA & Birkbeck V, Pretty as a Princess: Longitudinal Effects of Engagement With Disney Princesses on Gender Stereotypes, Body Esteem, and Prosocial Behavior in Children, Child Development, June 2016