I know about the pervasiveness of Princess Culture. My daughter loves nothing more than dressing up in sparkly pink princess dresses. She loves stories about princesses. She loves movies about princesses. Above all, she loves Disney princesses.
The Problem With Princess Culture
New research suggest that this could be a problem. A study by Brigham Young University looked at 198 preschool kids. The study assessed how much they interacted with Disney princess culture, as in how much they watched the movies or played with the toys. The parents and teachers of the kids were interviewed to determine the gender-stereotypical behaviour of the children. They were also asked to arrange toys in order of preference. The toys included stereotypically girl toys like dolls and tea sets, stereotypically boy toys like action figures and tool-sets and gender-neutral like puzzles and paints.
Nearly all the kids had seen Disney Princess movies, 96% of girls and 87% of boys. Sixty-one percent of girls played with princess toys at least once a week. Four percent of boys did. The researchers found that the kids that played more with the princess toys displayed more female stereotypical behaviour a year later.
This could be a problem. Gender stereotypes can be limiting and can impact negatively on learning.
“We know that girls who strongly adhere to female gender stereotypes feel like they can’t do some things … 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,” lead author, Sarah M Coyne
Luckily, my little princess has a tremendous curiosity. I hope that this curiosity is never diminished because it is not “girly” enough!
It gets worse though. The researchers also found a correlation between interacting with princess media and body esteem. Girls with poor body esteem tended to interact more often with princess culture. The researchers propose that they might be seeking out beauty role models. Unrealistic beauty role models. Boys who engaged with princess media often did not suffer from the same body esteem issues.
“Disney Princesses represent some of the first examples of exposure to the thin ideal … As women, we get it our whole lives, and it really does start at the Disney Princess level, at age three and four, ” Sarah Coyne
Body esteem has been shown to have very serious consequences for women. A study by the University of Missouri found that women with poor body esteem tend to engage in riskier behaviour, like unsafe sex and substance abuse.
“[W]omen who have negative views of their bodies are at greater risk to engage in risky behaviors, such as unsafe sex or tobacco use,” lead author, Ramseyer Winter
So what is a parent to do?
Both Winter and Coyne advise talking to your children about princess culture. Discuss the good and the bad. Coyne suggests diluting princess culture with other gender neutral toys and activities. Show kids that there are lots of ways to enjoy yourself. Toys don’t have to be pink and glittery to be fun. Praise girls for hard work rather than looking pretty.
I personally think that there are worse parts of princess culture out there than some Disney princesses. I’ve had to do quick on-the-spot editing of princess books at bedtime! I think my “favourite” worst princess book was a beautifully illustrated version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, a traditional Brothers Grimm fairy-tale. In it a soldier is offered his choice of princess in marriage if he can solve the riddle of where they went at night. He did, and luckily he chose the eldest princess and not one of the underage ones. Even luckier still, the eldest princess happened to fall in love with him too. Which is just as well as she had no choice in the matter.
I have no idea what story I told my daughter but it bore little resemblance to the one printed on the page! Often I’ll interrupt a story to say something like “that’s silly, they didn’t even ask the princess what she wants.” Is it making a difference? One can only hope.
However, even when Disney makes an effort it can also undermine its good work. In the Pixar movie Brave, the lead character Merida defies the traditional princess role. She does not want to be a princess. Does not want to be prim and pretty. Does not want to be married. Hair unkempt, she prefers to ride her horse and shoot her bow. At least in the movie.
In the press release for the Brigham Young University study, Coyne mentions the transformation of Merida as she moved from the movie to the marketing department.
“[I]n the marketing, Disney slims her down, sexualizes her, takes away her bow and arrow, gives her makeup—feminizes her, ” Sarah Coyne
So the tomboy was not pretty enough. Which is really depressing.
What’s your least favourite part of Princess Culture? Do you think it’s harmful or not? Do you have any tips to boost body esteem in girls? Let me know in the comments below.