Disney princess culture has been derided for peddling the notion that happiness for girls comes in the form of a prince (whether charming or a beast), and sending the message that girls are best seen but not heard.
Now, a study seems to confirm many parents’ fears—that Disney princesses actually change the way children think of gender roles. The paper, Pretty as a Princess, published in the journal Child Development by Brigham Young University professor Sarah M. Coyne and others, looked at 198 children with a median age of almost 5, and assessed how they interacted with Disney princess culture.
To evaluate this, the kids were asked to pick their favorite toys (choosing between an array of action figures, tool sets, tea sets, and dolls), as well as reports from parents and children about their behavior.
While the vast majority of the children (96% of girls and 87% of boys) had seen Disney media, girls were much more likely to adopt the brand’s narratives in play: 61% of them play with princess toys at least once a week, compared to 4% of the boys.
Girls who interacted with princess toys displayed stronger gender-stereotypical behavior a year after. This was evident in girls’ desire to look like princesses, Coyne said, as well as a lack of confidence.
Girls who were more invested in princess culture tended to adopt a “girly-girl” stereotype and avoid experiences perceived as non-feminine, for instance choosing not to explore or play certain games, to avoid getting dirty. They also were more likely to express the belief that being girls means they’ll have different opportunities and goals in life.
The study also found that stereotypical behavior associated with princess culture was reinforced by interactions with parents. The researchers found that most parents of their test subjects said they consider Disney princesses safe, and they promoted the stereotypical behavior that children see in their films. This, the study notes, has serious long-term consequences, as “grown 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.”
The researchers found one small upside to princess culture. Princess exposure seems to have some benefits for boys, though the sample size of boys in the study who played with princess toys regularly was miniscule. Still, the small percentage of boys in the study who played with princess toys and watched their movies weekly developed better body self-esteem and were kinder to others, the researchers found.
Boys who are into princess culture, Coyne explained in an email, are “more likely to play with cars, and trucks, AND dolls. More likely to pretend to be a superhero AND play house. It’s actually a nice thing for boys to show both traits.”
In any case, Disney princesses aren’t likely to go anywhere soon—they’re big business for Disney, and some kids never grow out of their princess obsession.