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Why Disney princesses and ‘princess culture’ are bad for girls

A new study shows critics of aggressive princess marketing were right to worry.

Fictional princesses are perennial preschool favorites. Since Disney launched its Princess brand in 2000, the Disney Princesses have become ubiquitous, represented in virtually every product category — dolls and dresses, of course, but also even seed packets and grapes.

Partly as a result, little girls strongly identify with princess culture, and adults often assume girls naturally love princesses. When girls dare to be different, it’s unexpected and delightful — like the little girl who recently sparked widespread adoration and praise by dressing as a hot dog instead of a princess for her dance studio’s Princess Day.

But as I have previously argued, princess culture is not all fun and games. The Disney Princess brand suggests that a girl’s most valuable asset is her beauty, which encourages an unhealthy preoccupation with physical appearance. The brand also implies that girls should be sweet and submissive, and should expect a man to come to their rescue in an act of love at first sight. Although newer characters like Elsa, Anna, Merida and Rapunzel behave in ways that correct these ideas, as a whole, the brand remains out of step with modern ideas about raising girls.

Now a new article in the scholarly journal Child Development has detailed the negative effects of princess culture on girls. Lead author Sarah Coyne, an associate professor of family life at Brigham Young University, was inspired to conduct this study after reading journalist Peggy Orenstein’s 2011 bestseller “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.” Her own daughter was 3 at the time. As a parent, Coyne shared Orenstein’s concerns about what princess-driven marketing was doing, but as a social scientist, she realized there was little social science data on princess culture’s influence.

So, she and her team designed and executed a study of 198 preschool- and kindergarten-aged girls and boys. Their findings reinforce some serious concerns about princess culture. For instance:

  1. The more the girls in the study engaged with princess culture, the more they behaved in stereotypically feminine ways.
  1. Girls with a lower body image when the study began tended to be more interested in princess culture a year later.
  1. There was no evidence that the girls’ engagement with princess culture influenced girls’ behavior for the better. Princesses’ potential as positive, prosocial role models is limited.

While these findings are unsurprising to princess culture’s critics, it is useful to have new data that validate these concerns from a different methodological approach. “The big contribution this study makes is that we actually have data now,” Coyne says. “We’ve been talking about princesses for a long time, and there’s been all kinds of speculation.” While other studies (such as my own) have examined princess culture’s failings from a qualitative, ethnographic, interview-based perspective, Coyne’s study is unusual for collecting longitudinal, measurable, controlled data on 198 children.

The study did offer some tentative, good news to parents. First, engaging with princess culture seemed to have positive effects on boys, counterbalancing some of the stereotypically aggressive messages found in media targeting male children.

And it found that viewing princess films did not seem to harm girls’ body image during the one-year time frame researchers tracked. They found that most girls had “very positive” body images at the study’s beginning and conclusion alike. This may come as a relief to parents worried about the idealized, homogeneous and largely unattainable body type of Disney’s princesses.

Based on previous literature about the onset of body image issues in pre-adolescent and adolescent girls, the authors caution that if they were to follow the girls over a longer period of time, they might find negative effects. For this reason, Coyne would like to conduct a follow-up study with her participants in five years: “We kind of caught them at the age where all of them felt great about their body, and I’d like to see if that pans out long term.”

Another confusing finding: The authors found that girls were more stereotypically feminine in their behavior (considered a negative outcome of princess culture) if their parents reported talking about media with them. This is perplexing, as the research on parental mediation demonstrates that children benefit when they and their parents discuss media together.

But the researchers didn’t ask parents what they discussed about the media with their children. Coyne suspects that the parents who participated in the study may have reinforced problematic messages — perhaps praising television characters’ physical appearances, for example.

Overall, the “Pretty as a Princess” study makes good use of social science methods. It validates long-standing concerns about princess culture while suggesting some positive effects for boys. It also brings much-needed attention to the importance of talking critically with kids about the media they enjoy. If we’re careless in our approach, we might unwittingly reinforce the media’s harmful messages. But if we’re careful, we can help our children become resilient — and that’s useful knowledge.