Do we really want our girls to be as “Pretty as a Princess”?

In this post, Fiona MacCallum wonders whether the Disney Princess brand is having a detrimental effect on young girls.



You don’t have to be the parent of a young girl to be aware of the Disney Princess brand. The abundant merchandise (toys, clothing, lunch boxes, towels, party decorations – the list seems endless) is visible in any shopping centre, or children’s department.  In comparison to Barbie and other more overtly sexual media models, whose potentially damaging effects have been much discussed, the princesses can be seen by parents as “safe”. But with their exaggeratedly feminine body shapes and facial appearance, and with the gender stereotyped behaviours of the older examples (e.g. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella) who are uniformly portrayed as needing rescuing, can interacting with Disney Princesses really be so benign? New research from Professor Sarah Coyne and colleagues at Brigham Young University suggests not.  In a study of nearly 200 children aged 3-6, they found that more engagement (playing with toys, or watching TV shows and films) with Disney Princesses was related to higher concurrent levels of female gender-stereotypical behaviour for both girls and boys.  Additionally, girls who had high levels of princess engagement showed more gender-stereotypical behaviour one year later. As the authors discuss, female-typed behaviour in itself is not necessarily a damaging characteristic but can become so if girls believe as a consequence that their activities and aspirations should be limited to those that fit these feminine “ideals”.  Importantly, when looking at how children felt about their bodies, the research found that girls with low body image showed increased princess engagement one year later. The suggestion is that girls who are already worried about how they look are seeking out role models of beauty, and finding them in these idealised portrayals which may have negative effects as they grow up. The conclusion from the researchers is that “princess culture” can be limiting for girls even in early childhood. That’s not to say that parents should ban princesses but they should expose their daughters to a wide range of models and activities to encourage broader beliefs about what girls and women can do, and what is considered beautiful. In a welcome change, recent Disney female characters have become much more active and independent in their behaviour (e.g. in films like Brave and Frozen) but the unimaginably tiny waists and huge eyes have remained. Would it be too much to ask for the Princesses’ looks to become more diverse so that young girls are not learning to aspire to narrow beauty ideals before they even start school? 

Fiona MacCallum is an Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Warwick. She is interested in the development of body-image in adolescents, and how this is affected by factors such as self-compassion, celebrity interest, and media manipulation of images. Previous work has considered the pursuit of perfection with reference to infertility treatment and parents' attitudes towards gamete donors.

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