The ridiculously popular Disney Princesses franchise makes money hand over fist; in 2012 alone, sales totaled more than $3 billion. And why shouldn’t it? Snow White and her gang are sweet, and—more importantly in a world ablaze with sex and violence—they’re harmless. Or so most people think. A year-long study found that little girls who engage with Disney Princess culture are more likely to buy into harmful sexist stereotypes. The research was published in the journal Child Development.
Sarah M. Coyne is a social science researcher in Brigham Young University’s Department of Family Life. “I think parents think that the Disney Princess culture is safe. That’s the word I hear time and time again—it’s ‘safe,’” Coyne said in a press statement. “But if we’re fully jumping in here and really embracing it, parents should really consider the long-term impact of the princess culture.” As a scientist and the mother of a little girl, Coyne wanted to find out what that long-term impact could be.
Coyne and her colleagues enlisted the families of 198 preschoolers. The researchers interviewed the kids’ parents and teachers to find out if, how, and how much each child interacted with Disney Princess media and products. The parents and teachers also filled out questionnaires about how the children behaved, their self-esteem, and how they liked to play.
The kids then completed a preference task, in which they were shown stereotypical “girl toys” (dolls, a tea set), “boy toys” (action figures, play construction equipment), and neutral toys (paint, puzzles) and asked how much they liked each toy.
Around one year later, the preschoolers’ parents filled out the same questionnaires again.
As expected, Disney Princess saturation reached mind-boggling levels. The results showed that 96 percent of girls and 87 percent of boys had consumed some form of Disney Princess media, and 61 percent of girls played with Disney Princess toys at least once a week.
Unfortunately, the more time a little girl spent hanging out with Belle and the gang, the more likely she was to buy in to gender stereotypes one year later. And we don’t just mean that they were kinder or more communicative. We mean that they felt limited to “girly” activities and behavior.
“We know that girls who strongly adhere to female gender stereotypes feel like they can’t do some things,” Coyne said. “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.”
Given the ubiquity of the Disney Princess franchise, the researchers know it’s hardly realistic for parents to ban princesses altogether. Talk to your kids about princesses, Coyne says. Conversations about princess media had a positive effect on kids, shielding them somewhat from the stereotypes onscreen.
“I’d say, have moderation in all things,” Coyne said. “Have your kids involved in all sorts of activities, and just have princesses be one of many, many things that they like to do and engage with.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to better reflect the results of the study.