A study recently came out stating that girls who were exposed to Disney Princesses via television and toys were more likely to fall into the trap of “stereotypical feminine behavior.” People on social media had a wide variety of responses, a lot of which stated that they knew Disney Princesses were bad, their kids will never watch them again. Others weighed in that they were fictional characters, and people should lighten up. As with most things, it can be complicated to figure out where exactly this syndrome finds its roots, however.
According to Sarah M. Coyne, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University, the danger of girls embracing a more feminine stereotype of behavior is that they are less likely to take risks, they don’t like to get dirty and so therefore won’t be as likely to experiment with things, and they show lower confidence in things like science and math. Coyne’s research findings were that they more girls watched and played with Disney Princesses, the more likely it was that they held beliefs that girls weren’t as good at some things as boys, and that there weren’t as many opportunities out there for girls as there were for boys. She also said that if a girl had body image issues, she would tend to seek out the princesses more, possibly to have a hero to look up to as an ideal body type.
However, the part of the research I found to be interesting was boys’ side of things. When boys engaged with Disney Princess media, the findings were positive. It provided a possible counterbalance to hyper-masculine heroes the boys were exposed to, and the boys were found to be more sensitive, had a better ideas about body image, and were more helpful to their peers.
In most of the papers and articles I read about this subject, there was a lot of discussion about limiting the exposure to princesses, to have people stop referring to girls as princesses, to have parents have these very on-the-nose discussions with their daughters about why princesses might not be helpful to them. But looking at the boys group and their results from the experiments, is it possible some of the discussion is missing a very important aspect?
If boys were affected positively by being exposed to more princess culture stuff—not limiting their exposure to the uber-boy things they already were playing with, but adding that one thing—why couldn’t the result be the same for girls? Instead of limiting their princess exposure, why not introduce new things to them? Why not show them it’s ok to play with Batman or that Han Solo is a fun guy to pretend to be? Why not have a lot of influencers around the house, representing people rather than girls and boys?
It’s easy to blame Disney for a lot of things. But in the end, the responsibility for what children are exposed to and how they digest information comes down to parents. There is nothing innately wrong with the Princesses. A lot of girls just like them, they think they are pretty and kind. I think their choices and interests should be respected. If parents are concerned, spending time with their kids and discussing gender roles (in an age appropriate way that is accessible to the kids) can go a long way. Let your kids play with princesses, but take them on hikes, too. Alternate Star Wars Rebels with the Princess shows. Most importantly, show them real life examples of women who can do anything.
One issue I had with this study is that parts of it don’t add up. There is not a direct correlation between Disney Princesses and girls not thinking they are good at math and science. I don’t know of a single Princess movie where math or science was discussed. A lot of these ideas are coming from outside, either from the children’s family culture (remember, BYU is a Mormon institution, which tends to have more stereotypical family/gender roles in some cases, and so if most of the children studied are from Mormon families, this may have an impact on the results), or from kids at school, peers, and so forth. There is no clear reason that children shouldn’t be able to play with princess toys as much as they want, while still being exposed to the ideas that they can do well at math and science. I don’t think that idea comes from princess culture, I think it comes from age-old sexist ideas that would exist in this world with or without the Disney Princesses. Remember, the princesses came about because of society's ideals, not the other way around.
I also think that if parents go too far talking about the negatives of something their children adore, it can give the children self-esteem issues for other reasons. Kids want their parents to feel good about them, and they also, at certain ages, link their identities with the things they love. If the Disney Princesses are bad and stand for bad things, does that mean I’m a bad person, too? Does my mom think I’m bad because I like princesses? I think a lot of care needs to be given to how discussions should take place.
Something very important I think should be remembered here is this: We are looking at a symptom here, not the disease. Disney Princesses are just ONE small part of a huge societal history of sexism. You can get rid of Disney Princesses completely, and still be dealing with teachers who tell girls they aren't good at math ("Sit down and be quiet, and you'll get an automatic B."), boys who use girls as tools, fathers who treat their daughters like delicate flowers. Having the focus on princess culture is losing focus on the bigger problem, the problem that spawned all of this in the first place.
All in all, as with most things, balance seems to be the key. Expose kids to a lot of different things. Take the time to talk to them and make sure they feel good about themselves. Provide them with opportunities to prove themselves to make sure they gain confidence. In the end, it might not even matter what they play with or watch on TV. And above all, don’t make your kids feel guilty because they like something. That’s their choice, a first step they will take on the road to self-discovery. Some girls and boys just like Disney Princesses. Let them own that, and provide them with many other opportunities to discover what else they like. Rather than limit things, open more doors to them. That’s how confident explorers are born.
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Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy and science fiction stories where heroes don’t always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her work has been published in several magazines, and she was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. Melanie is also a freelance author publicist and publicity/marketing coordinator for both Ragnarok Publications and Mechanical Muse, an independent gaming company. She blogs regularly for GeekMom and The Once and Future Podcast. Her short story “A Whole-Hearted Halfling” is in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis, available now on Amazon. Follow Melanie on Facebook and on Twitter as @MelanieRMeadors.