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Girls who are obsessed with Disney princesses in preschool are picking up on the female gender stereotypes but not the heroines' kindness and helpfulness, or the "thin ideal" portrayed in the animated films, according to a new study from Brigham Young University researcher Sarah Coyne.
Coyne, an associate professor in BYU's School of Family Life and the lead author on the study, found that a high level of "princess engagement" playing often with Disney princess toys and watching princess films at least once a week was, a year later, associated with increased female gender-stereotypical behavior in both girls and boys.
"Pretty as a Princess," published this month in Child Development, notes that "there is nothing inherently wrong" with behaving in a gendered manner, but says it could "be problematic if girls believe that their opportunities in life are limited" or if they avoid exploring or playing games because of notions they have about femininity.
Boys who displayed high princess engagement were in the minority in the study, but Coyne sees their subsequent higher levels of female gender-stereotypical behavior as a positive in a world full of hypermasculine media.
Princess-centric Disney movies are "a nice contrast to the typical boy media that they see," she said, adding that it's healthy for boys and girls to find a balance between stereotypically masculine and feminine behavior.
Disney itself is getting better at that balance, Coyne said. "The princesses are becoming less gender-stereotyped" over time, she said, pointing to Merida, from 2012's "Brave." A skilled archer who does not want to be a perfect princess or be married off by her parents, Merida is a far cry from Snow White, who in 1937 passively sang about wishing for her prince to come.
But there's still an issue with the marketing of the princesses, Coyne said. Regardless of their on-screen personalities, they're simplified into women with limpid eyes and colorful ball gowns.
"When Disney puts [Merida] into their merchandise and their marketing, she's slimmed down, her dress is lower cut, they take away her bow and arrow and give her a glittery sash" essentially casting aside her characteristics to fit her into the appearance-based princess mold, Coyne said.
The study also looked at how the pro-social traits of Disney princesses being kind and defending those in trouble rubbed off on children.
Girls generally had higher levels of pro-social behavior rated by their parents and teachers but it was not associated with how often they played with princess toys or watched princess movies, nor whether their parents engaged in "active mediation": talking with their children about what they watched.
"Perhaps young girls are already so involved and immersed in the Disney Princess culture that no amount of active mediation can further encourage their mimicry of pro-social behaviors," researchers wrote.
Pro-social traits did resonate strongly with boys whose parents discussed media with them perhaps, the study noted, because the boys were less in the thrall of princesses and more open to discussions about their actions.
But it's impossible to know for sure parents were asked only whether they discussed media content with their children, not how they discussed it.
"I wish I could go back in time and ask parents, 'How exactly do you talk to your children about the princess media?' " Coyne said.
Boys who engaged with princess movies or activities and had discussions with their parents displayed better body esteem a year later. Researchers speculated that parents may be advising their sons that the bodies of Disney men such as Gaston depicted as being "roughly the size of a barge" and having "biceps to spare" are not realistic or attainable.
That was the only correlation between princess engagement and body esteem a finding that was surprising to researchers who'd expected to see low body esteem in girls who spent a lot of time gazing at the waspish waists of Disney princesses. The company has been criticized for perpetuating the "thin ideal" for women, who are drawn with tiny waists and eyes that are larger than their upper arms.
Body image is generally positive at a young age, and longer-term study would be more useful, researchers said.
"I would love to follow up with this sample in five years," when body-image issues are rampant as young people go through puberty, Coyne said.
Participants in the BYU studies consisted of 198 children between 36 and 78 months old, who lived in the midwestern U.S. and the Pacific Northwest. Eighty-seven percent of the children were Caucasian. Twenty-two percent of the girls and 8 percent of the boys watched Disney movies or TV shows at least once a week, and more than 61 percent of girls played with Disney princess toys at least once a week, according to their parents. Gender-stereotypical behavior was initially measured with tasks and via parental reports a year later.
Coyne, who's worked at BYU for nine years, studies media and kids and is now working on several studies on how body-positive song lyrics impact body image.
She was inspired to look into the princess effect when she heard "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" author Peggy Orenstein speak at a gender development conference. Coyne realized that though she'd been on top of video-game violence when it came to her three sons, she hadn't thought twice about Disney princesses, who are "viewed as so safe and a huge part of girlhood."
Her one daughter is not a princess fanatic though she posed for photos released with BYU's promotion of the study, she had to borrow the princess dresses and complained throughout that they were itchy.