Written by Mandi Ryan
Early childhood years are a fundamental time in an individual’s formative development. Between the ages of 3 and 6, gender stereotypes become more abundant and strict (Coyne, Linder, Rasmussen, Nelson, & Birbeck, 2016). For example, boys are taught to be tough, and girls are taught to be nice. The media that children are exposed to during this time, including books, television programs, and social media, may affect how they internalize gender stereotypes. The Disney Princess line, which consists of clothing, toys, movies and more, is among some of the most popular children’s media today and has been popular for quite some time. As the years go by, should we be questioning the messages these materials could be sending to children?
Disney Princesses and Female Stereotypes
Today, it is not uncommon to see female engineers and doctors or male makeup artists and nannies. Yet, the Disney Princess line typically portrays women as damsels in distress and men as heroes. These movies make implications that women are to uphold certain beauty standards. The characters in these movies often are young and attractive with large eyes, small noses and chins, moderately large breasts, prominent cheekbones, and lustrous hair (Coyne et al., 2016). This combination of physical characteristics would be considered quite unrealistic and may be harmful to a girl’s self-image (Coyne et al., 2016). Furthermore, the princesses in Disney movies portray female characters as unrealistically thin, similar to the impossible beauty expectations in real life. This portrayal can have negative effects on young children who find themselves admiring these characters. One study surveying 969 third graders revealed that 35% of girls and 25% of boys wanted to lose weight (Robinson, 2001). This early exposure to a thin ideal and a high standard of beauty may teach kids that attractiveness is essential to one’s identity (Coyne et al., 2016).
Long Term Effects on Children
Female stereotypes, such as those concerning careers, abilities, and roles in the home, conveyed through the media influence both male and female attitudes about gender (Coyne et al., 2016). Coyne and colleagues (2016) examined the longitudinal associations between exposure to Disney Princess media and gender-stereotypical behavior, body esteem, and prosocial behavior. They found that higher Disney Princess engagement through media and toys was related to an increase in female stereotypical behavior in both boys and girls, even one year later (Coyne et al., 2016). This behavior included their characteristics, toy preferences, and activities. While there is nothing wrong with expressing femininity and gendered behavior, it is potentially harmful if girls believe they are limited in their opportunities due to preconceived assumptions concerning gender.
In conclusion, today, both men and women can be either strong or weak, thick or thin, and affectionate or emotionless. They do not have to be tied to their gender stereotypes. Some children’s media and the way its portrayal separates genders may impact boys’ and girls’ behavior and self-esteem. Although Disney Princess movies are becoming more progressive over time, many of the classics, such as Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast, are still popular with children today. It may be important to consider the messages these movies may potentially send to children and make sure they are balanced with explanations that children are not obligated to adhere to a predetermined role in life. Girls should not be afraid of getting dirty from playing outside, as exploring the world is an integral part of development (Coyne et al., 2016). Boys should also feel free to show their emotions without being criticized. Children simply should not be limited by the world’s expectations of who they should or shouldn’t be.
Coyne, S. M., Linder, J. R., Rasmussen, E. E., Nelson, D. A., & Birkbeck, V. (2016). Pretty as a princess: Longitudinal effects of engagement with Disney princesses on gender stereotypes, body esteem, and prosocial behavior in children. Child Development, 87, 1909-1925. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12569
Robinson, T. N., Chang, J. Y., Haydel, K., & Killen, J. D. (2001). Overweight concerns and body dissatisfaction among third-grade children: The impacts of ethnicity and socioeconomic status. The Journal of Pediatrics, 138(2), 181-187. doi:10.1067/mpd.2001.110526
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair
Social Psychologist, Relationships Researcher,
Ms. Jessica Utley
Lab Manager of the Social Relations Collaborative and Blog Editor