When researcher Sarah Coyne released a 2016 study asserting that Disney princess culture was harmful to girls because it cemented sexist stereotypes and led to self-critical body image, the loyalists came for her.
“I got so much hate mail,” the Brigham Young University professor and associate director of the School for Family Life tells Yahoo Life. “People called me a ‘princess hater!’”
Coyne, though, was far from alone with her warning, joining many previous ones, from Peggy Orenstein’s groundbreaking 2011 book Cinderella Ate My Daughter to Jennifer Hartstein’s Princess Recovery and Rebecca Hains’s The Princess Problem, not to mention petition drives such as one in 2013 objecting to Disney’s come-hither redesign of Princess Merida from Brave.
But now Coyne has announced new findings on the subject, surprising even herself with what she learned: that the long-term effect of the bejeweled, tiara-wearing heroines on kids can actually be a positive one, leading to more progressive views about women and a less favorable view of behavior known as toxic masculinity.
Related video: Disney addresses its 'princess problem' with 'Mulan' release
“As a developmental psychologist, I’m interested in looking at things over time,” said Coyne in a BYU press release. “What’s fascinating is that princess culture has some really deep and beautiful things about womanhood and relationships. If we can grasp onto that, it can be truly healing for humanity.”
The study, published in the journal Child Development, is quite small and limited — following just 307 Utah children (and their parents), 87 percent white, half boys, half girls, for a five-year period, picking up where Coyne’s older research left off, with many of the same subjects. And there were very likely other factors, which Coyne did not investigate, influencing the kids’ attitudes as they grew. Still, the positive nature of the findings is striking.
“The biggest takeaway is that both boys and girls who were really into princess culture when they were age 4 or 5, later, when they were age 10, 11, tended to adhere to less to hegemonic [toxic] masculinity…and more likely to view women as equals. And they were more likely to allow men to express some emotion, to cry,” Coyne says. “So that was the big news finding — princesses as this healing force for a lot of the toxic masculinity that we see portrayed in media.”
As a mom of two — a 13-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy — who has always been highly aware and cautious of presenting the downsides of princess culture, Coyne notes that she was personally surprised by the results. Here’s what she discovered:
Disney princesses can be positive influences
It depends on which “generation” the kids are viewing or relating to, she explains, breaking them down into three distinct waves: first (Snow White in 1937 to Sleeping Beauty in 1959), second (Little Mermaid in 1989 to Mulan in 1998) and third (Princess and the Frog in 2009 to Moana in 2016), the last and most progressive of which are the ones those in the study are largely watching and becoming engaged with, explaining the more positive takeaways.
In those more recent portrayals, Coyne says, “princesses are generally portrayed as the main character, and as amazing, powerful, awesome figures [who are] more independent… It’s less about being submissive and falling in love, so I think that’s impactful both for girls and boys to see that. They are really modeling these powerful women.” The more modern men are “less Herculean,” too — less Gaston in Beauty and the Beast and more Kristoff in Frozen, “a little softer around the edges,” she says. “I think we’re gradually kind of showing… boys there are lots of ways to be a boy.”
In Coyne’s early research, she found that girls, especially those who were into princesses, tended more toward gender stereotypes. “I was kind of fully hypothesizing that they would then grow up to be more into gender stereotypes at 10 or 11,” she says, especially since the favorite princesses among kids in the early study were Rapunzel, Cinderella and the Little Mermaid. But by the time they were nearing adolescence, she says, it had shifted to Moana and Elsa (of Frozen) — shifting kids’ attitudes right along with it.
“We've now got really strong, independent, powerful princesses. And so, I think that maybe they were picking up on some of those themes, especially as they get older,” she says. When the kids are 4, she notes, “it's all about the dress and the prettiness, the hair, whereas when you get a little bit older, there's a little bit more of a depth they can see.”
The early obsession didn’t stick
The study findings showed that the early, twinkly tiara love didn’t stick — at least not in a way that made anyone less of a feminist.
“I checked to see if the early favorite mattered, and it didn’t. So, I thought that if they were really into Mulan as opposed to, say, Cinderella, at 4, it would’ve had a differential effect. And it didn’t,” Coyne says.
That held true even when it came to one of the biggest earlier concerns: body image. But it turned out, to Coyne’s surprise, that liking princess culture was associated with developing a positive body image over time. She stresses, though, that parent-led discussions about all aspects of princesses, and people in general, are an important part of the mix.
“Focus on the humanity behind each princess, not just their appearance,” she noted in the release. “Princesses like Moana are full of depth, passion and goodness. The story isn’t about how she looks, it’s about following your dreams and finding who you are. Parents can take these interpersonal qualities and help their kids grow. We can show them that princesses offer a wide amount of depth beyond appearance.”
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