A new study released by Brigham Young University found that preschoolers who watch movies featuring Disney princesses and playing with Disney princess toys are more susceptible to potentially problematic gender stereotypes. This stereotypical behavior isn't that bad on its own, but it can lead to damaging effects in the long run, particularly for women.
In the study, which was published in Child Development, family life professor Sarah M. Coyne studied 198 children at two points approximately one year apart. Of these children, 96 percent of girls and 87 percent of boys were familiar with some sort of Disney media, according to New York Magazine. More than 61 percent of girls played with princess toys at least once a week while only 4 percent of boys did the same, BYU News reports.
The study found an association for both boys and girls between engaging with princesses and adhering to stereotypical gendered behavior. For girls, this meant believing that cookware, dolls, and tea sets were for girls only.
"We know that girls who strongly adhere to female gender stereotypes feel like they can't do some things" Coyne told BYU News. "They're not as confident that they can do well in math and science. They're less likely to try and experiment with things."
The study also looked at how Disney princesses influenced perception of body image, showing that girls develop worse self-esteem the more they engage with the princesses over time.
"Disney princesses represent some of the first examples of exposure to the thin ideal," Coyne said. "As women, we get it our whole lives, and it really does start at the Disney princess level, at age three and four."
But the findings weren't all negative. The study did reveal some positive effects Disney princesses can have on boys. The boys who engaged with the princesses had better body esteem and were more helpful to others. The study suggests that the princesses work well as a counterbalance to the superhero culture targeted at boys.
So does Coyne recommend a purge of all things Disney in response to these findings? Not exactly. "Have moderation in all things," she said. "Have princesses be one of many, many things that they like to do and engage with."