As much as kids like princess movies, particularly those of the Disney variety, parents worry that they’re not teaching children the right messages about gender roles.
Princesses are often damsels in distress with incredibly thin and impossible waistlines. Princes embody a certain version of masculinity with little room for expressing their emotions. But a new study suggests that kids who are major fans of princesses actually have a healthier outlook on gender than those who aren’t super into Anna and Elsa.
By age 10, kids who were princess-obsessed were five times more likely to hold “progressive” views on gender, such as that boys shouldn’t repress their emotions, according to the new study. Both boys and girls who were princess fans also had better self-esteem regarding their bodies.
The study included 307 children that researchers interviewed at age five about their interest in princesses. The girls who liked to watch princess TV shows and movies and who often played with princess toys when they were in preschool were less likely to adhere to stereotypical female interests five years later. They were also less likely to agree with gender-stereotyped statements.
Disney movies have changed in recent years, shifting toward princesses that are capable and self-reliant, whether that be seafaring Moana or frying pan-wielding Rapunzel. But even the kids who were fans of classics like Sleeping Beauty when they were in preschool held progressive gender views at age 10.
“You’d expect a girl who said her favorite princess was Mulan to be less gender-stereotyped than one whose favorite was Cinderella, but we didn’t find that,” Sarah Coyne, an author of the study and a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, told the Wall Street Journal.
The new research builds off of a study from 2016 that Coyne and her colleagues published after interviewing many of those same preschoolers. They had found that both boys and girls who were majorly into princesses were more likely to exhibit female stereotypical behavior than kids who weren’t so princess-obsessed a year later. But the new study shows that this stereotypical behavior doesn’t stick around for the long run.
One potential explanation for this finding is that parents may use princess movies as an opportunity to talk to their kids about gender stereotypes. These stories also give kids a chance to see girls as protagonists.
The relationship between princess obsession and views on gender may not apply to all kids. The researchers only interviewed children from Utah and Oregon, and 87 percent of them were white, so the results aren’t generalizable. “It’s not safe to say that in the long term, princess culture is empowering for girls,” Rebecca Hains, a professor of media and communication at Salem State University and author of “The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years,” told the Wall Street Journal.
But if your kids are obsessed with Ariel or Jasmine or Tiana, there’s no reason to panic. It doesn’t mean that the girls are destined to grow up into damsels in distress or that the boys are going to feel pressured to be their stoic knight in shining armor.