When researcher Sarah Coyne released a 2016 study claiming that Disney princess culture was harmful to girls because it reinforced sexist stereotypes and led to self-critical body image, the loyalists came for her.
“I’ve been getting 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 was far from alone with her warning, however, and echoed many earlier ones from Peggy Orenstein’s seminal 2011 book. Cinderella ate my daughter to Jennifer Hartstein’s Princess Recovery and that of Rebecca Hains The princess problem, not to mention petitions like: one in 2013 object to Disney’s come-hither redesign of Princess Merida from brave.
But now Coyne has announced new findings on the subject, even surprising herself with what she learned: that the long-term effect of the bejeweled, tiara-wearing heroines on children may even be positive, leading to more progressive views on women and children. a less favorable view of behavior known as toxic masculinity.
Related video: Disney solves its ‘princess problem’ with release of ‘Mulan’
“As a developmental psychologist, I’m interested in seeing things over time,” Coyne said in a statement BYU press release. “What’s fascinating is that princess culture has some really deep and beautiful things about femininity and relationships. If we can understand that, it can be truly healing for humanity.”
The study, published in the journal Child development, is quite small and limited — after just 307 Utah kids (and their parents), 87 percent white, half boys, half girls, for a five-year period, they pick up where Coyne’s older research left off, covering many of the same subjects. . And there were very likely other factors, which Coyne didn’t explore, that influenced the children’s attitudes as they grew up. Nevertheless, the positive nature of the findings is striking.
“The biggest advantage is that both boys and girls who really liked the princess culture when they were 4 or 5, later, when they were 10, 11 years old, tended to cling less to the hegemony. [toxic] masculinity… and more likely to see women as equals. And they allowed men rather to express some emotion, to cry,” Coyne says. “So that was the big news finding — princesses like this healing power for a lot of the toxic masculinity we see portrayed in the media.”
As a mother of two – a 13-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy – who has always been very aware and careful about 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 looking at or dealing with, she explains, dividing them 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 latest and most forward-thinking being those who largely look and engage in the study, which explains the more positive takeaways.
In those more recent portraits, Coyne says, “princesses are generally depicted as the main character and as amazing, powerful, great figures. [who are] more independent… It’s less about being submissive and falling in love, so I think it’s impactful for both girls and guys to see that. They really are the model of these powerful women.” The more modern men are also ‘less Herculean’ – less Gaston in Beauty and the Beast and more Kristoff in Frozen, “a little softer on the edges,” she says. “I think we’re gradually showing … guys that there are many ways to be a boy.”
In Coyne’s early research, she found that girls, especially those who liked princesses, were more inclined to gender stereotypes. “I kind of hypothesized that then they would grow up to be more gender stereotypes at 10 or 11,” she says, especially since the favorite princesses among children in the early study were Rapunzel, Cinderella, and the Little Mermaid. But by the time they approached adolescence, she says, it had shifted to Moana and Elsa (from Frozen) – changing the attitude of children with it.
“We now have really strong, independent, powerful princesses. And so I think maybe they picked 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 beauty, the hair, whereas if you as they get older, there’s a little more depth that they can see.”
The early obsession didn’t last
The study results showed that early twinkling tiara love didn’t stick — at least not in a way that made anyone less feminist.
“I checked if the early favorite mattered, and it didn’t. So I thought if they really loved Mulan, unlike, say, Cinderella, when they were 4, it would have had a different effect. And that didn’t happen,” says Coyne.
That was true even when it came to one of the biggest past 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. However, she stresses 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. “Princess like Moana are full of depth, passion and goodness. The story isn’t about what she looks like, it’s about following your dreams and finding who you are. Parents can use these interpersonal qualities and help their children grow. We can show them that princesses offer a great amount of depth beyond looks.”
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