De­bunk­ing the princess myth

Study re­veals that Dis­ney’s mar­ket­ing af­fects young girls, writes REBECCA HAINS

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FIC­TIONAL princesses are peren­nial preschool favourites. Since Dis­ney launched its Princess brand in 2000, the Dis­ney princesses have be­come ubiq­ui­tous, rep­re­sented in vir­tu­ally ev­ery prod­uct cat­e­gory – dolls and dresses, of course, but also even seed pack­ets and grapes.

Partly as a re­sult, lit­tle girls strongly iden­tify with princess cul­ture, and adults of­ten as­sume girls nat­u­rally love princesses. When girls dare to be dif­fer­ent, it’s un­ex­pected and de­light­ful – like the lit­tle girl who re­cently sparked wide­spread ado­ra­tion and praise by dress­ing as a hot dog in­stead of a princess for her dance stu­dio’s Princess Day.

But princess cul­ture is not all fun and games.

The Dis­ney Princess brand sug­gests that a girl’s most valu­able as­set is her beauty, which en­cour­ages an un­healthy pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance. The brand also im­plies girls should be sweet and sub­mis­sive, and ex­pect a man to come to their res­cue in an act of love at first sight.

Al­though newer char­ac­ters like Elsa, Anna, Merida and Ra­pun­zel be­have in ways that cor­rect these ideas, as a whole, the brand re­mains out of step with mod­ern ideas about rais­ing girls.

A new ar­ti­cle in the schol­arly jour­nal Child De­vel­op­ment has de­tailed the neg­a­tive ef­fects of princess cul­ture on girls. Lead au­thor Sarah Coyne, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of fam­ily life at Brigham Young Univer­sity, was in­spired to con­duct this study after read­ing jour­nal­ist Peggy Oren­stein’s 2011 best-seller Cin­derella Ate My Daugh­ter. Her own daugh­ter was 3 at the time. As a par­ent, Coyne shared Oren­stein’s con­cerns about what princess-driven mar­ket­ing was do­ing, but as a so­cial sci­en­tist, she re­alised there was lit­tle so­cial science data on princess cul­ture’s in­flu­ence. She and her team de­signed and ex­e­cuted a study of 198 preschool- and kindergarten-aged girls and boys. Their find­ings re­in­force some se­ri­ous con­cerns about princess cul­ture. For in­stance:

First: The more the girls in the study en­gaged with princess cul­ture, the more they be­haved in stereo­typ­i­cally fem­i­nine ways.

Sec­ond: Girls with a lower body im­age when the study be­gan tended to be more in­ter­ested in princess cul­ture a year later.

Third: There was no ev­i­dence the girls’ en­gage­ment with princess cul­ture in­flu­enced girls’ be­hav­iour for the bet­ter. Princesses’ po­ten­tial as pos­i­tive, proso­cial role mod­els is limited.

While these find­ings are un­sur­pris­ing to princess cul­ture’s crit­ics, it is use­ful to have new data that val­i­date these con­cerns from a dif­fer­ent method­olog­i­cal ap­proach.

“The big con­tri­bu­tion this study makes is that we ac­tu­ally have data now,” Coyne says.

The study did of­fer some ten­ta­tive, good news to par­ents.

First, en­gag­ing with princess cul­ture seemed to have pos­i­tive ef­fects on boys, coun­ter­bal­anc­ing some of the stereo­typ­i­cally ag­gres­sive mes­sages found in me­dia tar­get­ing male chil­dren.

And it found view­ing princess films did not seem to harm girls’ body im­age dur­ing the one-year time frame re­searchers tracked. They found most girls had “very pos­i­tive” body im­ages at the study’s be­gin­ning and con­clu­sion alike.

This may come as a re­lief to par­ents wor­ried about the ide­alised, ho­mo­ge­neous and largely unattain­able body type of Dis­ney’s princesses.

Based on pre­vi­ous lit­er­a­ture about the on­set of body im­age is­sues in pre-ado­les­cent and ado­les­cent girls, the au­thors cau­tion if they were to fol­low the girls over a longer pe­riod of time, they might find neg­a­tive ef­fects.

For this rea­son, Coyne would like to con­duct a fol­lowup study with her par­tic­i­pants in five years: “We kind of caught them at the age where all of them felt great about their body, and I’d like to see if that pans out long term.”

An­other con­fus­ing find­ing: the au­thors found girls were more stereo­typ­i­cally fem­i­nine in their be­hav­iour (con­sid­ered a neg­a­tive out­come of princess cul­ture) if their par­ents re­ported talk­ing about me­dia with them. This is per­plex­ing, as re­search demon­strates chil­dren ben­e­fit when they and their par­ents dis­cuss me­dia to­gether.

But the re­searchers didn’t ask par­ents what they dis­cussed about the me­dia with their chil­dren.

Coyne sus­pects the par­ents who par­tic­i­pated in the study may have re­in­forced prob­lem­atic mes­sages – per­haps prais­ing tele­vi­sion char­ac­ters’ phys­i­cal ap­pear­ances, for ex­am­ple.

Over­all, the “Pretty as a Princess” study makes good use of so­cial science meth­ods. It val­i­dates long-stand­ing con­cerns about princess cul­ture while sug­gest­ing some pos­i­tive ef­fects for boys. It also brings much-needed at­ten­tion to the im­por­tance of talk­ing crit­i­cally with kids about the me­dia they en­joy. If we’re care­less in our ap­proach, we might un­wit­tingly re­in­force the me­dia’s harm­ful mes­sages. But if we’re care­ful, we can help our chil­dren be­come re­silient – and that’s use­ful knowl­edge. – Wash­ing­ton Post

Hains is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of ad­ver­tis­ing and me­dia stud­ies at Salem State Univer­sity, where she serves as as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Child­hood and Youth Stud­ies. She’s the au­thor of The Princess Prob­lem: Guid­ing Our Girls Through the PrincessOb­sessed Years. Fol­low @ rchains.

Merida, the princess from Dis­ney’s film Brave, is part of their new gen­er­a­tion of feisty princesses.

Ra­pun­zel and Flynn in Dis­ney’s Tan­gled.

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