1 of 5
Mark A. Philbrick, Mark A. Philbrick/BYU
A little princess playing with princess toys. New research says Disney princess culture may limit girls' futures by stereotyping them. Photography by: Mark A. Philbrick/BYU Photo Copyright BYU Photo 2016 All Rights Reserved photo@byu.edu (801)422-7322 4864

Disney princesses typically have some great traits, including kindness and decency. But little girls who embrace "princess culture" may stereotype and limit themselves, according to new BYU research published in the journal Child Development.

"Feminine behavior can be great on so many dimensions, like being kind and nurturing," said lead author Sarah Coyne, an associate professor of human development in the Brigham Young University's School of Family Life. "But girls can be limited by stereotypes in a number of ways. They can think they can't do well in math and science or they don't want a career," or choose not to take risks or explore or do new things, for fear they're not feminine enough or they'll get dirty.

Boys, on the other hand, may get some benefit from what the researchers call "greater female stereotypical behavior." Superheroes are often a little boy's first media role model, so paying attention to the princess image provides a softening counterbalance, the study said.

The princess stereotype may also set girls up for unrealistic notions of what an ideal female looks like. That's especially problematic, Coyne said, because little girls who have poor "body esteem" are among the most ardent admirers of Disney princesses. Girls as young as 3 or 4 begin to get what is typically a lifelong message about being thin or "pretty" as an integral part of what it means to be female.

That doesn't mean kids can't engage with princess culture — or that it's even possible to avoid it. But parents should be concerned enough about stereotyping to talk about media messages and the importance of trying new things and being yourself, the researchers said.

Moms' concerns

The study involved 198 preschoolers and assessed how much they interacted with Disney Princess culture (watching movies, playing with toys, etc.).

The researchers found that 96 percent of girls and 87 percent of boys had viewed Disney Princess media. And while more than 61 percent of girls played with princess toys at least once a week, only 4 percent of boys did the same, according to a BYU press release.

For both boys and girls, more interactions with the princesses predicted more female gender-stereotypical behavior a year later.

Disney princesses are not the only "girly girl role models" that may thwart long-term development in some way. The report says that "playing with Barbie dolls (which are in recent years connected to Barbie movies) is associated with girls seeing fewer career options for themselves in the future. … This study suggest that playing with gendered toys, particularly those associated with a movie franchise, may also promote internalization of gender-stereotypical expectations in early childhood."

It's clear to Christie Garton that girls begin encoding ideas about body image very early. "I have a 3-year-old daughter now and it's so apparent these things start young," said Garton, a millennial issues expert and author of "U Chic: College Girls' Real Advice for Your First Year (and Beyond!)." She writes frequently about issues affecting girls.

Already, at age 3, her daughter talks about being "pretty" and about hair color, said Garton, who's also the founder of Washington, D.C.-based 1,000 Dreams Fund, which provides scholarships for females to pursue higher education. Garton was not involved in the BYU research.

She, like Coyne, believes both girls and boys benefit from more gender-neutral messages that let boys and girls choose careers, play outdoors, explore and study science and math, among other things. The goal is to see children grow into their potential and not limit them with stereotypes, they each said.

The princess Merida, from "Brave," has provided a vexing lesson in media messaging for Coyne, but the character has also prompted important conversations with her young daughter, who was 3 when the Disney princess research began.

The Merida on the big screen is a bit wild and adventurous. Unlike some Disney princesses, her hair's a bit mussed and she's proportioned differently than a Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. She represented a big step away from gender stereotyping for Disney, said Coyne.

Still, when Disney started to market products like T-shirts and toys for "Brave," it slimmed her down, made up her face and took away her bow and arrow. The sexualization of the character has prompted Coyne to talk to her daughter about how girls are portrayed and why it's not an ideal the child needs to embrace.

"She was a strong, non-gender-stereotyped character in the movie," said Coyne, but the merchandising destroyed that.

Merida's makeover sparked both conversations and controversy, in fact, including a 2013 petition drive on Change.org by A Mighty Girl, which collected some 260,000 signatures under the title #KeepMeridaBrave.

Garton said she has watched with interest as Disney princesses begin to change in this era where more Generation X and millennials of both sexes are in the workplace and "where all kinds of role models are needed." What should matter is "what people are doing that is relevant to us to be aware of and what can inspire us," said Garton.

She hailed the fact that not all Disney's princesses are now white or so similar to each other.

"I think Disney is attempting to evolve with our culture's desire to have less 'pretty, pretty' characters and more who are brave and courageous," she said.

Different for boys

People worry more about boys being aggressive than they do about girls. And that's one realm in which boys may actually benefit a bit from princess culture, the researchers found. The study indicated boys are pushed more toward middle ground; it makes them a little more prosocial and kind.

The boys also felt a little better about their bodies a year later, too, although boys are not into princesses the same way that girls are, Coyne said.

For future research, Coyne said she'd like to follow the kids who were study subjects into middle school age, when "ideal female" pressure is much greater than it is on little girls, and see how they were influenced by princess culture over time.

Other researchers on the Disney princess study included Jennifer Linder of Linfield College, Eric E. Rasmussen of Texas Tech University, Coyne's colleague in the BYU School of Family Life, David Nelson, and Victoria Birkbeck, who was a BYU undergraduate during the study.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco