Princesses Elsa (left) and Anna in a scene from Frozen, the highest grossing animated film of all time.

Girls embrace frills, but what effect do Disney princesses have on little boys?

A study shows the Disney princess culture encourages more stereotypically female behaviour in both boys and girls, with girls wanting to play dress-up and boys becoming more helpful with classmates

She has huge eyes, a tiny waist, high cheekbones and fancy dresses. She’s everywhere. And she could influence the way your child grows up.

She is, of course, the Disney princess.

Anyone who has heard a toddler screaming “Let It Go” knows the power of America’s favourite heroines. Analysts estimate Hasbro’s princess-doll empire is worth roughly US$500 million. Frozen remains the highest grossing animated film of all time.

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A new study sought to understand how this sparkly ubiquity shapes preschoolers’ attitudes about gender roles and body image. Researchers discovered that it has strong effects not only on girls but also boys. Heavy exposure to Disney princess culture correlated with more stereotypically female behaviour in both sexes a year later. Although that created potentially problematic behaviour in girls – relegating them to playing with toys in the “girl aisle” – it had a moderating effect on boys, such as making them more helpful with classmates.

A Chinese girl gets a princess makeover at the Disney Resort in Shanghai, China. Photo: AP

The study of nearly 200 children found nearly all of them knew about Disney princesses: 96 per cent of girls and 87 per cent of boys had consumed some form of media focused on princesses. Gender differences opened wide, though, when it came to who actually played with the toys. Sixty-one per cent of the girls interacted with the merchandise once per week, compared with 4 per cent of the boys.

Sarah Coyne, an associate professor of family life at Brigham Young University, asked parents and teachers to report over a one-year period how often a child engaged with princess-related goods. She also wanted to record what types of toys the children preferred (dolls, teacups, tool sets, action figures), how they treated others and how they felt about their bodies.

Embracing the Disney princess culture are (from left) vice-president and general manager Hong Kong The Walt Disney Company (Asia) John Hsu, Disney actresses dressed as Princess Anna and Queen Elsa, and chief retail marketing manager MTR Corporation Annie Sin at the Disney Frozen My Extraordinary Christmas Experience at Maritime Square in Tsing Yi.

Among girls, higher princess engagement was associated with stronger adherence to stereotypically feminine behaviour. In other words, the 3- and 4-year-olds who loved Frozen’s Elsa, for example, were more likely to gravitate towards “girly” things, Coyne says. They wanted to play dress-up. They embraced frills. Most of their toys could be found in the “girls” aisle. “A lot of people say: ‘So what? We want our girls to be girly,’” Coyne says. “And there’s nothing inherently wrong with being feminine. But research has shown a strong adherence to female gender stereotypes can be limiting across time.”

Girls and women who identify figuratively as “princesses”, Coyne says, tend to place a higher importance on appearance. They may forever chase an unattainable beauty ideal, a road that can lead to misery. They might not exert much effort in, say, maths class, sabotaging a skill that could have blossomed into a successful engineering career.
A young girl in her princess outfit in the Alice in Wonderland Maze attraction at the Shanghai Disney Resort in Shanghai. Photo: AFP

Researchers noticed a more subdued effect among boys. Those with higher princess exposure were less likely to shun “girly” things for toy guns. They exhibited more balanced interests, which Coyne predicted will help them relate to others down the road. They also displayed more “prosocial behaviour” at home and in the classroom, she says. Boys who watched movies such as Frozen or Cinderella were more likely to help out at school or share toys.

Disney princesses have evolved since Ariel in 1989’s The Little Mermaid.

“Princess media and engagement may provide important models of femininity to young boys, who are typically exposed to hypermasculine media,” the researchers write. “It may be that boys who engage more with Disney princesses, while simultaneously being exposed to more androgynous Disney princes, demonstrate more androgyny in early childhood, a trait that has benefits for development throughout the lifespan.”

Neither gender showed signs of lower self-esteem or negative body image. Kids that young, the researchers concluded, generally do not feel self-conscious about their appearance. Coyne wants to interview the same group in five years, she says. Moreover, the majority (87 per cent) of the sample was white, while 10 per cent was Hispanic and 3 per cent was “other”. It’s tough to say how black or Asian children, for instance, react to the sea of white faces.

Merida (centre), who saves a prince from being trapped in the body of a bear for all time, in a scene from Brave. Photo: AP

It’s worth pointing out that Disney princesses have evolved since 1950’s Cinderella and 1989’s The Little Mermaid. Elsa, for one, didn’t wait for a man to come rescue her from a fate of endless winter. (Her sister Anna actually knocked some sense into her.) And the arrow-shooting princess Merida in Brave saves a prince from being trapped in the body of a bear for all time.

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They’re also becoming more racially diverse. The next Disney princess will be 2016’s Moana, a Pacific Islander who sets sail to find new land.

But the passiveness embodied by Ariel in The Little Mermaid lingers, Coyne says. The mermaid gave up her literal voice to be with a man, and you can still find her merchandise all over the Disney store.

She does not recommend banning the movie, or any film that doesn’t feature a female warrior who saves the day. Her favourite princess is Belle from 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.

A scene from 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.

“Belle sacrifices herself for her father,” Coyne says. “Parents can focus more on her bravery in their conversations with their children, as opposed to glitter and the glam.”