Pregnancy and child

Is 'Disney Princess culture' a bad influence on young girls?

"Disney princesses such as Elsa from Frozen can damage young girls' body esteem," the Daily Mail reports – inaccurately.

The study the news comes from actually found a more complex pattern of influences on both girls and boys.

Disney Princesses™ – from Elsa all the way back to Snow White – have become both cultural icons and a multibillion-dollar industry in terms of films, toys and costumes sales.

But concerns have been expressed that "princess culture" could lead to body esteem issues in young girls, as Disney Princesses tend to be slim, pretty, and often with an improbably small waist.

Researchers talked to both parents and children to assess what types of influences exposure to princess culture may have.

They found a link between young girls watching more princess media, identifying with princesses, and playing with princess toys over a year, and higher levels of female gender stereotypical behaviour.

One of the ways this manifested was in a preference for playing with dolls and tea sets over action figures and tool sets.

Despite media reports, princess exposure was not associated with poor body image in girls. But it did affect boys, who had higher self-esteem, as they apparently identified with the various dashing young male leads.

It may be a good idea to show your daughters that there are alternative role models and other things they can aspire to – such as being a doctor, scientist, engineer, pilot or astronaut, to name a few.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Brigham Young University, Texas Tech University and Linfield College in the US, and was funded by the Women's Research Initiative.

It was published in the peer-reviewed journal Child Development.

The media reporting was generally accurate, but many of the headlines were misleading. Both the Mail and The Guardian stated that princess culture damaged girls' self-esteem.

The study actually found no effect on girls' self-esteem. The lead author suggested that a study with a longer follow-up period may find a detrimental effect, but this remains to be seen.

The study's limitations were also not discussed in the media reporting. For example, it found links, but couldn't prove cause and effect, or provide new evidence on whether the effects on boys and girls were good or bad.

The implications of the study were provided by the authors based on other evidence and insight.

What kind of research was this?

This longitudinal study looked at how Disney Princess media and merchandise might affect young children's gender-specific behaviour, body image and positive social behaviour (such as helping others).

TV, film and other media play a large and influential role in shaping young children's expectations about their own gender, particularly in young girls.

Disney Princess films like Frozen represent an extremely popular and profitable source of influence on young girls, but contain idealised images of princesses.

The study says that the Disney Princess industry generated more than US$3 billion in global sales in 2012.

This study investigated whether there was any link between the amount of exposure to Disney Princesses – through film, merchandise, clothing and more – and gender-specific behaviour, body image and social behaviour over the course of about a year.

This study type can't prove cause and effect, as there are many other sources of gender role influence and expectation.

Parents, teachers, friends, music videos and social media are just some strong additional factors that are part of the social pressure that shapes gender norms in different societies.

What did the research involve?

The researchers studied 198 girls and boys aged from 3 to 6.5 years from four US schools.

They started by taking baseline measurements of their gender-related behaviour, tracked their exposure to Disney Princess material over a year, and tested them again for any changes.

The children's teachers and parents provided most of the information, but there was also a toy test for the children.

The adults filled in questionnaires to establish their children's exposure to Disney Princesses: the amount of time spent watching TV, and information revealing its potential effect on their gender-stereotypical behaviour, body image and social behaviour.

The gender-stereotypical behaviour assessment involved a toy preference task. Children were given toys and asked to sort them into boxes of which they liked to play with a lot, a little, or not at all.

Some toys were female gender-stereotyped (such as a doll or a tea set), others male gender-stereotyped (action figure or tool set) and some neutral (puzzle or paint set), giving an idea of their preferences.

Body image was rated by the children's parents using a survey asking for agreement or disagreement with statements like, "My child likes his or her body", "My child would like to be thinner", "My child talks about his or her weight often", and "My child wishes he or she were better looking".

Social behaviour was assessed by asking parents how social their child was – for example, how often their child is helpful to their friends.

Parental gender-stereotypical behaviour – for example, whether parents encouraged their children to conform to accepted gender norms of behaviour – was also assessed to see how much this was having an influence.

What were the basic results?

  • As expected, girls had a lot more princess exposure than boys in terms of watching more princess media and identifying with princesses. For example, more than 61% of girls played with Disney Princess toys at least once a week, compared with about 4% of boys.
  • But for boys and girls, princess exposure was linked to higher female gender-stereotypical behaviour on the toy preference task, as well as others measuring a similar thing. This wasn't the case for male gender-stereotypical behaviour, body image or social behaviour.
  • Watching more princess media, identifying with princesses and playing with princess toys over the course of a year predicted stronger female gender-stereotypical behaviour at the end of the study, irrespective of the starting level.
  • Gender behaviour was a three-way interaction between the child's gender, their parents and fictional princesses for girls, but not for boys.
  • High exposure to princesses predicted higher body esteem in boys and more social behaviour.
  • Contrary to what may have been expected, engagement with princesses was not associated with poor body esteem in girls. And a related finding suggested that higher positive body image scores at the start of the study made it less likely that girls would engage in a lot of princess media and merchandise a year later.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that, "This study shows that engagement with Disney Princesses can be limiting, as young girls especially are more likely to embrace traditional female stereotypes both concurrently and longitudinally.

"However, there were also some potential positive benefits for boys, including better body esteem and higher levels of prosocial behavior when parents discussed the media with their children." 


This study shows an association between young girls watching more princess media, identifying with princesses and playing with princess toys over a year, and higher levels of female gender-stereotypical behaviour.

One of the ways this manifested was in a preference for playing with dolls and tea sets over action figures and tool sets.

The study found princess exposure was linked to higher levels of female gender-stereotypical behaviour, such as toy preference, but doesn't actually tell us if this is a bad thing.

Much of the media reporting, and quotes from the authors of the study, suggest ideas about why this might be bad – which may be true – but this conjecture isn't based on this particular study.

Also, identifying with princesses may have been expected to result in poor body image in girls, but this doesn't seem to have been the case.

As the researchers said: "Although there is nothing inherently wrong with expressing femininity or behaving in a gendered manner, stereotypical female behavior may potentially be problematic if girls believe that their opportunities in life are limited because of preconceived notions regarding gender."

They went on to state girls should not "avoid the types of exploration and activities that are important to children learning about the world in order to conform to stereotypical notions about femininity".

The study attempts to isolate the effects of princesses against a complex background of social gender influences from parents, friends, social media, schools and others.

This isn't the most realistic thing to do, as these influences are not isolated in the real world – they act together. Nonetheless, the nature of science is to study one thing in detail to attempt to assess its specific influence.

Although the study found a link, it can't prove cause and effect. On the one hand, children might have been influenced by princesses to prefer dolls and aspire to traditionally female stereotypes.

But the other explanation is that these preferences were already there, and these children sought out princesses more than others because they matched their underlying preferences.

Job opportunities for princesses are somewhat thin on the ground these days. So, to boost the chance of your daughter living happily ever after, it may be a good idea to highlight the wide range of opportunities and vocations that exist for women in modern society. 

NHS Attribution