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If you’ve not yet caught wind of the decade-old princess-culture-is-problematic discussion — especially if you’re a parent — you must be actively working to avoid it. The latest study adding fuel to the fire comes out of Brigham Young University and finds that, yes indeed, folks, the Disney princess obsession can be harmful to girls.
“I think parents think that the Disney princess culture is safe. That’s the word I hear time and time again — it’s ‘safe,’” lead study author Sarah M. Coyne of the Mormon institution in Utah noted in a press release. “But if we’re fully jumping in here and really embracing it, parents should really consider the long-term impact of the princess culture.”
So, what’s the problem this time around? Same as always, confirmed the study, published in the journal Child Development, which involved the assessment of 198 preschoolers: Lots of engagement with princess culture (whether through movies or toys) can lead to gender-stereotypical behavior as well as self-critical body image.
The strict gender stereotypes can become problematic, Coyne observes, if they hold girls back. “We know that girls who strongly adhere to female gender stereotypes feel like they can’t do some things,” Coyne said. “They’re not as confident that they can do well in math and science. They don’t like getting dirty, so they’re less likely to try and experiment with things.”
The researchers found that 96 percent of girls and 87 percent of boys had viewed Disney princess media. Meanwhile, more than 61 percent of girls played with princess toys at least once a week, while only 4 percent of boys did the same.
“Disney princesses represent some of the first examples of exposure to the thin ideal,” Coyne said, echoing the many princess and Barbie critics who have come before her. “As women, we get it our whole lives, and it really does start at the Disney princess level, at age 3 and 4.” (In a recent devotional address at Brigham Young, Coyne even went so far as to dub women’s low self-esteem regarding their bodies as “one of Satan’s greatest weapons.”)
Coyne’s findings join a long line of similar warnings, declarations, and theories, most notably Peggy Orenstein’s groundbreaking 2011 book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” which chillingly laid out the dark side of Disney princesses, American Girl Dolls, and other commercialized girl cultures. Follow-ups included Jennifer Hartstein’s Princess Recovery and Rebecca Hains’s The Princess Problem. Recent actions, including a 2013 petition drive objecting to Disney’s sexy redesign of Princess Merida of Brave, in preparation for her official induction in the Disney Princess Collection, informed Coyne’s research.
So, what’s a parent to do, beyond the unrealistic strategy of avoiding any and all princess imagery for the entirety of a girl’s childhood? “I’d say, have moderation in all things,” Coyne suggested. “Have your kids involved in all sorts of activities, and just have princesses be one of many, many things that they like to do and engage with.” It’s also not a bad idea to discuss the good and bad of Disney Princess culture, she said — not necessarily getting too intense, but pointing out the positives and negatives about the media they consume, which is something Coyne has done with her own daughter.
“This study has changed the way I talk to my daughter, the things I focus on, and it’s been really good for me as a parent to learn from this study,” Coyne said. “I usually can’t say that my research findings have such a personal impact on my life.”
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