Princess culture helps children develop progressive mindsets, BYU research finds

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Courtesy of BYU Photo

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PROVO, Utah (ABC4) – Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s defying toxic masculinity and developing progressive attitudes towards all genders?

Kids who are watching and reading about Disney princesses, a new research indicates.

In a follow-up to research presented on the effects of Disney princess-related media back in 2016, BYU family life professor Sarah Coyne has found that princess-obsessed children are more likely to adhere less to hegemonic masculinity norms as they enter adolescence.

In other words, kids – of all genders – who grew up loving Disney princess stories and characters such as Aladdin’s Jasmine, Brave’s Merida, and Moana, from her self-titled movie, tended to have more progressive views on women and were more likely to be OK with men expressing emotion or crying as they get older.

“It shows that as they age, as they develop, the children can really kind of think about those themes a little bit more deeply. The stories themselves, especially the later stories have a lot of beautiful content, and they can really use them as a form of empowerment instead of limitation, as we’re finding early on,” Coyne explains.

When Coyne first delivered her findings on princess research, she found that in the short term, her participants were more likely to magnify certain cultural stereotypes in women. The children in the survey five years ago often stated they admired a certain princess due mostly to her physical appearance, she says.

Courtesy of BYU Photo

Over time, those same children have gravitated to more intangible admirable qualities, such as strength, empowerment, and compassion.

These findings were about the same for children of all genders.

“There were relatively few differences between boys and girls, which was surprising,” Coyne says to ABC4.com. “We thought that the findings would be much stronger for girls, but they seemed to be good for both boys and girls.”

Coyne has seen it in her own home. While the initial study was prompted in part by her daughter Hannah’s love for princesses as a small child, Coyne shares that her son, Liam, also took a fondness to the stories early in his life. A big fan of Elsa from Frozen, Liam is “the most feminist kid I’ve ever met,” according to his mother. At first, Coyne says she was reluctant to let him be so interested in princesses but has since felt more relaxed about allowing him to explore his interests based on their own experiences and her academic research.

“It impacted me as a parent in a pretty profound way,” she states of her findings.

Of course, the findings suggest that certain changes in Disney princess culture have also made an impact. Whereas earlier Disney princesses such as Aurora from the 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty were not as empowered and were primarily Caucasian and thin in appearance, modern princesses have evolved to reflect a wider range of races and backgrounds and have also become more independent in their respective story arcs.

The characters of Moana, Tiana, and Mulan are examples of a more modern Disney princess look and attitude.

“I can’t overstate how important it is to have representation in the media. I’ve talked with many students who just say I don’t see anyone who looks like me in the media,” Coyne says. “So, I really like the direction that Disney is going with showing greater diversity of characters.”

Courtesy of BYU Photo

Interestingly, Coyne’s research found that children, especially those from lower-income families, did not have a negative feeling towards their own body image, based on princesses. She found that “shocking” considering how thin most of the Disney princesses are, with the exception of Moana, who Coyne describes as a bit more muscular.

She is interested to see what would happen if Disney marketed a wider range of princesses with varying body types.

“That’s a move that I think Disney can make, to show that we have powerful women of all shapes and sizes, out there and that beauty is not just one thing.”

While her research was driven by her interest in the effects princesses have on children – including her own – and focused on Disney’s traditional lineup of tiara-adorned females, Coyne’s favorite character never graced a throne in her story.

She finds Jane, the love interest from Tarzan, to be her personal hero.

“It’s a professor-professor thing, I guess,” she laughs when relating to the academically inclined character. “She’s so smart and so accepting of others who are not like her.”

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