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After decades of hand-wringing over how Disney princesses might impact self-image when it comes to young fans, a new, albeit small, study has concluded that these characters actually come with more possibility for good than harm.
The research, published by the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Popular Media, studied the impact that Disney princesses had on the confidence of children over the course of a year, looking specifically at body esteem and gendered play. Among 340 children based in Denver, it found that having a favorite princess only improved these areas.
"With children’s media, people tend to be critical or dismissive of what kids, especially girls, like,” Jane Shawcroft, a doctoral student researcher in the Department of Communication at the University of California, Davis and lead author of the study, said in a press release. “Disney princesses really matter to young children, and we should also recognize that media centered on women and that tell women’s stories are important.”
This comes at a relevant time, as Greta Gerwig's film Barbie broke box-office records while providing an opportunity for people to reevaluate their relationship with the Mattel doll. Like the film, Shawcroft's study provides an evolved perspective of the impact of Disney princesses, and one that takes into account the inclusion of more modern favorites like Moana — the Polynesian princess who debuted in 2016 and represents the push toward diversity and inclusion.
Why there's debate
Consensus is that Disney princesses have had major influence in pop culture, and particularly over young people who have idolized them since the 1937 debut of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. What has yet to be agreed upon, however, is whether that influence is a good or bad thing.
A 2004 study thought bad: Focusing on the messages about beauty and thinness in children's media, the findings, from lead author Sylvia Herbozo, concluded that Disney films Cinderella and The Little Mermaid had "the most body image-related messages" of the video content analyzed. The body ideal depicted in those films, the study found, was Eurocentric and thin, which was, in a 2015 study, deemed influential to body dissatisfaction in young girls.
This idea became a focal point in other works like Peggy Orenstein’s 2011 book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, as well as Jennifer Hartstein’s Princess Recovery and Rebecca Hains’s The Princess Problem. What connected these books was the concern that parents had in the early 2010s when it came to navigating a media landscape saturated with specific and limited depictions of beauty and femininity.
Sarah M. Coyne, a researcher at Brigham Young University, expanded on those findings in her own research in 2016, which found that young girls, specifically, might be influenced by the "particularly damaging stereotypes" depicted in these princesses's tales and appearances. Children with worse body esteem were also found to engage more with Disney princesses over time.
But by 2021, Coyne had a new understanding of their impact, taking into account the evolution of the princesses's stories. "Our prior study found that in the short-term, princess culture had a negative effect. But this changes over time," she said of the updated findings. "We're now seeing long-term positive effects of princess culture on how we think about gender." Plus, Coyne told Yahoo Life at the time, both boys and girls who were "really into princess culture" were found to "adhere less to hegemonic [toxic] masculinity…and more likely to view women as equals … So that was the big news finding — princesses as this healing force for a lot of the toxic masculinity that we see portrayed in media.”
By then, Moana and Frozen's Elsa and Anna had also represented a new type of Disney princess for which appearance wasn't the focal point.
Shawcroft's study, published in August, took that into account, as it categorized princesses as thin, average and above average/heavy to hone in on the various ways that kids interact and play with them, and what the character's body type might have to do with it. Ultimately, it was the physical activity that the "average" princesses were associated with, rather than their body's aesthetic, that seemingly contributed to higher body esteem in children that favored them.
“They’re running and climbing enormous mountains and fighting things,” said Shawcroft. “For these princesses, their stories are more about what they can do with their bodies than how their bodies look.”
Conversely, princesses with thin bodies didn't have a directly negative impact on a child's body image.
Disney Princesses introduce children to body ideals
"I think parents think that the Disney Princess culture is safe. That’s the word I hear time and time again—it’s 'safe.' But if we’re fully jumping in here and really embracing it, parents should really consider the long-term impact of the princess culture … Disney Princesses represent some of the first examples of exposure to the thin ideal. As women, we get it our whole lives, and it really does start at the Disney Princess level, at age three and four." —Sarah M. Coyne, 2016
These stories perpetuate the 'beautiful is good' stereotype
"A content analysis of popular children’s videos revealed that, in the vast majority of them (84%), female physical attractiveness was associated with sociability, kindness, happiness, or success … heavier characters are depicted as evil, unattractive, unfriendly and cruel." — Sylvia Herbozo, 2004
The role of the princess has evolved for the better
"Over time, the princesses’ roles have changed, however, from being completely passive or even asleep during the final rescues in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, to assisting the prince in Pocahontas and Mulan. ... The princess role retained its femininity over time, and was rewarded for that, but also expanded to incorporate some traditionally masculine characteristics." — Lara Descartes, 2011
Princesses with active roles and average bodies can make children more confident
"Princesses with average body size created a protective effect, strengthening how confident children feel about their own bodies and freeing them to play in different ways." — Jane Shawcroft, 2023
Parents can contribute to positive perspectives of Disney princesses
"Focus on the humanity behind each princess, not just their appearance. Princesses like Moana are full of depth, passion, and goodness. The story isn't about how she looks, it's about following your dreams and finding who you are. Parents can take these interpersonal qualities and help their kids grow. We can show them that princesses offer a wide amount of depth beyond appearance." — Sarah M. Coyne, 2021, in an update of her 2016 conclusion