Make believe it: Why Disney princess culture isn't really toxic

·4-min read

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It's an unstoppable force that even the most right-on, feminist parents seem powerless to stop - little girls are almost all, at one point or another, obsessed with princesses. More specifically, Disney princesses. 

On the face of it, it's not the best news. Parents often fret that too many afternoons watching Disney princesses in action (or rather, inaction) will give their daughters a damsel-in-distress complex, or leave them thinking that their only goal in life is to marry a handsome prince and live happily (we hope) ever after. 

Many children love dressing up as Disney princesses. (Getty Images)
Many children love dressing up as Disney princesses. (Getty Images)

On the surface things don't look good - take The Little Mermaid's Ariel, for example, who quite literally gives up her voice so she can have a different body to attract her desired man. Gulp.

Or Sleeping Beauty, the ultimate passive heroine, whose story is only given meaning when a prince delivers her a (problematically non-consensual) kiss. Not to mention the ultra tiny waists and giant eyes all Disney heroines seem to have, which could potentially contribute to unhealthy body image ideals among young girls. 

Nevertheless, a new five-year study into the effects of exposure to cartoon princesses should give parents some hope. The research, published by Brigham Young University human-development professor Sarah Coyne, seems to show that young children who watch classic Disney films actually manage to develop healthier views about gender roles than other kids.

What's more, Disney princesses have become increasingly more worthy of role model status in recent years. 

Take Frozen, for example, which is all about sisterhood (both literal and metaphorical), and in which the handsome, charming prince turns out to be an evil narcissist (a valuable life lesson). 

Read more: This TikTok account creates real-life Disney Princess dresses

So, should we be limiting the amount of time our children – both male and female – spend watching Disney movies? 

Not necessarily, said Dr Amanda Gummer, child psychologist and founder of The Good Play Guide. She believes that princess stories represent valuable (but, sadly, somewhat rare) examples of narratives where women and girls are the main protagonists.

“Aspirational role models such as princesses can be good for a child's confidence," she told Yahoo. "For example, a study of seven to 12 year-olds showed that children who saw themselves represented as superheroes and main protagonists in TV shows had an increase in self-esteem (Martins & Harrison, 2012). 

<em>Frozen </em>is often cited as a positive influence on young girls. (Getty Images)
Frozen is often cited as a positive influence on young girls. (Getty Images)

Princesses can give young girls role models because they recognise that they are the same gender and perhaps look like them. 

Of course, we still need to foster employment in our young women so girls should to be able to feel confident in their own right, without the need or expectation for a prince on a white horse, so it’s important to see that Disney have made princesses more independent in recent times."

Princesses also often feature in traditional stories which can be useful frameworks when it comes to discussing morality with your kids. "A little fantasy can be helpful for teaching life lessons," said Dr Gummer. 

"For instance, good winning over bad - as we see in many princess stories - can help support children’s moral development, as they tackle the concept of right and wrong.”

San Jose, California, USA - April 01, 2013: A portrait of a Disney Princess Rapunzel doll from Disney&#39;s hit animated film, Tangled. Tangled was released on November 24, 2010.
This Rapunzel doll exemplies the thin, white and blue-eyed characteristics of many Disney princesses. (Getty Images)

Dr Gummer also suggests it's important to recognise that Disney have gone some way towards diversifying both the looks and the situation of princesses in recent years - but to remember that much more needs to be done to ensure all little girls can see themselves represented on screen.

"Classic Disney princesses have all looked very similar - white, slim, blonde - giving children the idea that there is such a thing as a “perfect” woman," she said. "Increasingly there is more diversity in children’s films and shows, but I would say this is something to be aware of. 

This isn’t limited to unrealistic expectations of beauty, but also romanticised love and life experiences - for example, the idea that you should be rich, married, and living in a castle; and that only ugly witches live alone in a hut with their cat."

As with anything, the answer lies in finding a healthy balance. "Idolisation or obsession of anything isn’t good for healthy development," Dr Gummer said. 

"So I would suggest exposing your sons and daughters to a variety of characters, through TV, films, books, and toys, to show them that everyone is unique. This can help your child value themselves and respect the differences in others, too."

Watch this: Artist imagines what Disney rincesses would look like as pregnant women

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