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'Mirror, Mirror on the Wall ...' or Should Young Children Look Away?

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By Carmen  Constantinescu

Classical Disney princesses like Cinderella and Snow White have long been staples of early-childhood entertainment in Western culture. But new research suggests that playing with Disney royalties or watching them in movies and TV shows perpetuates female gender-stereotypical behaviors in both girls and boys. A study by a team of researchers from three different U.S. universities confirmed that early engagement with these Disney favorites tends to keep girls and boys expecting the same-old behaviors and attributes from their female peers—physical weakness, affection, helpfulness, fearfulness, submissiveness, or waiting to be rescued.

The researchers followed 198 children (almost equally divided between girls and boys) between 3-6 years old over the course of a year and investigated how they developed gender stereotypes, body esteem, and prosocial behaviors after interacting with Disney princesses (dolls, related toys, media). What they found is something experts have long been suspected: The more time that young girls spent with their Disney princesses, the more they were influenced to adopt a "girly girl" frame of mind. Also, despite multiple opportunities to view prosocial behaviors in the Disney movies, girls did not adopt those kinds of behaviors. The boys did, but only after their parents reinforced the prosocial behaviors.

Perhaps, the good news is that body esteem did not seem to be affected in girls who chose the princesses as their play pals. (Only some girls who already reported lower body esteem sought the company of the Disney princesses, which suggested to researchers that they were looking for appearance role-models.)

Meanwhile, for boys, exposure to Disney characters facilitated a move away from the superhero-exclusive mentality about body image and opened the door to a reduced focus on hypermasculinity (i.e. large muscles, small waist).

Finally, a parent survey conducted at the beginning and at the end of the study found that when parents discussed media exposure to the Disney princess culture with their children, it tended to reinforce stereotypical gender tendencies among girls rather than reduce them. "Disney Princesses are relatively 'safe' and many parents may actively promote the stereotypical behavior their children view in the films," write the researchers.

So, love them or hate them, the reach of the Disney princesses appears to be real. "Most child developmentalists hope that children end up living their own 'happily ever after'; and greater understanding of the 'princess culture' in young children may, in small part, help them on their way," conclude the researchers. 

Photo Source: Getty Images

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