Skyla is absolutely over the moon about princesses. The North Texas 5-year-old not only dresses up like the characters and enjoys the movies, but she has also attended parties alongside her aunt, a professional party entertainer who appears at events as princess characters.
But type “princess culture” into Google, and you’re sure to find a slew of articles declaring how bad princesses are for kids like Skyla:
“Why Disney princesses and ‘princess culture’ are bad for girls.”
“Can Disney fix its broken ‘princess culture’?”
“Study finds Disney princess culture magnifies stereotypes in young girls.”
So are there really so many negative effects resulting from our kids’ obsession with princesses?
When we show kids a princess movie, we are showing both the good and the bad traits—that princesses care about the needs of others, but also that they never raise their voices and always look put together. But what message is that sending to our kids?
In a 2016 study at Brigham Young University, family life professor Sarah M. Coyne studied how the princess culture affects preschoolers, both boys and girls. The kids who were more immersed in princess culture engaged in more female-stereotypical behavior a year later. What is “female-stereotypical behavior”? For one, Coyne noticed girls weren’t as confident that they’d do well in math and science, and they were less likely to try new things. And because princesses were always portrayed as perfect reflections of femininity, girls tried to imitate that in the real world.
The first thing that comes to most little girls’ minds when talking about princesses is how pretty they are. Their dresses are extravagant, and their looks are exaggerated to embody cultural standards of perfection. Mom, you know what we’re talking about—models, actresses, even Barbie—it’s the body type.
In an already oversaturated market of selling a certain body type, princesses have not been the best example for little girls when it comes to outward appearance. A few years ago, artist Meridith Viguet created a satirical tutorial on how to draw Disney princesses that went viral; features include big head, big eyes, small nose, slender shoulders, very small waist, no hips, no muscles and tiny feet.
Little girls admire the princesses and want to be like them and look like them, but animations like these could lead to exceptionally high expectations of what women should look like.
Ashlyn Gilbert’s 3 ½-year-old daughter, Adalynn, loves princesses. One of her favorite princesses is Rapunzel, and why? “She loves her long hair and will stroke at her own shoulder-length hair as if she has beautiful Rapunzel hair, which we tell her she does have,” the Fort Worth mom says. The way a princess looks directly affects the way some children see themselves.
School counselor and mental health expert Krista Thompson works with sixth- to 12th-graders in McKinney. She has found that kids exposed to the princess culture could have unrealistic expectations for themselves in their pursuit to be flawless.
“Over the years, there has been a fight to change the role [and] perception of women for the better in Disney films; however, there are still lingering negative messages being portrayed,” Thompson says. She explains that boys might believe they need to be “rich, powerful and hold a high role in society to obtain a good, perfect woman.”
These ideals of perfection are obviously unrealistic and damage far beneath the surface. Thompson says that scads of mental health problems can manifest:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (from having to be perfect, fearing failure and not meeting expectations)
- Major depression (from feeling worthless, inadequate and not capable based on expectations)
- Eating disorders (from misperception of body shape and size)
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (from fixating on a defect or flaw)
- Histrionic personality disorder (from not feeling valuable, lacking self-worth and needing attention from others)
“I make a conscious effort to never mention weight or anything negative body image-wise due to the fact that I had and fought an eating disorder in high school, and I refuse to let my daughter become victim to today’s twisted image of what a girl should look like,” Gilbert says. “I don’t let anyone say words like ‘fat’ or anything relating, and I definitely don’t let people talk about diets.”
Thankfully the newer princesses, especially the most recent, seem to fight against the stereotypes of princess culture. Frozen’s Anna is very much a clumsy girl who doesn’t wake up with perfect hair. In fact, she’s a little bit of a mess—like we all are. The ideal princess is becoming more realistic as time continues.
In the newer animations, such as Brave and Moana, body shapes are more accurate too—more like real girls. Moana doesn’t have tiny feet and calves, her shoulders are built, and she doesn’t have a narrow waist. Her figure isn’t sexualized to fit some “ideal woman.”
The first princesses also had the stereotypical white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. But starting in the ’90s with Aladdin, Pocahontas and Mulan, we saw a shift in what a princess looks like.
“I think this is good for us,” says Martha Satz, who teaches a course on ethical implications in children’s literature at Southern Methodist University. “It’s pushing at traditional images where we think girls who are beautiful have to be pale. The more and diverse images we can have, the better off we are.”
Thompson also feels the newer princesses are positive models for children. Mulan, for example, promotes “the idea of being yourself and standing up for what you trust is right regardless of who disagrees,” Thompson says. “Mulan goes to fight in the war even though she knows it will bring shame to her family. Regardless of gender, this shows the audience a sense of strength, grit and capability.”
“As parents we need to be concerned about our kids’ media ‘diets’ from the beginning and all the way through high school.”
Although princesses are usually the main focus in films aptly dubbed “princess movies,” the princes play an important role in shaping what our children believe a man should look and act like too. Prince Charming, though his name referred to his intended personality, had one purpose: to risk his life fighting off the villain in order to save the princess. As noble as that sounds, it might put pressure on little boys to think that their only job is to risk their lives for love.
For most princes, there was also this mindset that there would be a woman waiting for a prince to come and kiss her. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty could only awaken with true love’s kiss—even if their “true love” was someone they barely knew. The princes kissed them, and the princesses were saved. (If only it were that easy!) But characters behaving this way can elude boys into thinking that every girl is just sitting around waiting for a prince to physically pursue her, and therefore boys have a right to kiss girls without their consent (yikes). In the early movies, there is a lack of verbal confirmation between princes and princesses during these instances, but in real life, girls don’t usually welcome such forward actions. This can lead to a mess of problems when boys think they are allowed to go around kissing whatever girls they want
This is all symptomatic of a major problem with the portrayal of princes, especially in the early movies: Their entire identity revolved around winning over a woman. The princes’ goals very much focused on the princesses. It was all about finding true love or an heiress to the throne. The princes’ own personalities and aspirations weren’t important.
In the newer movies, we see more from the princes, such as Tangled’s Flynn Ryder, who was a thief with a good heart. Boys (and girls) see a positive message that people who have done bad things are able to change themselves and their path in life. Or we have Frozen’s Kristoff, who was an ice harvester (not rich and powerful) and was kindhearted. The princes now aren’t always risking their lives to win the princesses and save the day; they are helping the princesses reach their dreams.
There were some positive effects for boys in Coyne’s study, such as having better body esteem and seeing men portrayed in a softer light. In media, the message that boys and men need to be aggressive is all too familiar; however, in princess culture, men reveal a much more sympathetic and empathetic side. Boys get to see what love looks like for a man in a way that not all aspects of our culture show.
THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER
So far, says Skyla’s dad, the 5-year-old does not seem to be taking in any complex ideas about princesses, such as unrealistic expectations for looks and love. No, what Skyla loves most about princesses is their dresses. She enjoys their visual beauty, but not in the sense that she expects herself to look exactly like them.
Her father, Josh Sutton, has made it a point to be honest with his daughter about the fact that princesses are just make-believe. In his opinion, experts are looking too deep into something that is supposed to be refreshing, a positive beacon for kids. He believes that “princess culture” has been overblown into this idea that children are taking in these adult problems, internalizing them and suffering from the negative effects.
“They are trying to apply these negative things to these kids when they’re having fun,” Sutton says.
Instead, he says, let kids just be kids—they see a character, they love a character, they move on to the next character. Parents like him aren’t seeing these issues that experts are seeing, and maybe it’s because they’re digging for something that simply isn’t there.
Sutton and other parents aren’t too worried, but experts still have reservations. The girls in Coyne’s study did not exhibit less healthy views of their bodies after being immersed in princess culture for a year, but Coyne says her study didn’t have the final word on that point—she’d like to revisit her participants in a few years to see if their body positivity changes as they get older.
Plano family therapist Christy Doering finds there’s a bigger problem at hand than just princess culture.
“As parents we need to be concerned about our kids’ media ‘diets’ from the beginning and all the way through high school,” she says. “Kids are sponges, and they are also smart and resilient. So if we experience media with them from an early age, we can get an idea of how they are thinking of these things.”
Ask your child what they are thinking and feeling as they watch movies and TV shows (including princess movies).
“Some kids are more likely to follow media cues than others,” Doering reveals. “If you have an especially impressionable child, you will need to closely monitor.”
It’s likely that most little ones aren’t going to copy exactly what princesses do, but it isn’t a bad idea to sit down with your child to talk about why things they see in movies aren’t always the best examples. If your kiddo is younger, the movies’ messages might not fully click but can subconsciously change their view of themselves if not monitored. The scary list of effects that Thompson warns about are not guaranteed, but it is better to informed.
“There is always a way to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to interacting with your child,” Thompson says.
To combat any negative influences of princess culture, Thompson suggests acknowledging the discrepancy between real life and the messages portrayed in TV and movies—in a way that’s age-appropriate.
Then teach your child the character traits you’d be proud of and that they should be proud of, such as independence, compassion and genuineness, Thompson says. “Set limits and monitor what your child is exposed to.”
Finally, “show genuine concern for your child’s well-being, mental wellness and overall quality of life, while also allowing them to voice their thoughts and opinions, so they feel heard,” Thompson says. “Love, empathy and trust go a long way.”
What Martha Satz, assistant professor at Southern Methodist University, knows best is books. Instead of spending time in front of the TV with your kids, think about reading some classic princess books that have positive narratives:
Jane and the Dragon by Martin Baynton
Jane wishes to become a knight instead of a princess in this series about her adventures.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Ella of Frell has the “gift” of obedience, which makes her do whatever anyone tells her to. Ella must figure out how to get rid of her gift, and she falls in love with a prince along the way.
The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke
In a family of all boys, this princess is taught all about sword fighting and raising horses.
Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor & Robin Preiss Glasser
Read the series to join Nancy’s endless journey to being fancy—tiara and all.
Or check out these other winning tales:
Not All Princesses Dress in Pink by Jane Yolen & Heidi E. Y. Stemple
Changing the stereotypical princess color, this book shows how princesses come in all different colors.
The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale
Princess Magnolia’s alter ego is a superhero named Princess in Black who protects her kingdom.
Princesses Wear Pants by Savannah Guthrie & Allison Oppenheim
This little princess is not interested in dresses because she loves her collection of pants, but some people don’t think that is princess attire.
Pro tip: Get your little one into Nella the Princess Knight on Nick Jr., an animated series that follows the heroic adventures of Princess Nella.
Image courtesy of iStock.