Disney ‘princess culture’ may make children more progressive about women, BYU researcher finds

Following Disney characters may also reduce views of toxic masculinity, study reports.

(Disney) Moana, left (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) stands her ground with the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) in Disney's movie "Moana." A study by a Brigham Young University developmental psychologist finds that children who engage in Disney's "princess culture" — with characters such as Moana — develop more progressive views about women.

Disney’s princesses may be teaching children to have more progressive views about women and turn away from attitudes of toxic masculinity, according to a study by a Brigham Young University developmental psychologist.

“Princess culture has some really deep and beautiful things about womanhood and relationships,” said Sarah Coyne, a professor in BYU’s School of Family Life, the study’s lead author. “If we can grasp onto that, it can be truly healing for humanity.”

The study, in which Coyne and her team surveyed more than 300 children and their parents from preschool to early teen years, was published last week in the journal Child Development.

Those children and parents were the subject of Coyne’s widely read 2016 study, where she found that preschool girls and boys who were obsessed with Disney’s princesses leaned into female gender stereotypes — while not picking up on the characters’ kindness or helpfulness.

“Our prior study found that in the short-term, princess culture had a negative effect. But this changes over time,” Coyne said in a statement through BYU. “We’re now seeing long-term positive effects of princess culture on how we think about gender.”

In the new study, Coyne revisited those kids in their early teens, and found they had more progressive attitudes about women. For example, teen girls in the study were more likely to say that educational opportunities, relationships and careers were equally important for men and women.

Citing recent characters such as Moana (from “Moana”) and Elsa (from the “Frozen” films) as part of a “new wave of Disney princesses,” Coyne said that “princess culture gives women key storylines where they’re the protagonist. They’re following their dreams, helping those around them, and becoming individuals who aren’t prescribed a role because of their gender.”

Children who were highly engaged in princess culture, the study said, were less likely to adopt the traits of toxic masculinity — the strict adherence to gender roles where men are automatically dominant — and more supportive of letting men and women feel and show emotion.

“Boys who are exposed to princess culture earlier in life tend to do a better job expressing emotion in their relationships,” Coyne said. “Rather than shutting down their feelings or feeling like they should fight someone who challenges them, they can express their emotions in non-violent ways.”

Children who engaged in princess culture also developed a positive body image — which Coyne and her team found as a surprise, considering the criticism Disney has faced over the years about the characters’ thin body types.

Coyne advised parents to use the princess characters as a teaching tool, to “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.”