We’ll start with a caveat — the essence of the conclusions of this BYU study is “talk to your kids.” But, Sarah M. Coyne’s study on the effects of Disney Princess media on preschoolers sheds a little more light onto what should drive those conversations to make sure that young girls grow up believing they have the same potential as boys.
The study was published in Child Development, and is regrettably behind a paywall. BYU published a writeup of the study that gives some insight into the study’s methodology and results, and they’re not that surprising. The researchers asked the parents of 198 preschoolers how much they interacted with Disney media, then had them sort toys by gender to gauge how much gender stereotypes had been reinforced (the study also used reports from preschool teachers and parents to measure this). The headline numbers are that while 96 percent of girls and 87 percent of boys watched some out of Disney Princess media, 61 percent of girls played with princess toys once a week, compared to 4 percent of boys who did the same.
While 198 subjects is enough to be significant in a study like this, absent knowledge of how the subjects were selected and what the reports from teachers and parents consisted of, we’re not sure how seriously to take the study. But, it strikes us as stating the obvious — show girls a lot of other girls that act like princesses, and they’re going to start identifying accordingly.
That’s why, for Coyne, it’s not about Disney changing what they do or about cutting girls off from Disney altogether, but about balance. In the BYU report, she was quoted as saying, “I’d say, have moderation in all things. Have your kids involved in all sorts of activities, and just have princesses be one of many, many things that they like to do and engage with.” She also stresses having discussions with kids after watching media to help put things into context in their own lives.
It can be frustrating advice to hear. Sometimes, entertainment is seen as a way to keep the kids occupied for a little while as one or both parents attend to life’s other demands. The time and financial cost of raising children has become very high, and it’s really difficult to consistently have these kinds of chats with the kids. But, they’re important — the study suggests that these effects persisted over one year following the tests and reports, and if those chats continue to not happen, the narrow identification described above will only be reinforced further. If we’re ever going to get appropriate diversity in STEM subjects and jobs, this is one of the places where it starts.
Disney Princesses have gotten a lot of flak in the media for the kind of gender stereotypes they reinforce, but it’s probably unfair. They’re just characters a few people dreamed up, and they don’t need to be everything to everyone. The best point made by the study and report is that they just shouldn’t be the only source of entertainment for young girls. If the message is that the little ones need to see just as much of Optimus Prime as they do Ariel growing up, well, that seems like a pretty good idea to us.