Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid might seem like no-brainers for family movie night—but you may want to pause before you press the play button. According to a new study from Brigham Young University, children who play with Disney Princess toys or watch princess movies early on in life are likelier to lean into more female gender-stereotypical behavior.
For the study, published in the journal Child Development, researchers looked at how much 198 preschoolers interacted with Disney Princess culture. They then surveyed parents and teachers about behaviors each preschooler exhibited that were gender-stereotypical, such as being physically weak, affectionate, nurturing, helpful, fearful, and submissive. Finally, the children were given a task where they would rank their favorite toys out of a collection of stereotypically “girl” toys like dolls and tea sets, stereotypically “boy” toys like action figures and tool sets, and gender-neutral toys like puzzles and paint. The children were tested again a year later.
Researchers found that, for both genders, the more children interacted with princesses, the more likely they were to behave in a way that aligned in a feminine gender-stereotype a year later. Though stereotypical behavior isn’t bad in and of itself, research shows that it can limit girls by telling them they should avoid experiences that aren’t seen as feminine—they could also have different life opportunities than their male counterparts. Researchers found, too, that girls with low body esteem tended to engage more with the princesses over time.
While interacting with princess culture might have been problematic for girls, that wasn’t the case for boys: those who were more familiar with Elsa and Tiana were more likely to have better body esteem and were overall more helpful to others.
So should you just let the Disney Princesses go? Not so fast says lead researcher Sarah Coyne. “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 said in a statement. And when you do hang out with Jasmine and Mulan, make sure you build in a little reflection time with your children—don’t be afraid to discuss the good and bad of the movie you’ve just watched.
Not sure what to say? Here, how to help your daughter love her body (and the one thing you shouldn’t do when talking to your daughter about her body). Want to skip the princesses all together? Check out these bedtime stories that share stories of strong, creative and powerful women.