BYU Study Says Being Engaged With ‘Princess Culture’ Can Have Long-Term Benefits For Kids
Having kids who are obsessed with princesses probably means years of belting Disney songs on repeat and a lot of dress up. But a new study from Brigham Young University found it could have other impacts, too. Namely: a more positive body image and a rejection of so-called “toxic masculinity.”
Developmental psychologist Sarah Coyne studied a group of children from preschool through early adolescence, surveying them about their involvement with princess stories and their views on men and women.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: What exactly is princess culture? What were you studying?
Sarah Coyne: So we defined ‘princess culture’ as how much kids identified with their favorite princess, how much they watch media related to princesses like on movies or television, and then how often they played with Disney-related toys or merchandise.
CB: And what did you find?
SC: Girls who are really into princess culture tended to be more gender stereotyped one year later, but some more positive effects for boys. That's one reason why I wanted to follow up with the kids, specifically around body image, because most four year olds have fantastic body image, right? So I wanted to see if there was a longer-term impact when body image concerns start to come online right before puberty.
We found that children who are really into princess culture at preschool age tended to show lower adherence to hegemonic masculinity when they were in early adolescence. So basically, they believe that men and women are more likely to be equal, that girls should be just as likely [as] boys to go to college [or] to have a career, and they also believe that men, just as much as women, should be allowed to express emotions. We actually found that those who are really into princess culture and who also came from lower-income families tended to have better body image than those who weren't into princess culture when they were in preschool.
CB: How exactly do you measure something like that? It feels kind of out there. Was there a control group in this?
SC: Yeah, you can't control for princess culture. So basically they’re scale scores, so it's a correlational study. I would never say that, like, watching this Disney show caused somebody to think this way, you know, seven years down the line. We just talk about associations in psychology, usually. But the fact that there were any associations after seven years of testing them was very interesting on the whole, I'd say.
CB: There's been some pushback to the study, especially among people who took exception to the phrase “toxic masculinity.” Why do you think that hit such a nerve?
SC: That one was surprising, especially as a lot of it came from The [Church Of Jesus Christ of] Latter-day Saints’ community. I'm not sure. I think that the phrase “toxic masculinity” can be worrisome to some people because they think that we're saying that men don't matter or that men should be like women, which I don't think is true.
Usually toxic masculinity refers to a perception that men should have power and dominance over women, which in the Latter-day Saint church isn't really reflected in terms of family relationships.
[With] the original princess study, which kind of found princesses were negative, I got hate mail in my actual mail. I had people saying that I should be fired from BYU. I wasn't particularly surprised that they would continue to have strong feelings. I suppose I was surprised because this time we were saying princesses have all these positive effects.
CB: How has doing this study impacted how you parent your own children?
SC: I started the study when my daughter was 3 years old and asked me if she was too fat. It broke my heart, and I thought, ‘What is she watching?’ I'd heard stuff about princesses, and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve got to study princesses and body image and gender and all the like.’ My daughter's now 13, so it's been a decade since that first question. I've changed a lot about the way I talk to her about her body and then also the way we talk about princesses. And we really focus on their interpersonal characteristics, like they're passionate and kind and independent. There's a depth there that you can reach as a parent.
The second way is it's changed the way that I parent my sons. I have a son who is 8 years old right now who adores Disney princesses. I mean, he just loves them and watches the shows and has the dolls. I think doing this research has allowed me to be a little bit more relaxed in terms of letting him explore what he loves, recognizing that there are some really positive impacts for him. When I think about who he is, he is the strongest little feminist I know. He will call you out if you say anything sexist, and he thinks men and women should be equal. I'd like to think a small part of that might be because of the princess culture he's engaged with.