I took my five-year-old daughter and the $20 she earned taking care of our neighbour’s cats to the mall this weekend. The idea was that it’d be a great chance to teach her about money and the concept of buying only what she can afford. Instead, I got a lesson about how deeply gender stereotypes had already taken hold of my little girl.
I led her to the first aisle of the toy section, which happened to be filled with action figures and trucks. She walked right past it and made a beeline for another aisle: one aglow with pink boxes and stuffed with dolls, tiaras and dress-up gowns. I called her back to the other aisle and said, “Don’t you want to look down here? I see some robots.” She barely even blinked. “No, the girl aisle is over there,” she replied.
I waited, teeth clenched, as she surveyed shelves filled with Disney princess paraphernalia and actually held my breath as her little hand hovered over a Barbie Saddle ’N Ride Horse. As parents, my husband and I try to counteract gender stereotypes by exposing her to a wide range of experiences and toys without expectation or judgment. We don’t have a ban on Disney princesses, but we don’t push them either and we’ve been selective about the movies she can watch (Cinderella is on the no-fly list, as is Aurora, Snow White and Belle, but Rapunzel, Anna and Elsa get a pass). She has dolls and a tea set but also Rescue Bots and Lego. We make a point of focusing on her abilities rather than her looks, reinforcing the idea that her world knows no limits as often as we can. And yet, there she was, drawn like a magnet to the “girl” aisle and gazing at a Princess Aurora doll like it held the secret to life itself. I didn’t care that we ended up in the “girl” aisle—I cared that in her mind, it was the only place to be. Where did we go wrong?
A new study out of Utah’s Brigham Young University, published in Child Development, suggests that we should point the finger at Aurora and her gang of rosy-cheeked, tiny-waisted Disney princesses. Research by Sarah M. Coyne, a family-life professor at Brigham Young University, shows that preschoolers with high levels of engagement in Disney princess culture (watching the movies, interacting with the products) were more likely to display female gender-stereotypical behaviour a year later. The assessment was based on reports in which children were asked to sort and rank their favourite toys from a collection grouped along traditional gender lines (“girl” toys included dolls and tea sets, while “boy” toys included action figures and tool sets). The gender-stereotypical behaviour included avoiding risks, getting dirty, engaging in more quiet play and imaginary games involving cookings and cleaning.
Gendered behaviour at this age can lead to a continued perception that some experiences are limited to boys, warns the researcher, adding that there was also a link between poor body image and exposure to princess culture. “I think parents think the Disney Princess culture is safe,” says Coyne in ScienceDaily. “That’s the word I hear time and time again—it’s ‘safe.’ But if we’re fully jumping in here and really embracing it, parents should really consider the long-term impact of princess culture.”
It’s hard to disagree with that last statement. Even with the introduction of more-empowered, less boy-crazy princesses like Brave’s Merida and Frozen’s Elsa, there’s no denying that clear messages about ideal beauty are being perpetuated and absorbed. But it’s also way too easy to lay blame for our entrenched gender stereotypes squarely on Elsa’s (albeit tiny porcelain) feet.
At five, my daughter is keenly aware of her gender and already has disturbingly clear ideas of what it means to be a girl. She insists on changing into dresses for special occasions—an instinct fuelled, in part, by every comment ever made to her about how pretty she looks. She brags about being praised at school for being well behaved and quiet—something the boys in her class, she tells me, are not. She is obsessed with Rescue Bots, which I feel great about, except for the fact that the sole woman character is a D-cup with a two-inch waist, who my daughter thinks is “so pretty.” So far, she thinks there are no limits to what she can be when she grows up. But when we took her to her first baseball game this spring, she asked why there were no girl Blue Jays. It’s only a matter of time before she realizes that there are so many more fields lacking in female role models.
So while I agree that Disney princesses culture can send the wrong message to our daughters, studies like this make Belle and her pals all-too-easy scapegoats. It’s time to stop princess shaming. There are thousands of gendered messages my little girl absorbs every day: the way I curse how my pants fit, the way shopkeepers talk to her, the way teachers assume that I am the dominant caregiver. There are so many battles to be fought, but princesses with sparkly tiaras may be the least of our worries.