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Study Finds That Princess Culture Can Help Heal Toxic Masculinity Over Time

Illustration of children watching princess movie

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Key Takeaways

  • Exposure to princess culture during preschool may reduce toxic masculinity in preteens.
  • The newer generation of Disney Princess movies helps reduce gender stereotypes and improve body esteem.
  • Parents have the most influence and responsibility in teaching children progressive views on gender and stereotypes.

Princess culture has been criticized around the world for decades. Critics claim that Disney princesses portray girls in stereotypical roles and drum home the message of remaining incomplete until she finds her Prince Charming.

A recent study set out to find out exactly what the long-term effects of princess culture are on children. Surprisingly, they discovered the opposite of what they expected.

Children exposed to princess culture in their toddler and preschool years had more progressive views of gender stereotypes and better body esteem by the time they reached their preteen years. They also found that boys exposed to princess culture showed fewer signs of toxic masculinity.

About the Study

The recent study published in Child Development included over 300 children. Researchers assessed children in preschool via play observation and questionnaires. They assessed them again five years later via questionnaires relating to views of gender, stereotypes, and body esteem.

In the first phase of this study, researchers found that preschool children with high exposure to princess culture showed more stereotypically gendered behavior, especially among girls.

However, by the time these children were preteens, they believed in gender equality in education, relationships, and careers. They were also more supportive of emotional expression for each gender and showed less evidence of toxic masculine attitudes.

Sarah Coyne, PhD

There are still problems with princess culture, but on the whole, it appears that princesses (and certainly the modern-day ones) might be healing for some of the toxic masculinity we see in our country.

— Sarah Coyne, PhD

It is important to note that the generation of children studied was exposed primarily to the third generation of Disney princesses. This includes characters from 2009 to today, such as Tiana (“The Princess and the Frog”), Merida (“Brave”), Rapunzel (“Tangled”), Elsa and Anna (“Frozen”), and Moana (“Moana”). These princesses tend to be more determined and rebellious than earlier generations, and to have goals beyond finding a future husband.

What Is Toxic Masculinity?

Toxic masculinity is when males try to show how “manly” they are in destructive ways. This may include fighting to prove they are not weak, refusing to cry or show sadness, engaging in controlling behaviors, and rejecting anything that is “girly.” It can also be seen in homophobic attitudes and holding the belief that women are subordinate to men.

The Impact of Princess Culture on Toxic Masculinity

Boys who were exposed to princess culture during preschool showed fewer attitudes of toxic masculinity and were less likely to hold stereotypical views of women in their preteen years.

The study explains that male characters of third-generation Disney princess films are depicted as having fears, worries, and disappointments that they express openly. They also suggest that this generation is shown to solve problems without violence. This role modeling may have some impact on the boys that are exposed to princess culture.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that the boys who stepped the furthest away from toxic masculine views were those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Lead author Sarah Coyne, PhD, says they don’t yet understand why there is a stronger impact on these children.

However, one theory suggests that male characters in these movies are typically from lower socioeconomic backgrounds themselves and so children may resonate more deeply with characters they feel a sense of connection with.

Coyne says, “There are still problems with princess culture, but on the whole, it appears that princesses (and certainly the modern-day ones) might be healing for some of the toxic masculinity we see in our country.”

The Impact of Parents on Toxic Masculinity

It’s important to remember that even if your child has high exposure to princess culture, they have more exposure to you, their parent. Kids learn about the world through watching their parents and caregivers more than they learn from movies.

How to Help Reduce Toxic Masculine Attitudes

Reena B. Patel, LEP, BCBA, an educational psychologist and behavior analyst, offers some tips for parents of young boys that can help reduce toxic masculine attitudes:

  • Be a positive role model. Moms and dads need to express their own feelings so your child knows it’s OK to do the same. Check-in with your own emotions. 
  • Nurture boys and develop a mother-son relationship early on. A loving relationship at a young age creates a confident boy. 
  • Validate your son when he shows emotions by listening. Add value to any emotion they present. 
  • Do not judge. Create a culture in your home of free space to share anything. Listen with curiosity versus judgment. 
  • Reinforce and encourage emotional expression. This is a great tool for coping. Boys have feelings just as girls do; they are simply not encouraged to express them.

She also suggests that children, regardless of their gender, should be encouraged to play with all types of toys and try out different chores around the house. Parents can set the example of both helping with all household chores.

What This Means For You

Parents of girls and non-binary children can also embrace these tips. If people of all genders can accept that emotional expression and acceptance are essential for healthy development, we can help reduce the incidence of toxic gendered stereotypes. 

The Impact of Princess Culture on Body Image and Self-Esteem

Princess culture has long been blamed for poor self-esteem among girls. This study showed that children exposed to princess culture in preschool had an improved sense of body image and self-esteem in their pre-teen years, regardless of gender.

Movie characters who achieve their goals, overcome obstacles, and pursue their dreams send positive messages to children. Messages from the third generation of Disney princess movies suggest that it is more important to focus on what you can achieve than what you look like. Higher exposure to princess culture means this message is repeated and eventually filters into a child's mind.

The Impact of Parents on Body Image and Self-Esteem

Parents can reinforce the message of body acceptance by encouraging children to focus on what they like about themselves. When discussing the good things about your child, focus on who they are, not what they look like, Patel advises. “Focus on non-physical features, such as being smart, kind, funny, or a good friend,” she says. “Model this overtly.”

Reena B. Patel, LEP, BCBA

Encouraging acceptance of self and others, regardless of body shape and size, helps decrease bullying and judgment among kids.

— Reena B. Patel, LEP, BCBA

She also advises that parents remain aware of the media their children are consuming. Although body-positive messages are more abundant, so too are online judgment and bullying. “Encouraging acceptance of self and others, regardless of body shape and size, helps decrease bullying and judgment among kids,” says Patel.

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  1. Coyne SM, Linder JR, Booth M, Keenan‐Kroff S, Shawcroft JE, Yang C. Princess power: longitudinal associations between engagement with princess culture in preschool and gender stereotypical behavior, body esteem, and hegemonic masculinity in early adolescence. Child Dev. Published online July 20, 2021. doi:10.1111/CDEV.13633