In response to findings highlighting the changing gender role representations of Disney princesses (Hine et al. 2018
), this study provides an important contribution in assessing whether children themselves identify such changes. Specifically, this study addresses a key gap in the literature by quantitatively exploring children’s interpretation of gendered behavior in princesses from different Disney ‘eras’, and by examining their attributions of masculine and feminine characteristics to central female characters representative of ‘traditional’ versus ‘modern’ gender role expectations portrayed in children’s media. Findings from this study principally suggest that, whilst children correctly identified increased androgyny in the more modern princess (Moana), this did not influence their conceptualization of princesses more broadly. This presents interesting questions regarding the Disney princess brand and its ongoing influence on children’s gendered perceptions and beliefs, despite its trend towards producing androgynous content.
3.1. What Makes a Princess?
Children in this study were aware of differences in the gendered behavior of Aurora and Moana. Specifically, whilst they attributed feminine characteristics to Aurora to a significantly greater extent than masculine characteristics, they noticed that Moana displayed relatively equal feminine and masculine characteristics. This supports studies utilizing content coding analysis (England et al. 2011
; Hine et al. 2018
) which suggest that princesses from older movies are more feminine in their behavioral profiles, and that modern princesses are more androgynous. Importantly, as children attributed feminine characteristics to Aurora and Moana to a similar extent, they recognized that, whilst more modern princesses are indeed becoming more masculine, this is not at the sacrifice of traditionally feminine attributes. In this sense, children acknowledged that modern princesses are demonstrating true context-dependent androgyny, as described by Bem
Children’s identification of more positive gender role representations (i.e., the modern androgynous princess) is particularly important when considering the prevalence and significance of Disney role models within the lives of young children. Indeed, numerous studies have demonstrated that children utilize specific narratives and character profiles from older Disney titles within their pretend play and peer interactions (Baker-Sperry 2007
; Golden and Jacoby 2017
; Wohlwend 2009
). It is therefore assumed, at least by those praising the recent trend by Disney and others towards producing more androgynous media, that children would do so with newer princess characters, and that the resulting behavior would be a reflection of the more positive character profiles outlined above. Indeed, it seems the general assumption of parents, teachers, and society more broadly, is that with models more representative of the current socio-political landscape, children will no longer have to adapt the outdated narratives of passive, hapless, helpless princesses (Wohlwend 2009
), but rather, utilize ready-made storylines representative of increasing female empowerment.
The brand of ‘princess’ may be harder to kick however, as results from this study showed that children attributed feminine characteristics to ‘princesses’ to a significantly greater extent than masculine characteristics, regardless of whether they had viewed an ‘older’ or ‘newer’ movie. This suggests that viewing a more modern princess character is not enough to influence the conceptualizations of ‘princess’ that many young girls aspire to and hold dear, at least as evidenced in their play and conceptions of princesses (Coyne et al. 2016
). This is complimented when looking at children’s ratings of who is and is not a princess. They appeared to agree with Moana’s iconic line from the movie “OK, first, I am not a princess”, as they awarded her the highest percentage of ‘No’ classifications in response to the question ‘Is she a princess?’. It is interesting that, in examining responses given for other princess characters, results seem to suggest that children may use predominantly visual cues (i.e., the presence of long flowing hair, a crown, and a long elegant dress). This is supported by the observation that princesses in traditional cultural garments (such as Mulan and Pocahontas) and those who are unable to wear garments at all (i.e., Ariel) also received lower ‘Yes’ and higher ‘No’ responses (although to a lesser extent than Moana). Indeed, other studies have noted the importance of physical appearance and dress in creating the context of a Disney princess (Wohlwend 2012
; Do-Rozario 2004
). This could explain why children appeared unaffected in their attributions of characteristics to princesses after watching Moana
, as they conceptualize the character herself separately to the genre of character to which she supposedly belongs.
Such results undoubtedly complicate the discourse surrounding princess characters in the Disney franchise, as it is hard to draw comparisons between characters that may be conceptualized differently in the minds of young children, and there are several important considerations in interpreting this data. First, as children still have access to, and report watching, older Disney titles, their ideas of princesses may be shaped by the greater array of traditional princess characters still available to them. Further to this argument, it may be that, whilst newer representations may indeed be enough to change children’s perceptions of princesses, one viewing of a ‘newer’ Disney princess, as provided in this study, is insufficient to stimulate change. Alternatively, children’s ideas about princesses may be uninfluenced by representations such as Moana, as they may not see her as a princess at all.
3.2. “There Comes a Day When I Don’t Have to Be a Princess. No Rules, No Expectations”—Merida, Brave
Numerous developmental theories of gender posit that role models within the environment inform children’s understanding of gender norms and stereotypes (e.g., the Social Cognitive Theory of gender development, Bussey and Bandura 1999
). Results from this study suggest that children identify that principal characters in newer Disney movies exhibit more positive and androgynous behavioral profiles, and it can be reasonably argued, therefore, that children exposed to such models may adopt more positive interpretations of the expected and permissible behavior and roles of women. It is therefore important to recognize children as critical viewers, and as agents in the construction of their own gendered knowledge (Martin and Halverson 1981
), and that they recognize, particularly in comparison to characters in older movies, these more positive portrayals. Whether it is a new princess performing these behaviors, or simply an empowered female character whose royal status is either unknown or refuted, is of little importance to children, whose principle concern is identifying with, living through, and emulating their fantastical role models. That being said, considering the gendered baggage attached to so many of the traditional princesses represented within this franchise, it is perhaps encouraging that young viewers may be starting to detach new characters from such a toxic label.
The principal message therefore to production studios worldwide, including The Walt Disney Company, is that, despite the positive portrayals of more modern characters, children still invest both time and money in characters that do not conform to traditional gender archetypes. The financial success of more recent titles which feature female characters who are both strong and fragile, independent and loving, demonstrates that children do enjoy viewing, and ultimately identify with, role models who represent the pace and nature of change occurring in the world around them. Not only this, a number of media articles recognize the popularity of more recent princess movies with young boys (Koonikova 2014
; Gomez 2014
), possibly due to the increased presence of masculine behavior within these characters. In this sense, for Disney, and others, to continue to provide such role models not only has important implications for the positive psychosocial adjustment related to gender identity, but it also makes good business sense.
Motion pictures produced by the Walt Disney Company have been ubiquitous in children’s lives for over 80 years. Due to their pervasive presence, it is important that their content, and its relationship with children’s understanding of gender roles and beliefs is examined. Results from this study encouragingly suggest that children themselves are able to astutely identify and interpret the gendered representations to which they are exposed, particularly regarding displays of masculine and feminine characteristics and behaviors, and that they recognize the change that has occurred in such representations over time. However, it appears that this has not yet influenced their conceptualization of princesses and the associated gender role portrayals. Importantly, the popularity that Disney princess films continue to enjoy has not waned in the face of young children recognizing more androgynous gender role portrayals. Thus, whilst further research is needed to examine the specific influence of these newer, more positive representations on the gendered knowledge and behavior of young children, it can be argued that by continuing to present more progressive and balanced gender role portrayals to young children, the Walt Disney Company has the opportunity to contribute to the gender empowerment of children worldwide.