Historically, Disney princesses have exposed girls to stereotypical notions at a young age of what it means to be a woman. Their understandings of their own femininity have been, and continue to be, shaped by the "role models" they've been provided by the House that Mickey Built: the iconic damsel in distress Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, the woman asleep for most of her narrative, and so on.
Recent decades have brought us stronger, less traditional princesses such as Pocahontas, Mulan, Merida, Moana and others. Yet, the outcome has often remained the same: scores of girls influenced by precious, infantilizing, sometimes disempowering cartoons, marketing and toys.
This is "princess culture," a term coined by psychologists, referring to the effect that society's general love for idealized princesses and Disney's $5.5 billion princess enterprise has on children. A 2016 study conducted by Brigham University examined the effects of princess culture on almost 200 pre-schoolers and kindergarteners — both girls and boys — after absorbing culture relevant Disney movies, television shows and marketing. The overarching conclusion was that images Disney presents to children may not be entirely "safe."
The study found that 96 percent of young girls and 87 percent of boys consumed some type of princess media and concluded that more of those who had absorbed these messages displayed or approved of traditionally feminine, subservient behaviors than those who had not. "We know that girls who strongly adhere to female gender stereotypes feel like they can’t do some things," Coyne said in a statement. "They’re not as confident that they can do well in math and science. They don’t like getting dirty, so they’re less likely to try and experiment with things."
It also concluded that idolizing these princesses could be detrimental to children's body images and self esteem. This should come as little surprise. The princesses in many Disney films — specifically classics such as "Sleeping Beauty," "The Little Mermaid," "Snow White" and "Cinderella" — are thin, feminine and disproportionally white. It's an unattainable and idyllic picture of what a women "should" look like that under-represents girls of most body types and of many racial/ethnic backgrounds. "Disney Princesses represent some of the first examples of exposure to the thin ideal," Coyne said. "As women, we get it our whole lives, and it really does start at the Disney Princess level, at age three and four."
In her novel, "Cinderella Ate My Daughter," author Peggy Orenstein explores the ubiquitous princess culture and how confining young women to a "pink box" grooms them to become subservient, self-defeating adults. "So now you’re already a princess while you’re still in the womb," she told Salon. "And then you hear for years, 'You’re so pretty,' until suddenly you’re not pretty enough. But you know, maybe if you buy these things to fix yourself you’ll be pretty."
With so much pressure on young women to "be pretty," and to retain a certain level of traditional femininity, it seems as though Disney has forwarded and profited from the "pink box." But now, the company seems to be moving toward with taking responsibility for the historical trend it helped create with a new campaign that aims to upend the universally accepted ideas of what a princess can, and cannot, be.
Recently, Disney announced that it would be collaborating with Girl Up, a foundation that works with the U.N. to support girls globally, to create their "Dream Big, Princess" campaign. There, "regal" isn't defined by having long, flowing hair or finding a "Prince Charming." Instead the images, text and marketing of the campaign encourages its audience to stay true to themselves, regardless of societal expectations.
For the campaign, Disney selected 19 female photographers from 15 countries to take portraits of real women and young girls — including park rangers in Kenya, a teen author of a coding book and a Chinese Paralympian. From now until October 11, Disney will donate $1 for every photo shared with the hashtag #DreamBigPrincess across all social media platforms to Girl Up.
Even though Disney practically created the stereotypically feminine princess in modern culture, the efforts they have made to combat the negative effects of that image are powerful and perhaps important. It may be an example of corporate "virtue washing," but it could be a valuable one.
There's no debating that Disney possesses a strong global presence and influence (indeed, it seems inescapable at times). It has the rare ability to dictate what many children see, play with and do on a daily basis. From television shows, to films, and even the packaging on Band-Aids and grapes, Disney is inextricably bonded with childhood (and, increasingly, adulthood) across many, many nations.
While its responsibility for the worst aspects of princess culture can't be denied or excused, Disney's apparent newfound dedication to the empowerment of children, especially young women, is both necessary and welcome. Perhaps by marketing their brand using the faces of real women instead of the faces of idealized princesses, they could indeed help children discover the role models they truly need for success: themselves.