In this post, Su (Tina) Bai (BSc International Relations) writes about the negative and positive messages that children can learn from Disney princesses, with a little help from their parents.
This post was written as part of PB101: Foundations of Psychological Science, a compulsory course for students studying BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science and available to students from other departments. This course is also available as a summer-school programme, IR110: Foundations of Psychological Science available here.
If you have a school-aged daughter, Frozen II’s release has probably attracted your attention. Your darling might have already asked you to take her to the cinema to follow the magical adventures of Princess Elsa. You probably have no reason to say “no” because Disney seems appropriate for children’s entertainment.
Before rushing to ODEON, you might want to know a secret about Disney Princesses: Despite their innocent appearance, they are indeed impactful educators who can change your child’s behavior. When children watch the fantasies of Elsa, Cinderella, Moana, Aurora, etc., children also observe princesses’ behaviours and learn their manners and conduct. Has your child ever wanted princess costumes? If yes, then princesses have already become your girl’s role models. These virtual characters impact children’s behaviour through mechanisms of social learning—a theory suggesting that children can learn to behave by observing the people around them (Bandura, 1963).
Observing Fictional Characters
Social learning refers to acquiring knowledge by observing and imitating other people, as opposed to direct genetic transmission or individual reasoning. For example, Asians use chopsticks not because they have special “chopstick genes” or that they independently figured out how to hold two sticks with fingers; they acquire this skill by examining the people around them (Hamer & Sirota, 2011, p.11). While we can learn to behave through deductive reasoning, we often engage in social learning because it limits trial-and-error and increases success possibility: If one behaviour helps others to succeed, we are more likely to succeed by copying it (Henrich, 2016, p.101).
Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment (1963) demonstrates that children behave aggressively after watching a video that shows an adult acting violently with the doll (p.595). This study suggests that children learn not only from real people but also from video characters. Therefore, although Disney princesses are fictional, they impact children’s behaviour just like parents and teachers do. Moreover, don’t forget that children fall in love with Disney during childhood, exactly the period when humans spontaneously engage in social learning (Mesoudi, 2009, p.934). Children want to copy princesses.
(Video: Bobo doll experiment by Alfred Bandura, 1961)
Princesses as Role Models
Children do not blindly copy everyone; they select models based on success, prestige, age, sex, and ethnic cues (Henrich, 2016, p.38-44). So why are Disney princesses almost perfect role models for children?
– Children want to follow a successful person because humans want to succeed in life. Apparently, princesses are successful people who live “happily ever after” with a handsome prince at the end of their journeys.
– Children tend to pick role models consistent with other children’s choices. The development of a “girl culture” of liking princesses makes princesses more “prestigious” than other cartoon characters.
– Children usually follow someone who is older because they assume that older people know more. Princesses, or “ladies about to marry”, are older than children, so the latter perceive the former as more experienced.
– More girls than boys watch princess movies because princesses reflect feminine characteristics.
– Children tend to follow people who share common physical characteristics. Children with color often cannot associate themselves with traditional Disney princesses like Aurora and Snow White who have blonde hair and blue eyes (Hurley, 2005). However, the increasing production of princesses like Mulan and Moana allows children from other ethnic backgrounds to idolize princesses.
Learning from Model Princesses
Children imitate model princesses’ behaviors. For example, because traditional princesses like Cinderella and Snow White often perform gender-stereotypical chores like cooking, girls who watch these movies like to play more with tea sets rather than toolsets (Coyne et al, 2016, p.1921). Additionally, the prevalence of pink color and slender bodies in princess movies makes girls want to have pink outfits and better body images (Orenstein, 2011). In fact, boys who watch princess movies can develop bisexual characteristics (Coyne et al, 2016, p.1921).
However, princesses not only convey gendered messages. Princess critics like Orenstein (2011) often fail to realize that recent princesses like Moana, Merida, and Elsa actually reflect empowered feminist values such as self-love and bravery. Perhaps, future girls can learn to be strong by watching how Moana tries to save her island independently rather than waiting for a prince’s help (Hine et al, 2018, p.2).
Additionally, princesses also tell morals: Cinderella teaches us to forgive others’ wrongdoings; Snow White demonstrates kindness. By watching princess movies, children learn valuable lessons about not lying and also being kind to others (Coyne et al, 2016, p.1921).
Although children observe and imitate models without needing to be rewarded, incentives help reinforce or reject the behaviors learned through observation. Bandura et al (1963) demonstrate that children who see adults being punished for acting violently with the doll are less likely to copy the violent behavior compared to kids seeing the adults being rewarded (p. 532). For Disney princesses, parents often unconsciously reinforce children’s learning by giving girls princess toys or garments. These activities solidify girls’ understanding that they are “expected” to perform gender-stereotypical behaviors like patting toys, playing with tea sets, and wearing dresses (Coyne et al, 2016, p.1919).
As parents, you can help your children reinforce or reject some of the lessons conveyed by princesses. For example, singing “Let it Go” with your children reinforces the lesson from Elsa that girls can express themselves without minding others’ opinions. In contrast, telling your daughters that beauty does not mean skinny waists discourages them from focusing on body images. Parental mediation helps children know what they should and should not learn from princesses (Coyne et al, 2016).
Disney princesses are not as innocent as they seem, but they are not all evil either. If you engage in your daughters’ social learning processes, you can help them understand what lessons to retain and what lessons to reject from princesses. So now, close this web page and take your eager girls to ODEON. But, make sure you discuss Frozen II with your children after watching so that they will remember Elsa’s empowerment but forget about her body image.
Bandura, A. (1963). Social reinforcement and behavior change – symposium, 1962. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 33(4), 591-601.
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). A comparative test of the status envy, social power, and secondary reinforcement theories of identificatory learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(6), 527-534.
Coyne, S. M., Rasmussen, E. E., Linder, J. R., Nelson, D. A., & Birkbeck, V. (2016). Pretty as a princess: Longitudinal effects of engagement with Disney princesses on gender stereotypes, body esteem, and prosocial behavior in children. Child Development, 87(6), 1909-1925.
Everywhere Psychology. (2012, August 28). Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmBqwWlJg8U
Hamer, D., & Sirota, L. (2000). Beware the chopsticks gene. Molecular Psychiatry, (5), 11-13.
Henrich, J. P. (2016). The secret of our success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hine, B., Ivanovic, K., & England, D. (2018). From the Sleeping Princess to the world-saving daughter of the chief: examining young children’s perceptions of ‘old’ versus ‘new’ princess characters. Social Sciences, 7(9), 1-15.
Hurley, D. L. (2005). Seeing white: Children of color and the Disney fairy tale princess. Journal of Negro Education, 74(3), 221-232.
Mesoudi, A. (2009). How cultural evolutionary theory can inform social psychology and vice versa. Psychological Review, 116(4), 929-952.
Orenstein, P. (2011, June 19). The ghettoisation of pink: How it has cornered the little-girl market. Retrieved November 6, 2019, from The Guardian website: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/jun/19/peggy-orenstein-pink-conspiracy-cinderella