Diving deep into the allure of Disney princesses, communications professors studied how these popular figures inspire young girls
Disney princesses excite and inspire young girls all over the world, captivating them with beauty, bravery and royal status. This princess frenzy — a hallmark of the childhood experience — also fuels passionate debates about the unrealistic expectations these characters set, especially concerning body image and romantic relationships.
BYU communications professors Tom Robinson, Clark Callahan and Scott Church, along with graduate students Mckenzie Madsen and Lucia Pollock, recently published their research paper “Virtue, royalty, dreams and power: Exploring the appeal of Disney Princesses to preadolescent girls in the United States” which investigates the topic through the eyes of the girls themselves.
“This study is unique because it’s talking about Disney princesses, but it’s not an adult talking about them,” Robinson said. “We’re showing what the young girls themselves think and discovered that they do not all think alike.”
After the group began brainstorming possible pop culture research topics, the conversation turned to how Disney princesses are viewed in society.
“They seem to get a really bad rap,” Robinson said. “The critical analysis of them is harsh in saying that they are detrimental to young girls.”
The research was conducted using Q methodology, a behavioral research approach measuring attitudes, opinions and beliefs of subjects.
Because of the often controversial conversations surrounding the topic, the authors recognize the range of opinions and research about the princesses.
“We are a little nervous that we will get critical analysis people coming after us because of the nature of the subject,” Robinson said. “But, we think the research stands on its own and we feel confident in what we did.”
Thirty-one girls aged 8-12 were asked to rank thirty-two different statements on a scale of 1-11 based on how true they felt each was to them. After the initial survey, each girl was interviewed about their decision making process while taking the survey.
“Q methodology is all about how people think,” Callahan said. “It is not how they look, where they are from or their socioeconomic status. It is how they think and feel.”
The research showed four distinct groups: the “Virtuous,” the “Royalists,” the “Dreamers,” and the “Grrrls.”
“The ‘Virtuous’ group did not care about appearance, beauty or crowns,” Church said. “They just loved the princesses that had strength of character, that were kind, persistent and picked themselves up after falling down.”
The ‘“Royalists,” as the researchers termed them, confirmed that some young girls — like adults — have a fascination with the royal lifestyle. This group was intrigued by the fairy tale aspect of a princess’s life.
“We’re obsessed with British royalty as adults and love to vicariously have that experience,” Church said. “This group of girls felt that same fascination. Even though these are fictional characters, they want to wear the dresses, they want the shoes and crowns. They want the balls, and they want to find a prince.”
Another prominent group that emerged was the “Dreamers,” who were living lives they were not completely content with. These girls appeared to be running away from an undesirable situation in their own reality.
“For them, it was an escape to see the princesses and dream about a better life,” Robinson said. “They believed that someday they could get away from the life that they were living and have some of those experiences and adventures.”
The final group detected was the “Grrrls” who were drawn to the princesses because of their strength and confidence.
“One of the statements that resonated with them was ‘the princesses look like me.’ They projected themselves onto Mulan, Moana, Pocahontas and Merida.” Robinson said. “They saw themselves as being powerful and strong and making decisions for themselves.”
The research identified a shift from other critical discussion on the subject, showing that young girls find personal empowerment through the Disney princesses.
“These girls are consumers who can discern the messages they are receiving,” Church said. “They are finding these role models, and not just because they are pretty, but because they are receiving the princesses in positive, uplifting ways.”