Skip to main content

Playing Princess: Preschool Girls’ Interpretations of Gender Stereotypes in Disney Princess Media


Through their 11 official princesses, Disney circulates powerful and consistent messages regarding gender norms and roles. Inspired by the princesses’ ubiquity in the lives of young girls, we examined how preschool girls interpreted gender-role stereotypes in Disney Princess media both through their pretend play behaviors and their discussions of the princesses. Participants included 31 3- to 5-year-old girls who represented an array of racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and who came from four classes at two preschools in rural New England. Data collected from a variety of methods, including pretend play observations, semi-structured interviews, and parent questionnaires revealed participants’ stereotypical beliefs about the princesses and their adherence to gendered behaviors when enacting the princesses. Thematic analyses identified four themes that defined the participants’ princess play: beauty, focus on clothing and accessories, princess body movements, and exclusion of boys. The implications of gendered princess play are discussed in relation to the social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation. Based on the outcomes of our study, parents and educators might reconsider the type and amount of media they provide their children, acknowledging the effects of these images on their children’s behaviors and understandings of gender.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the sexualization of girls. Accessed 13 Feb 2015.

  • Baker-Sperry, L. (2007). The production of meaning through peer interaction: Children and Walt Disney’s Cinderella. Sex Roles, 56(11–12), 717–727. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9236-y.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Behm-Morawitz, E., & Mastro, D. (2009). The effects of the sexualization of female video game characters on gender stereotyping and female self-concept. Sex Roles, 61(11–12), 808–823. doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9683-8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Blaise, M. (2005a). Playing it straight: Uncovering gender discourses in the early childhood classroom. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Blaise, M. (2005b). A feminist poststructuralist study of children "doing" gender in an urban kindergarten classroom. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 20(1), 85–108. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2005.01.002.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Blaise, M. (2009). 'What a girl wants, what a girl needs': Responding to sex, gender, and sexuality in the early childhood classroom. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 23(4), 450–460. doi:10.1080/02568540909594673.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (2003). The importance of being playful. Educational Leadership, 60(7), 50–53.

    Google Scholar 

  • Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 77–101. doi:10.1191/1478088706qp063oa.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bussey, K., & Bandura, A. (1984). Influence of gender constancy and social power on sex-linked modeling. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(6), 1292–1302. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.47.6.1292.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Bussey, K., & Bandura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation. Psychological Review, 106(4), 676–713. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.106.4.676.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Corsaro, W. A. (2006). Qualitative research on children's peer relations in cultural context. In X. Chen, D. C. French, & B. H. Schneider (Eds.), Peer relationships in cultural context (pp. 96–119). New York: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511499739.005.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Coyne, S., Linder, J., Rasmussen, E., Nelson, D., & Collier, K. (2014). It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a gender stereotype!: Longitudinal associations between superhero viewing and gender stereotyped play. Sex Roles, 70(9–10), 416–430. doi:10.1007/s11199-014-0374-8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Coyne, S. M., Linder, J. R., Rasmussen, E. E., 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. doi:10.1111/cdev.12569.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Davies, B. (2003). Frogs and snails and feminist tales: Preschool children and gender. Cresskill: Hampton Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Del Vecho, P. (Producer), & Clements R., & Musker J. (Directors). (2009). The princess and the frog (motion picture). Burbank: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.

  • Disney (2007). Disney Consumer Products continues strong growth at retail (Press Release). Accessed 8 Feb 2015.

  • Disney (2015). Disney Princess. Accessed 3 May 2015

  • England, D., Descartes, L., & Collier-Meek, M. A. (2011). Gender role portrayal and the Disney princesses. Sex Roles, 64(7–8), 555–567. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fought, C., & Eisenhauer, K. (2015, December). A quantitative analysis of gendered compliments in Disney Princess films. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the linguistic society of America. DC: Washington.

    Google Scholar 

  • Frueh, T., & McGhee, P. E. (1975). Traditional sex role development and amount of time spent watching television. Developmental Psychology, 11(1), 109. doi:10.1037/h0076133.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Girls Inc. (2006). The supergirl dilemma: Girls grapple with the mounting pressure of expectations. Accessed 13 Feb 2015.

  • Giroux, H. A., & Pollock, G. (2010). The mouse that roared: Disney and the end of innocence. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Google Scholar 

  • Halim, M. L., Ruble, D. N., & Tamis-Lemonda, C. S. (2013). Four-year-olds' beliefs about how others regard males and females. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 31(1), 128–135. doi:10.1111/j.2044-835X.2012.02084.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Hayes, A. F., & Krippendorff, K. (2007). Answering the call for a standard reliability measure for coding data. Communication Methods and Measures, 1(1), 77–89. doi:10.1080/19312450709336664.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hayes, S., & Tantleff-Dunn, S. (2010). Am I too fat to be a princess? Examining the effects of popular children's media on young girls' body image. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 28(2), 413–426. doi:10.1348/026151009X424240.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Jacoby, J., & Lesaux, N. K. (2014). Support for extended discourse in teacher talk with linguistically diverse preschoolers. Early Education and Development, 25(8), 1162–1179. doi:10.1080/10409289.2014.907695.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kohlberg, L. (1966). A cognitive-developmental analysis of children's sex-role concepts and attitudes. In E. E. Maccoby (Ed.), The development of sex differences (pp. 82–173). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lamb, S., & Brown, L. (2006). Packaging girlhood: Rescuing our daughters from marketers' schemes. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Linn, S. (2009). A royal juggernaut: The Disney princesses and other commercialized threats to creative play and the path to self-realization for young girls. In S. Olfman (Ed.), The sexualization of childhood (pp. 33–50). Westport: Praeger Publishers/Greenwood Publishing Group.

    Google Scholar 

  • Maccoby, E. E. (1998). The two sexes: Growing up apart, coming together. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Marcotte, D., Fortin, L., Potvin, P., & Papillon, M. (2002). Gender differences in depressive symptoms during adolescence: Role of gender-typed characteristics, self-esteem, body image, stressful life events, and pubertal status. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 10(1), 29–42. doi:10.1177/106342660201000104.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Masolova, K. (2016). 44 entertainment/character brands make the $100 million list. The Licensing Letter. Accessed 6 Feb 2017.

  • Mayes, S. L., & Valentine, K. B. (1979). Sex role stereotyping in Saturday morning cartoon shows. Journal of Broadcasting, 23(1), 41–50. doi:10.1080/08838157909363916.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Orenstein, P. (2011). Cinderella ate my daughter: Dispatches from the front lines of the new girlie-girl culture. New York: HarperCollins.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pollen, A. (2011). Performing spectacular girlhood: Mass-produced dressing-up costumes and the commodification of imagination. Textile History, 42(2), 162–180. doi:10.1179/174329511X13123634653820.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ramsey, P. G. (1998). Teaching and learning in a diverse world: Multicultural education for young children (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Starr, C. R., & Ferguson, G. M. (2012). Sexy dolls, sexy grade-schoolers? Media & maternal influences on young girls’ self-sexualization. Sex Roles, 67(7–8), 463–476. doi:10.1007/s11199-012-0183-x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wiersma, B. A. (2000). The gendered world of Disney: A content analysis of gender themes in full-length animated Disney feature films. Dissertation Abstracts International. Retrieved from Accessed 23 March 2017.

  • Wohlwend, K. E. (2009). Damsels in discourse: Girls consuming and producing identity texts through Disney princess play. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(1), 57–83. doi:10.1598/RRQ.44.1.3.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wohlwend, K. E. (2012). The boys who would be princesses: Playing with gender identity intertexts in Disney princess transmedia. Gender & Education, 24(6), 593–610. doi:10.1080/09540253.2012.674495.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We wish to thank Jennifer Gonzalez, Veronika Mak, and the teachers and children who participated in the study.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jennifer Wallace Jacoby.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in these studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research board. No studies involving animals were performed.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study. Parents provided written informed consent for their minor children, and children provided verbal assent before the initiation of the study.

Electronic supplementary material


(DOCX 22 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Golden, J.C., Jacoby, J.W. Playing Princess: Preschool Girls’ Interpretations of Gender Stereotypes in Disney Princess Media. Sex Roles 79, 299–313 (2018).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Disney princesses
  • Gender stereotypes
  • Head Start
  • Preschool
  • Play
  • Qualitative analysis