Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses ORIGINAL ARTICLE

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Sex Roles (2011) 64:555–567
DOI 10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7
Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses
Dawn Elizabeth England & Lara Descartes &
Melissa A. Collier-Meek
Published online: 10 February 2011
# Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011
Abstract The popular Disney Princess line includes nine
films (e.g., Snow White, Beauty and the Beast) and over
25,000 marketable products. Gender role depictions of the
prince and princess characters were examined with a focus
on their behavioral characteristics and climactic outcomes
in the films. Results suggest that the prince and princess
characters differ in their portrayal of traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics, these gender role
portrayals are complex, and trends towards egalitarian
gender roles are not linear over time. Content coding
analyses demonstrate that all of the movies portray some
stereotypical representations of gender, including the
most recent film, The Princess and the Frog. Although
both the male and female roles have changed over time in
the Disney Princess line, the male characters exhibit more
androgyny throughout and less change in their gender role
Keywords Children . Disney . Film . Gender . Gender role
D. E. England (*)
Department of Family and Human Development,
Arizona State University,
Tempe, AZ 85287, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
L. Descartes
Division of Sociology and Family Studies,
Brescia University College,
London, ON, Canada
M. A. Collier-Meek
Department of Educational Psychology,
University of Connecticut,
Storrs, CT, USA
The Disney Princess line was created in 2001 as an
advertising and marketing campaign targeted toward young
girls (Orenstein 2006). Although the first of the Disney
Princess movies was released in 1937, a strong marketing
franchise has reinvigorated the popularity of the Disney
Princess line (Disney Princess 2010). The advertising
campaign aims to attract a wide audience of girls with the
ultimate goal of encouraging children to personally identify
with the characters so that they will purchase the associated
products (Do Rozario 2004). The franchise now includes
over 25,000 products and it contributed greatly to the rise
of Disney marketing sales from $300 million in 2001 to
$4 billion by 2008 (Setoodeh and Yabroff 2007). Disney
and its princess phenomenon have been identified as a
powerful influence on children’s media and product
consumerism, contributing to a new “girlhood” that is
largely defined by gender and the consumption of related
messages and products (Giroux 1997; Lacroix 2004;
McRobbie 2008; Orenstein 2006). Though the Disney
Princess movies are produced in the United States and the
phenomenon is American, Disney has a strong international presence and marketing efforts (Disney International
2010). Thus, the Disney Princess line and its gender role
portrayals have important implications for international
children’s media as well (Hubka et al. 2009).
The present study examines the nine Disney Princess
movies in three groupings: the earlier movies, middle
movies, and the most current film. The earlier movies were
released between 1937 and 1959. These are Snow White
and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Cinderella (1950), and
Sleeping Beauty (1959). Thirty years later, a group of five
middle movies began release: The Little Mermaid (1989),
Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas
(1995), and Mulan (1998). The most current Disney
Princess film, The Princess and the Frog, opened in 2009.
The three chronologically distinct groups offer an opportunity to explore changes in the Disney Princess line over
Each of the Disney Princess movies feature a central
female character, the princess, and a male character who is
romantically linked with the princess. This study utilized a
coded content analysis approach to examine these primary
characters’ gender portrayals to reveal the roles present in
this popular genre of films, and assess changes over time.
Gender roles—how gender is portrayed via assumed
behaviors and social roles—can be stereotypical, neutral,
or counter-stereotypical to traditional gender roles (Durkin
1985a). The characteristics of interest in this study include
traditionally masculine (e.g., athletic, brave) and traditionally feminine (e.g., helpful, nurturing) characteristics
exhibited by the prince and princess characters through
their behaviors and actions. In addition, these films contain
climactic rescue scenes which were examined for the role
each character played (i.e., whether the character was
rescued or performed the rescue). The constructivist
approach and cultivation theory suggest that the gender role
portrayals present in the films may influence children’s beliefs
and ideas about gender, social behaviors, and norms (Gerbner
et al. 1980, 1994; Graves 1999; Martin et al. 2002).
Media and Gender Role Portrayal
There have been several informative studies that address
gender role portrayals in children’s media. Thompson and
Zerbinos (1995) analyzed 175 episodes of 41 different
cartoons available on an American television station and
found that the programs had gender stereotyped messages.
The study reported that though male and female characters
were portrayed stereotypically, cartoons produced after
1980 showed less stereotypical gender behavior than those
produced before 1980. The authors compared cartoons for
variability between male and female characters, and
performed an analysis of changes over time. Further, this
study introduced the importance of coding rescuing
behavior as a potential source of gendered messages. The
present study extends this line of research by incorporating
similar behavioral codes for gendered characteristics (e.g.,
being assertive, independent, affectionate, and sensitive),
expanding the variables of interest exhibited by the prince
and princess characters, and examining the most and least
commonly portrayed characteristics by each gender.
(Thompson and Zerbinos 1995). In addition, the current
study offers insight into changes in gendered content over
time within a unique framework, as both early and late
Disney Princess films are similarly marketed and viewed by
today’s audiences (Orenstein 2006).
Sex Roles (2011) 64:555–567
Leaper et al. (2002) conducted a content analysis of
gender-stereotyped character portrayals across four genres
of television shows: traditional adventure, nontraditional
adventure, educational/family, and comedy. All cartoons
analyzed were available on American television at the time
of the study. The authors reported that the television
programs had highly stereotyped messages but the extent
of the gendered messages differed by genre. Adventure
cartoons portrayed the most gender stereotypical characters,
and the educational cartoons were considered less gender
A review of research on social script acquisition in
media revealed the importance of the resolutions in the
Disney Princess films. Consistent portrayals of meaningful gendered patterns (e.g., who performs climactic
rescues) may contribute to the social scripts the viewer
creates when exposed to gender-stereotyped content
(Geis et al. 1984). Further research has demonstrated the
concept of script acquisition is applicable to young
children (Durkin and Nugent 1998). Eggermont (2006)
found that television viewing predicted traditional social
scripts regarding romantic relationships specifically, which
are highlighted in the Disney Princess films. Additional
research has supported the notion that romantic behaviors
such as dating and flirting are influenced by an individual’s social scripts and understanding of norms (Morr
Serewicz and Gale 2008).
Several studies highlight the implications of televised
media with regard to gender. Higher levels of exposure to
television have been correlated with more traditional ideas
of gender roles (Frueh and McGee 1975; Williams 1981).
Television has been identified as a dominant source of
social influence on children’s gender concepts (Leaper
2000). In addition, television viewing has been connected
with some pro-social as well as aggressive behaviors
(Calvert and Huston 1987).
Disney Films and Gender Role Portrayal
Disney films specifically have been shown to portray
some stereotypical depictions of gender. An examination of six Disney heroines found a focus on their
sexuality and the “exotic,” particularly in characters of
color (Lacroix 2004). The author cited numerous examples of both sexism and racism in the films, specifically
noting the heroines’ extremely pale skin tones, small
waists, delicate limbs, and full breasts. A review of 16
Disney films revealed that the presented gender images
were not current with societal developments in gender
equity (Wiserma 2001). Highlighted in this analysis was the
preponderance of domestic work performed by female
characters. Towbin et al. (2003) reviewed 26 Disney films
for cultural constructs, including gender, and noted the
Sex Roles (2011) 64:555–567
persistence of stereotypes throughout, albeit with less stereotyping in later films.
Taken together, these studies demonstrate the interesting
work that has been done in the field of gender role portrayal
and stereotypes in a selection of Disney movies. However,
an important limitation of these studies is the qualitative
nature of the analyses (Dundes 2001; Lacroix 2004; Ono
and Buescher 2001). No study to date has examined the
entire Disney Princess line for the gender role portrayals
present in the films, and there is little commentary available
regarding the most current film, The Princess and the Frog.
Therefore, the present study adds to the body of literature
by providing a systematic, quantitative comparison of the
main characters’ attributes, actions and outcomes in a
thematically unified, highly popular grouping of Disney
films. Further, the films span a period from 1937 to the
present, allowing for a chronological analysis of the
princess line’s gender depictions.
Theoretical Perspectives of Gender Role Portrayal
The present study was not designed to explore the effect
of viewing gendered stereotypes or egalitarian depictions
on children. However, part of its importance lies in the
possibility that exposure to gendered material may
influence children’s gender role acquisition and expression. Children certainly seem to be conscious of
gendered portrayals. Oliver and Green (2001) suggest
that animated content for children is often targeted toward
one gender, and that children are well aware of the gender
classifications of such media. In fact, the children in their
study actively used this background knowledge to predict
which cartoons boys or girls would identify with and like
better. Thompson and Zerbinos (1995) relatedly found that
children who recognized more gender stereotyping in
cartoons had similarly gendered expectations for themselves and others. Consistently portrayed gender role
images may be interpreted as “normal” by children and
become connected with their concepts of socially acceptable behavior and morality. For example, when children
see villainy in a character illustrated via gender transgression (e.g., a male villain appearing effeminate), they may
develop lasting negative associations with non-stereotypical
gendered behavior (Li-Vollmer and LaPointe 2003).
The constructivist approach and cultivation theory both
suggest there may be an effect of viewing gendered
stereotypes upon children (Graves 1999). The constructivist
approach proposes that children develop beliefs about the
world based on their interpretations of observations and
experiences (Martin et al. 2002), and therefore, viewing
stereotyped or egalitarian depictions of gender roles will
influence children’s ideas about gender (Graves 1999).
Cultivation theory posits that exposure to television content
helps develop concepts regarding social behavior and
norms (Gerbner et al. 1980, 1994). Thus, children’s media
influences a child’s socialization process and the gendered
information children view may have a direct effect on their
cognitive understanding of gender and their behavior
(Graves 1999). Further, cultivation theory posits that higher
levels of exposure to gendered messages are likely
associated with stronger effects on children’s gender
socialization (Klein et al. 2000).
Most children are regularly exposed to animated cartoons (Klein et al. 2000). The constructivist approach and
cultivation theory suggest the gendered content they
contain may impact children’s gender role acquisition
(Graves 1999; Klein et al. 2000). Many children have
access to the Disney animated movies, as they are popular
for this age group (Orenstein 2006), and parents perceive
Disney as quality family entertainment (Buckingham
1997). Furthermore, the marketing power of the Disney
Princess line in particular enhances the probability that
children will see one or more of the films (Do Rozario
2004). Consequently, children’s perceptions of social roles
and gender identity may be influenced by this media
experience and the stereotypes portrayed (Durkin 1985b).
Current Study
The present study examined gender role portrayals in the
Disney Princess movies and the gendered nature of
climactic rescues. This study had three hypotheses. The
first hypothesis considered the gender of the character,
with the expectation that the prince and princess’ gender
role portrayals would differ. We expected that the
princesses would show more traditionally feminine than
masculine characteristics, and the princes would show
more traditionally masculine than feminine characteristics. Correspondingly, our second hypothesis was that
the princes would perform more rescues than the
princesses, and the princesses would be rescued more
often than the princes. The third hypothesis involved
changes in the Disney Princess films over time. We
expected the gender role portrayals, measured via the
characters’ behavioral characteristics and the resolutions
in the films, would become more egalitarian over time.
Although we did not anticipate completely egalitarian or
counter-stereotypical prince and princess characterizations, we expected substantial changes in the gender role
portrayals across the three groups of movies: the earliest
Disney Princess films, the middle films, and the most
current film. Specifically, we predicted increased androgyny among the characters, such that over time the princes
would portray more traditionally feminine characteristics
and the princesses would portray more stereotypically
masculine characteristics.
Sex Roles (2011) 64:555–567
A coded content analysis approach was used to identify and
record each gendered behavior or characteristic depicted in
the films. Similar methodology has been shown to be useful
and valid in previous research (Thompson and Zerbinos
1995; Towbin et al. 2003). This method enabled us to
gather quantitative information about the types of behaviors
portrayed by the films’ main female and male characters,
how often such behaviors were depicted, and how these
connected to the characters’ gender. Table 1 lists each film
analyzed, the year the film was released, and the number of
codes viewed in each film.
if that behavior was exhibited in previous scenes. The use of
two coders enabled intercoder reliability comparison. Each
coded the first 25 minutes of all nine movies (the clips used to
hone the initial coding process were taken from other parts of
the films). The coders’ results were then compared using
intraclass correlation coefficients (ICC) (Shrout & Fleiss
1979). The average ICC’s for the characteristics exhibited by
the princesses were .96 (range of .65–1) and the average
ICC’s for the princes were .96 (range of .60–1). Coders were
in complete agreement for the occurrence of rescuing
behaviors by the prince and princess characters, and the
romantic conclusions of the films. Once intercoder reliability
was sufficient, one coder analyzed the entirety of five fulllength movies and the other coded the remaining four films.
Coding Procedure
Operational Definitions of Coding Characteristics
Codes and coding procedures were informed by previous
research on gender and animated film (Do Rozario 2004;
Dundes 2001; Durkin 1985a; Hoerrner 1996; Klein et al. 2000;
Leaper et al. 2002; Thompson and Zerbinos 1995). Themes
that emerged during the initial viewings of the movies also
determined several coding characteristics. Initial coding characteristics and coding guidelines were established by the first
author. To achieve consistency in coding within and between
films, the coding system was refined with input from the
research team. As part of this process, the first and third
authors test-coded clips of the films, compared and contrasted
the outcomes, and used the results to hone the coding schemes.
The prince and princess characters were coded separately.
The character was assigned one code every time they (a) were
mentioned as possessing a certain characteristic or (b) exhibited
the characteristic in their behavior. Each time the character
exhibited a new behavior, the behavior was coded. In addition,
a new behavior was coded each time the scene changed (i.e.,
the animated picture changed or shifted to a new setting), even
Table 1 Coded characteristics
for the prince and princess
characters in the Disney princess
The films’ content was coded for the gendered characteristics of
the prince and princess characters, the performance of climactic
rescues by the characters, and the romantic resolution for the
prince and princess characters at the end of the movie. The
coding characteristics were identified as traditionally masculine
or traditionally feminine according to past content analysis
literature (Do Rozario 2004; Dundes 2001; Durkin 1985a;
Hoerrner 1996; Klein et al. 2000; Leaper et al. 2002;
Thompson and Zerbinos 1995). All characteristics were
assessed for both the princess and prince, unless otherwise
noted below. The operational definitions for the codes were
established by the authors based on the content analysis
literature reviewed and are described below.
Masculine Characteristics
Curious about princess—exhibiting a studious, concerned
expression when looking at the princess. This behavior
Early Films
Snow White
Sleeping Beauty
Middle Films
The Little Mermaid
Beauty and the Beast
Most Current Film
Princess and the Frog
Sex Roles (2011) 64:555–567
suggested that the female had a mystique that was
captivating and romantically compelling. This was only
coded for the prince characters.
Wants to explore—to search for, to investigate, to want
to find out or explore the unknown.
Physically strong—hitting or moving something, providing evidence that the character had a strong physical
effect on the person or object. This was different from a
simple athletic display. There was a separate code for
athletic, defined below, and the codes were mutually
exclusive, as it was understood that displays of physical
strength often incorporated some athleticism.
Assertive—insistence upon a right or claim, the action of
declaring or positively stating. Assertiveness included
polite assertiveness with a hint of aggression. Assertiveness
was a strong, direct assertion of a position or idea.
Unemotional—repression of emotion, indifference to
pleasure or pain. A character was unemotional in response
to something that might seem to warrant an emotional
response, such as a death.
Independent—not depending on the authority of another,
autonomous, self-governing. A character was considered
independent when performing an independent action
against many, being alone when it was not the norm, or
not participating in the expected culture.
Athletic—a specific jump or kick that was large enough to
require some athleticism. Running was also coded as athletic.
Engaging in intellectual activity—engaging the intellect,
including reading or showing the use of thought.
Inspires fear—causing someone to respond with fear,
which is defined as uneasiness caused by the sense of
impending danger. This includes portraying violence and
aggression, intimidation, or unintentionally inspiring fear as
Brave—courageous, daring, intrepid. Bravery often
involved a rescue or leadership in the face of danger.
Described as physically attractive (masculine)—a characters’ expression about the handsomeness of the prince.
Gives advice—providing suggestions, recommendations
or consultation. This was coded regardless of whether
advice was asked for or whether it was warranted,
appreciated, or helpful.
Leader—one who leads, a commander. Leader was only
coded if the character was leading a group of people, not
animals and not just him- or herself. It also was only used
to describe physical leadership in which a person is seen in
front of and directing people and involved giving orders.
Feminine Characteristics
Tends to physical appearance—adjusting physical appearance for the purpose of making it look better or to draw
attention to it.
Physically weak—not being able to succeed in something that takes physical strength. It was often accompanied
by needing help or else failing.
Submissive—yielding to power or authority, humble and
ready obedience. This trait was usually in response to
another character’s assertiveness.
Shows emotion—the expression of both positive and
negative representation of feeling. This was only coded for
princes because initial piloting of the coding scheme
indicated princesses consistently displayed emotion at each
opportunity throughout and it was unreasonable to code.
Affectionate—having warm regard or love for a person
or animal, fond, loving. This required direct interaction and
required a physical display of love such as a hug, a kiss, or
an individual touch for the point of illustrating affection.
Nurturing—to care for and encourage the growth or
development of, to foster. Being nurturing required direct
interaction and was often shown as mothering. It involved
prolonged touching and attention in a soothing manner
(different than a brief instance of affection) or lending care
and help in a loving way to either animals or people.
Sensitive—perception, knowledge, connected with. This
code was distinguished as a form of empathy, as being
sensitive required being aware of another person’s or
animal’s issues from a distance without interacting directly
with them at that time.
Tentative—in an experimental manner, uncertain, cautious, seen in behavior or speech.
Helpful—rendering or affording help, useful when
assistance is needed. This required a specific action
performed that gave another person or animal direct
assistance. It was not used in a broader way to describe a
character’s role in a scene.
Troublesome—causing trouble, turmoil, disturbance.
This was recorded when the character was being discussed
by other characters in a way that made clear that the
character had caused trouble that others were trying to
Fearful—an instance of emotion, a particular apprehension of some future evil, a state of alarm or dread.
Ashamed—affected with shame, the painful emotion
arising from the consciousness of dishonoring and guilt.
While both characters were eligible to be coded for
ashamed, it was only portrayed by the princesses and thus
is considered a female trait.
Collapses crying—the character puts his/her face down,
such that it was no longer visible, and cries, usually in
rocking shakes and sobs. Sitting and crying while showing
the face did not count; the character must have thrown him/
herself on or against something (e.g., a bed, the floor) in a
statement of physical and mental helplessness.
Described as physically attractive (feminine)— Another
characters’ expression about the beauty of the princess.
Asks for or accepts advice or help—the character asks
directly for help, or needs assistance and is open to
receiving assistance such that it is clear the character wants
it and accepts it. Assistance could be physical, mental, or
Victim—subjected to torture by another, one who suffers
severely in body or property through cruel or oppressive
treatment. Physical harm or abuse was used as a defining
factor in this code. Victimization was coded even if it was
The nine films were coded in order of their production,
beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)
and ending with The Princess and the Frog (2009).
Hypothesis 1
The first hypothesis suggested that the prince and princess
characters’ gender role portrayals would vary according to
their gender. In examining the Disney Princess movie line
as a whole, we predicted that the princes would show more
masculine characteristics overall and the princesses would
show more feminine characteristics overall. An independent
t-test was conducted comparing the prince and princess
characters on the feminine and masculine characteristics
portrayed, using the percentage of feminine and masculine
characteristics from the total characteristics displayed for
each character. The results indicate that the princes and
princesses differed significantly on total masculine and
feminine characteristics exhibited, t(16) = −2.47, p = .025.
The mean for masculine characteristics for the princes was
51.63 and for the princesses, 33.01. The mean for feminine
characteristics for the princes was 48.48 and for the
princesses, 66.99. The princes displayed 494 traditionally
masculine characteristics, 49.95% of their total characteristics, and the princesses displayed 567 masculine characteristics, or 34.68% of their total coding characteristics (see
Table 1). In contrast, the princes displayed 495 traditionally
feminine characteristics, 50.05% of their total characteristics, and the princesses displayed 1068 feminine characteristics, 65.32% of their total characteristics (see Table 1).
To further explore the differences in gendered characteristics portrayed by the prince and princess characters,
independent t-tests were conducted comparing the prince
and princess characters for each characteristic. This was
done using the percentage from total codes for each gender
to compensate for the greater number of codes recorded for
the princesses. For example, while the princesses were
brave 60 times, this was 10.83% of the total codes for the
princesses, whereas the princes were brave 24 times, but
Sex Roles (2011) 64:555–567
this was nearly 5% of the total codes for the princes. The
counts and percentages for masculine characteristics displayed by the princes and princesses are listed from most
frequently displayed to least in Table 2. The counts and
percentages for feminine characteristics displayed by the
princes and princesses are listed from most frequently
displayed to least in Table 3. For masculine characteristics
(Table 2), there was significant difference between the
princes and princesses on the portrayal of physical strength,
t(16) = −3.74, p = .002. For feminine characteristics, there
was significant difference between the princes and princesses on the portrayal of affection, t(16) = 2.173, p = .045,
fearfulness, t(16) = 3.28, p = .005, submissive, t(16) = 2.95,
p = .009, nurturing behavior, t(16) = 2.12, p = .05, tending
to physical appearance, t(16) = 3.99, p = .001, and
collapsing crying, t(16) = 4.78, p < .001.
It is useful to examine the most common and least
common characteristics shown by the prince and princess
characters, as each incorporated traditional and nontraditional characteristics for their gender. The five most
common characteristics of the princes were: shows emotion, affectionate, physically strong, assertive, and athletic.
Interestingly, the first and second most common behaviors
portrayed by the princes were traditionally feminine traits.
However, the three least commonly portrayed behaviors for
the princes are all traditionally feminine. These include
tending to physical appearance, being ashamed, and
collapsing to cry.
The five most common attributes and behaviors portrayed by the princesses were also mixed, although three of
the five are considered traditionally feminine: affectionate,
assertive, fearful, troublesome, and athletic. Assertiveness
is a traditionally masculine behavior, though it is worth
noting that the majority of the princesses’ assertive
behaviors, particularly in the earlier Disney Princess
movies, were directed toward animals rather than people.
The least commonly portrayed characteristics for the
princesses all are traditionally masculine and include: being
unemotional or stoic, being a leader, inspiring fear, and
performing a rescue.
Hypothesis 2
The second hypothesis anticipated that rescuing actions
would vary by the gender of the character. There were 56
instances of rescuing behavior recorded, including
performing a rescue or being rescued. Consistent with our
predictions, the princess characters were rescued 17 times
and performed only 13 rescues in the films. However, the
prince characters were more androgynous in the frequency
of rescuing actions: the princes rescued 13 times and were
rescued 13 times. Despite the fact that the princes had fewer
behavior codes than the princesses on average, they
Sex Roles (2011) 64:555–567
Table 2 Masculine characteristics portrayed by the princes and
princesses in the Disney princess films
Table 3 Feminine characteristics portrayed by the princes and
princesses in the Disney princess films
Physically Strong
Curious Towards
Gives Advice
Inspires Fear
Performs Rescue
Intellectual Activity
Wants to Explore
Described as Handsome
Wants to Explore
Intellectual Activity
Physically Strong
Gives Advice
Performs Rescue
Inspires Fear
Percent of total
*significant at p < .05
maintained relative numbers of rescues and being rescued,
suggesting that the princes participated in more action
during their limited involvement. The princes often performed the climactic rescue of the movie on their own,
except in Pocahontas and Mulan, in which the princess was
in a position of power during the final rescue. No princess,
however, did a final rescue without the assistance of the
prince. The prince and the princess did not always rescue
each other, though that was more common than not.
Occasionally, the rescues involved another character or
animal as rescuer or being rescued.
Hypothesis 3
The third hypothesis suggested that the gender role portrayals
in the Disney Princess movies would become more egalitarian
Shows Emotion
Physically Weak
Asks for Advice or Help
Gets Rescued
Tends to Physical
Collapses Crying
Tends to Physical
Collapses Crying
Described as Pretty
Asks for Advice or Help
Physically Weak
Gets Rescued
Percent of total
*significant at p < .05
over time. The movies were categorized into three chronological groups: the early movies (Snow White and the Seven
Dwarves, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty), the middle
movies (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin,
Pocahontas, and Mulan), and the most current (The Princess
and the Frog). The princesses exhibited more feminine than
masculine characteristics in each of the three groups.
However, the princesses demonstrated increasingly more
masculine characteristics in the early, middle, and late
movies, respectively. The ratio of feminine characteristics
exhibited by the princesses decreased over time, with 86%
(394 codes) of the princesses’ behavior in the early films
coded as feminine, reducing to 58% (566) in the middle
movies, and 53% (91) in the most current film. In the early
movies, 14% of the total characteristics coded for the
princesses were masculine (63 codes). This increased to
42% (411) in the middle films, and 47% (80) in the most
current film.
Two one-way ANOVAs with planned comparisons were
conducted on the percentage values of masculine and
feminine characteristics to test the effects of the chronological grouping of films on the gendered characteristics, one
using data for the princesses and another for the princes.
Gendered characteristics were identified as the ratio of
masculine behaviors from total behaviors in the one-way
ANOVA, but comparisons using feminine behaviors follow
the same pattern as they comprise the remaining percentage
of the coded behaviors. For the princess characters, there
was a significant difference between the early and middle
films, F(1,6) = 113.12, p < .001, and the early and late
films, F(1,6) = 61.34, p < .001, but the middle and later
films did not differ significantly for the masculine or
feminine characteristics exhibited by the princesses. Consistent with these findings, the data of counts in Table 1
show that the early princesses displayed far more traditionally feminine characteristics than masculine ones. The
middle princesses incorporated more masculine characteristics. The most current film had the most androgynous
princess, although neither she nor any princess displayed
more masculine characteristics than feminine ones.
In contrast, a one-way ANOVA with planned comparisons revealed that the princes did not differ significantly
between the groups of early, middle, and current movies in
the occurrence of masculine or feminine behaviors. The
princes were slightly more masculine in the early (51%, 70
codes) and middle movies (54%, 353 codes), but the prince
was more feminine in the current film (68%, 126 codes). As
the count data in Table 1 further illustrate, the princes did
not display many codeable characteristics in the early films,
which can be explained by their limited screen time. This
provides further justification for the use of percentages in
the analyses. In the middle films, the princes were shown
more frequently and displayed more masculine characteristics than feminine ones, except for Aladdin. In the most
current film, the prince displayed many more traditionally
feminine characteristics than masculine ones.
Examining the prince and princess characters individually compliments the overall finding. The individual movies
fluctuate greatly with regard to traditional versus more
egalitarian gender role portrayals. The majority of princes
(7 of 9) and princesses (7 of 9) had a mix of traditionally
feminine and masculine behaviors in the top three charac-
Sex Roles (2011) 64:555–567
teristics exhibited, though a few remained traditionally
gendered. The princess in Snow White displayed affection,
fearfulness, and nurturing as her three most frequently
displayed characteristics, all of which are traditionally
feminine. The princess in Sleeping Beauty reflected this
pattern as well, as she was most frequently affectionate,
described as pretty, and tentative. Likewise, in the middle
films, the princes in Beauty and the Beast and Mulan
displayed only masculine characteristics as their three most
frequently displayed characteristics. The remaining princes
showed a mix of gendered characteristics. The prince in
Beauty and the Beast inspired fear, was assertive, and
wanted to explore. The prince in Mulan was strong,
assertive, and athletic. In contrast, the three most recent
movies, Pocahontas (1995), Mulan (1998), and The
Princess and the Frog (2009), had princesses who
displayed more masculine than feminine characteristics in
their three most frequent characteristics. This suggests a
chronological movement towards a more androgynous
princess. There is less of a chronological pattern for the
princes in that the prince from Snow White (1937), The
Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), and The Princess
and the Frog (2009) all show more feminine than
masculine characteristics in their three most frequently
shown behaviors. The princes consistently portrayed more
androgyny throughout the Disney Princess movies, though
there are interesting exceptions in two of the middle
movies, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan, where the princes
were masculine in their three most frequent characteristics.
Gendered Characteristics
In confirmation of our hypothesis, the first three Disney
Princess movies, produced in the 1930s and 50s, depicted
in general more gendered attributes for both the princesses
and the princes, and employed more traditional gender roles
than did the five films produced in and after the 1980s,
including the most current film produced in 2009. The
princesses in the first three Disney Princess movies were
frequently affectionate, helpful, troublesome, fearful, tentative, and described as pretty. Even when an early princess
evinced a seemingly masculine characteristic, like assertiveness, in these early films such a trait worked to further
traditionally gendered messages. Although the princesses
portrayed assertiveness more often than the princes in the
early movies and overall, the women were more assertive
with animals and children, and far less with other people.
This suggests a fairly submissive and limited way of being
assertive, as if they could not assert themselves with other
adults, but only when they were mothering, or with those
Sex Roles (2011) 64:555–567
who had less power. The princess was rarely, if ever, seen
asserting herself with the prince. The women did tend to be
assertive about their fathers’ attempts at controlling them.
Interestingly, the prince characters did not often have a
father figure to assert themselves against. Further, those
princes with parents were not controlled in the same way
the princesses were. In contrast to the earlier films, the
middle and most current films had princesses who were
more assertive than in earlier films, and these princesses
were assertive towards both people and animals.
The princes in the first three Disney Princess movies
showed traditional gender characteristics as well. In Snow
White and the Seven Dwarves, the prince was rarely shown,
leaving very little behavior to code. It was not clear how or
why the princess fell in love with him; she seemed to be
chosen by him and obligingly fell in love. The prince in
Cinderella had a very small role as well. The prince in
Sleeping Beauty evinced many traditionally masculine
behaviors, such as being physically strong, assertive,
athletic, brave and curious about or captivated by the
princess. This prince also portrayed a lot of emotion,
affection, and asked for advice or help, an exception from
the other more stoic princes.
In addition to the messages provided through the
commonly portrayed characteristics of the prince and
princess, there are gendered messages in characteristics
exhibited with the least frequency, suggesting that some
gendered characteristics are not permissible for the prince
or princesses to portray. For the princes, these included the
very feminine behavior of tending to physical appearance,
as well as characteristics that suggested a loss of power and
hopelessness including being ashamed and collapsing
crying. In contrast, the least commonly portrayed characteristics of the princesses were related to gaining positions of
power, including being unemotional or stoic, being a leader,
inspiring fear, and performing a rescue.
It is apparent that gendered stereotypes and behaviors are
still very prevalent in the Disney Princess line, though their
depiction has become more complex over the years,
reflecting changing gender roles and expectations in
American society. Gender expectations were less complex
when the first Disney Princess movies were produced and
with the rise of feminism in the 1970s through current times
they have become more complicated (Ferree et al. 2007).
Women used to take care of the house and the children
(Coltrane and Shih 2010), and these skills are showcased
by the early princesses, such as the princesses in Cinderella
and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Women now,
however, are expected to maintain such feminine traits, and
also to incorporate aspects of “male” traits such as
assertiveness, if they are to succeed outside of the home
(Coltrane 2004). This development in women’s roles was
reflected in the middle Princess movies such as Pocahontas
and Mulan. The princesses participated in stereotypically
masculine activities, such as conducting diplomacy and
war, yet plot resolutions reflected traditionally valued
outcomes for women, such as the princess being paired
with the prince and choosing to return to family life rather
than pursuing novel opportunities. In the most recent film,
The Princess and the Frog, the princess was careeroriented, which initially prevented her from socializing
and pursuing romantic opportunities. This was presented as
a somewhat worrisome trait, in keeping with a society that
might still be somewhat cautious of women’s greater role in
the workplace and what that means for family life (Coltrane
and Shih 2010). At the conclusion of the movie, however,
she was able to both pursue a successful career and marry
the prince.
The prince characters became more complex over time
as well. As discussed previously, earlier princes were rarely
shown and displayed very masculine traits. For the first
time, in Aladdin, the prince was the primary focus of the
movie. The prince from The Princess and the Frog was the
first character that was portrayed as a bit incompetent,
naïve, and unable to financially support himself. Both
princes displayed higher frequencies of feminine behaviors
than masculine behaviors.
Characteristics, Gender, and Narrative
It is useful to consider the gendered characteristics analyzed
in this study within the larger scripts of the films to better
understand some of the gendered messages viewed by
children. The prevalence of domestic work is an important
theme in the Disney Princess movies and a substantial
change that Disney incorporated over time was the
temporary discontinuation of domestic work as a symbol
of femininity. The first three princesses frequently were
shown doing domestic work. In Cinderella, the princess did
domestic work as an act of submission. She accepted,
without complaint the hard labor her step-mother assigned,
and always sang and smiled pleasantly while working. The
men in the Princess movies never did domestic work. In
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves it was clear that men
were not expected to do domestic work, nor did they have
the ability to do so. When the princess cleaned the dwarves’
house she stated “you’d think their mother would” and then
she realized that they probably did not have a mother
because the house was dirty. Snow White rescued the
dwarves in a traditionally feminine way, by cooking and
cleaning and acting as their surrogate mother in order to
stay with them. The princesses used domestic work
variously as an expression of servitude and a way to gain
love. By the middle movies of the 1980s–90s, Disney no
longer portrayed the princesses doing domestic work.
However, domestic work was very apparent in the most
current film, The Princess and the Frog. The princess was
portrayed as a very good cook and a good waitress. In
addition, her mother was described as “the finest seamstress
in New Orleans.” The princess, like her mother, made a
successful career from traditionally feminine labor. In
addition, she is shown sweeping and cleaning several
times, actions not seen since the early Disney films. Race
scholars may find it worth examining further that a
resurgence of domestic work accompanied the first black
princess. In keeping with the complexity of gendered
messages in these films, however, the princess learned to
cook from her father and she was shown teaching the prince
how to help in the kitchen.
With the increase in breadth of gender roles displayed in
these movies, it could be argued that a viewing child would
be exposed to more balanced gender role portrayals.
However, the middle movies and most current Disney
Princess film still retained messages that are reminiscent of
traditional roles, and there are many contradictory gender
messages in the later movies that should not be discounted
despite evidence of overall improvement in egalitarian
content. The princess in the fourth movie, The Little
Mermaid, was the first to begin to challenge traditional
gender roles. This film was produced in 1989, 30 years
after Sleeping Beauty, the last of the first three films.
Considering this, a greater range of female behavior was
expected, and indeed was shown. For example, the princess
promoted the idea of wanting to explore, and was portrayed
as independent and assertive. However, this movie still had
many gender stereotypes consistent with those in the three
earlier movies, such as high levels of feminine behaviors,
including fearfulness, affection, and tending to physical
appearance frequently. The prince in The Little Mermaid
also displayed a mix of non-traditional and traditional
gender behavior. He displayed emotion and was highly
affectionate. He was shown as physically weak almost as
often as he was shown physically strong and was portrayed
as both brave and fearful.
In Beauty and the Beast the princess, Belle, was equally
as brave, a traditionally masculine trait, as she was
nurturing, a feminine one. The princess was more assertive
and the prince was equally as sensitive as the princess.
Belle was shown as independent more often than the prince,
but she also was shown as very fearful. Similarly, the prince
portrayed stereotypically feminine characteristics, such as
showing emotion. This princess was the first to show very
high rates of intellectual activity as she read books
frequently, though this was used in the film to characterize
Belle as strange and served to separate her from the other
Mixed gender messages were prevalent in Aladdin. The
prince frequently displayed emotion and was sensitive and
helpful, attributes traditionally associated with femininity.
Sex Roles (2011) 64:555–567
However, he was also highly assertive, physically strong
and gave a great deal of advice, compared to the princess.
Similarly, the princess was both assertive and fearful.
Stereotyped gender roles persist in how she was shown
frequently as physically weak, highly affectionate, and
troublesome. In addition, the princess uses overt sexuality
and exaggerated femininity in order to aid in Aladdin’s
rescue. In contrast, later princesses such as Mulan and
Pocahontas use intellect and physical strength in their
rescuing strategies.
Pocahontas and Mulan presented very contradictory
gendered messages as well. The princes were two of the
most “masculine” princes represented in the Disney
Princess movies: they were unemotionally stoic, physically
strong, assertive, athletic, and were shown as leaders more
than any other princes. The princess in Mulan was more
athletic than the prince whereas the princess in Pocahontas
was almost as athletic but not nearly as physically strong as
the prince. In Mulan the princess was sensitive and
submissive, and both princesses were highly tentative and
troublesome, suggesting traditionally feminine roles. Further, much of the troublesome nature of the princesses
related to their undertaking of more masculine roles and
pursuing non-traditional paths in the movies such as
bravely taking leadership roles and embarking on climactic
adventures. Therefore, while the traditionally masculine
traits increased for these princess characters, it was not
necessarily presented as a positive characteristic of the
princesses. The physical and behavioral characteristics of
these ethnic princesses has been the focus of more detailed
discussions of the depiction of race in these movies
(Lacroix 2004; Ono and Buescher 2001).
The most current film, The Princess and the Frog, starred
a princess who was highly affectionate, assertive, and
athletic, and a prince who showed emotion frequently, was
affectionate, and athletic. The princess clearly stated that a
combination of dreaming and hard work will allow you to do
anything you want, and this was an important theme of the
movie. The movie portrayed a more androgynous prince and
princess who were able to accomplish their dreams separately, and together, eventually culminating in a fulfilling
romance. However, there are mixed gendered messages in
this movie. For example, the prince rescues twice and is
rescued three times, a non-traditional gender portrayal, but
the princess rescues once and is rescued twice, a more
traditional gender portrayal. In addition, perhaps the most
distinctive aspect of this film in the Disney Princess line is
that the princess character is Black and the movie concludes
with an interracial marriage, though the social commentary
this affords is beyond the scope of this study.
Overall, trends toward less gender-based stereotyping
over time in the movies fluctuated greatly and the progress
was not necessarily sequential. The princess in Pocahontas
Sex Roles (2011) 64:555–567
(1995) was the most affectionate princess and the princess
in Mulan (1998) was highly submissive, second only to
Cinderella (1950). Having high rates of traditionally
feminine behaviors displayed only by the female central
characters in the most recent movies does not suggest
progress towards gender equality. The middle and most
current movies may indicate, however, that gender might be
depicted less stereotypically in future movies, as attributes
such as physical strength and actions like performing the
powerful final rescue were more likely to be exhibited by
these later princesses. Mixed messages are still present in
later Disney Princess films, suggesting the importance of
considering the interplay of these messages and the context
of the movies as well as the simple increase in oppositegender characteristics exhibited by the prince and princess
The strongly gendered messages present in the resolutions
of the movies help to reinforce the desirability of traditional
gender conformity. Whereas the later princesses performed
more active roles in the final rescues of the movies, the
princes still performed most of the climatic rescues. A
princess has not yet performed the final rescue without the
involvement of the prince. Over time, the princesses’ roles
have changed, however, from being completely passive or
even asleep during the final rescues in Snow White and the
Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, to
assisting the prince in Pocahontas and Mulan.
The princess always won the love of the prince by the
end of the Disney Princess films, and this portrayal of
romance provides a strongly gendered message. The child
viewer is provided with consistent exposure to the social
script that one falls in love either very quickly, at first sight
(Snow White, Sleeping Beauty), against all odds (Beauty
and the Beast, Mulan, The Princess and the Frog), or both
(Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pocahontas). In
Aladdin, the romance took 2 days to develop, and in
Pocahontas it developed in 1 day (even though the
characters spoke different languages!). In Beauty and the
Beast the princess fell in love with a man who arguably was
victimizing her. The romance in the two most recent films,
Mulan and The Princess and the Frog, however, developed
over time as the characters interacted with each other, often
overcoming obstacles together and fostering a friendship as
well. This suggests that the more recent Disney Princess
movies show a more balanced portrayal of relationship
formation. However, a heterosexual romance is inevitable
and often a central conclusion of the movie. No princess
remains single except for Pocahontas. Though she and her
prince were separated, they were still romantically linked at
the conclusion. Pocahontas chose the gender traditional
resolution by staying with her family rather than embarking
on an adventure with the person she loved.
Consistent with the romantic resolutions of the films, the
princesses are frequently portrayed as idealized feminine
figures. While individual movies used slightly different
ways to depict this, as discussed throughout, each princess
showcased her skills as a caretaker and mother, was
conventionally beautiful, had or gained social power and
wealth, and was adored by other characters. Her stereotypical actions and her compliance within the gendered system
granted her many rewards, bestowed in the films’ resolutions, and these strongly gendered messages help to
reinforce the desirability of traditional gender conformity.
This study had several limitations. In an effort to adhere to
the clear definitions used in the coding process, many
actions or mixed behaviors that required undue interpretation by the researchers were discarded, leaving more
complex gendered behaviors unexamined. In addition, one
of the researchers who coded also interpreted the results,
leaving room for bias.
This study only examined the Disney Princess movie
line specifically, which does not represent all Disney
movies. It also only included analysis of the princess and
prince characters and did not consider the gendered
attributes of any other characters, of which there were
many. It could not incorporate subtleties like animation
techniques that may have enhanced the gender message.
For example, lighting, music, and color can influence
whether or not a female or male is portrayed as scary, such
as via loud music and dark lighting, or as happy and
pleasant, via soft music and sunny lighting.
To further enhance research on gender portrayal in
children’s media, it would be beneficial to increase the
range of focus of the studies. Most studies on gender
focus on traditional female stereotypes more than male
stereotypes. This study shows the important role of the
prince, however, and the princess-prince interactions.
This study does not address questions about the interpretation of the content by the child viewer. Thus, the
extrapolation of theories and previous research is the
only way to support the idea that gender role portrayals
may have effects on children. This study illustrates the
gendered content available to the child viewer but does
not investigate how children interpret and use the
The present study clearly demonstrates that there are both
stereotypical and non-stereotypical gender role portrayals in
the Disney Princess movies. The gendered messages did
not consistently move away from traditional themes in
more recent movies. Whereas some movies showed a
number of non-stereotypical gender qualities, all of the
movies incorporated some stereotypical representations of
gender. Both the male and female roles changed over time,
but overall the male characters evinced less change than the
female characters and were more androgynous throughout.
The princess role retained its femininity over time, and was
rewarded for that, but also expanded to incorporate some
traditionally masculine characteristics.
The implications of this study are suggested by the
theoretical perspectives that highlight the effects media
exposure may have on gender acquisition. Both the
cultivation theory and the constructivist approach support
the idea that watching gendered content, such as that in the
Disney Princess movies, may influence a child’s gender
development. These theoretical perspectives suggest that
viewing depictions of gender roles contributes to a child’s
understanding of gender and that media exposure helps
develop a child’s concepts of social behavior and norms
(Graves 1999; Martin et al. 2002). These social scripts, or
constructions of gender norms, are present in the Disney
Princess movies and have been shown in previous studies
to influence the viewers’ beliefs and actions (Eggermont
2006; Morr Serewicz and Gale 2008). Thus, the persistence
of gender-based stereotypes in this media format is
important (Giroux 1997; Lacroix 2004).
The goals of this project were to add to the understanding of the gendered content in the Disney Princess movies
as well as to stimulate discussion regarding how this
knowledge can be used to benefit positive gender development. As evidenced by the release of the most recent
Disney Princess film, the Disney Princess line is a popular
and current form of children’s media (Disney Princess
2010). The impressive marketing power and international
presence of the Disney Princess products ensures they will
remain influential in the lives of children (Hubka et al.
2009; McRobbie 2008). The impact of the Disney Princess
“phenomenon” on the lives of young girls is the focus of
many discussions, and the quantitative results and subsequent implications of this study are intended to inform and
promote further discourse (Do Rozario 2004; Orenstein
2006). Media targeted toward young children can serve as
positive influences (Calvert and Huston 1987) and a means
for addressing stereotypical gender roles (Leaper 2000).
Disney can and may play an important role in fostering this
growth and development in the future.
Acknowledgement The first author would like to thank Dr. Carol
Martin, Dr. Anita Garey, Dr. Lynne Goodstein, and Dr. Natalie
Eggum. Funding for this project was provided by the University of
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