According to England et al., there are two approaches to viewing the effects of gendered stereotypes on children. The constructivist perspective argues “children develop beliefs about the world based on their interpretations of observations and experiences”, whereas the cultivation theory asserts, “exposure to television content helps develop concepts regarding social behavior norms”. “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” (England et al., 557).
Children’s media franchises, such as the Disney princess movies, communicate specific identities to young children, influencing how they perform gender, especially through their actions and interactions with other children. In a study focused on five- and six-year-old children’s play, it was found that the boys and girls took on the anticipated identities reproduced in the Disney Princess films. Even though play can be a limbo-like state where identities can be constructed and reconstructed based on the scenario, there was very little room for the children to explore roles that did not fit their assigned gender. For example, two boys in the study were fans of the Disney princess films, and when they preferred to play with dolls and accessories in their classroom setting, they effectively challenged the other boys’ and girls’ gender expectations, as the other children were uneasy about the boys playing the roles of girls.
According to Dr. Richard Sherman of Miami University, female heroines are more relatable to all viewers, whereas a prince is less accessible to a wide audience; this assertion offers a plausible explanation for the boys’ desires to play the roles of princesses. The case study is evident of the ways in which gender roles manifest early in children’s lives, shaping their understanding of ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ ways in which to act in society.
The ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ ways to act in society manifest in young children’s toy preferences. Isabelle Cherney, a professor of psychology at Creighton University, found that nearly half of boys aged 5-13, when placed alone in a room and told that they could play with any toy, all chose girl-toys as frequently as boy-toys, provided that no one would find out. In particular, boys emphasized that their dads would think it was “bad” if they played with the “girls” toys, as dads “vigorously police masculinity on their sons” (Orenstein 2011). Boys were more likely to sort toys based on their perceived gender roles, whereas girls found that if they liked a toy, then it was appropriate for their gender. This case study further emphasizes the ways in which exposure to media, such as the Disney Princess movies, destabilizes the preferred toys of young children, and forces children to play within a rigid binary based on their perceived gender.