Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

No Surprise: Disney Princesses Lose Their Voices

The Washington Post recently published an article about an interesting line of research out of the field of linguistics. The research, done by linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, analyzed the dialogue in Disney Princess films and found that women in more recent Disney Princess films tend to have fewer speaking lines than men.  Looking at the percentages of male versus female voice, the researchers found that men speak 68% of the time in “The Little Mermaid”; 71% of the time in “Beauty and the Beast”; 90% of the time in “Aladdin”; 76% of the time in “Pocahontas”; and 77% of the time in “Mulan.” This is no surprise, given that many of the more recent films are dominated by men, even when one of the princesses is considered the main character.

This research is consistent with patterns that I’ve found in a broad variety of research, from fields such as psychology, education, marketing, and communications. Much contemporary media aimed at children pushes consistent messages about behaviors, interests, and activities that are appropriate for girls and boys, including the use of language related to or used by the child. Research has also found that television commercials for children overwhelmingly present gender stereotypes, with pastel colors, cooperation, and indoor play associated primarily with girls and competition and outdoor play associated with boys (Kahlenberg & Hein, 2010).

In a study conducted by Johnson and Young (2002), the researchers examined the themes of gendered voice and words present in children’s television commercials. Clear gender patterns were found in the types of verbs that were used:

  • Action, competition and destruction rating high in advertisements that featured boys and boy-targeted products.

Wordle by Crystal Smith from Achilles Effect

  • Verbs that focused on limited activity and feelings and nurturing rated high in advertisements that featured girls and girl-targeted products.

Wordle by Crystal Smith from Achilles Effect

Another pattern that was found involved the use of verbs of agency or control. These words were found more often in boys-oriented advertisements than girl-oriented advertisements, with a ratio being over 4:1.

When we consider the use of the word power and related words, 21% of boy oriented advertisements used the words power or powerful, but in all of the girl-oriented advertisements, there was only one incident of the word “power” being used, and it was in the context of identifying the maker of a Barbie car (Power Wheels). Johnson and Young conclude

“Toy makers and their advertisers either make no effort to associate or may consciously avoid associating girl-toys with power or their potential to transfer power to their users” (Johnson & Young, 2002, p. 477).

My oldest daughter and I saw this for ourselves when we were shopping for clothes one day. She pointed the differences in these two ads out to me. The one by the boys clothing says, “Wear it Proud.”


Ad for Boys

Ad for boys

The one by the girls clothing says, “Wear it Flirty.” These ads exemplify the way that marketing targeting boys promotes agency, while marketing that targets girls often promotes objectification.

Ad for Girls

Ad for girls

This is similar to the patterns of women and girls losing their voice seen in the research on Disney Princess movies. If you don’t believe me, try it yourself. Listen to the words used in ads that target the different genders, write down what you hear, and you’ll see that the messages sent to boys and girls are often very different. Listen for how often female characters speak in children’s films compared to male characters. When you’re paying attention, you’ll start to notice the difference. These are not healthy patterns, and as engaged, critical consumers, it’s our job to notice these unhealthy patterns, point them out to media makers, and ask for better. Because when we, as a group of active, critical consumers, are willing to ask for better, media makers will do better.

Hilliard, L.J. & Liben, L.S. (2010). Differing levels of gender salience in preschool classrooms: Effects on children’s gender attitudes and intergroup bias. Child Development, 81, 1787-1798.

Johnson, F.L. & Young, K. (2002). Gendered voices in children’s television advertising. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19, 461-480.

Kahlenberg, S.G. & Hein, M.M. (2010). Progression on Nickelodeon? Gender-role stereotypes in toy commercials. Sex Roles, 62, 830-847.

Miller, C.F., Lurye, L.E., Zosuls, K.M., & Ruble, D.N. (2009). Accessibility of gender stereotype domains: Developmental and gender differences in children. Sex Roles, 60, 870-881.

Pike, J.J. & Jennings, N.A. (2005). The effects of commercials on children’s perceptions of gender appropriate toy use. Sex Roles, 52, 83-91.

One comment on “No Surprise: Disney Princesses Lose Their Voices

  1. The_L
    April 19, 2016

    On the plus side, Disney has produced a lot of animated films that aren’t princess movies, and that are clearly focused on sending a positive message to children instead of this highly sexist one.

    …On the minus side, I’ve seen a lot more advertising and merchandise for Frozen than I have for any film since. It’s been 2 years, Disney; let it GO.

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This entry was posted on January 27, 2016 by in For Teens and Tweens, Recognizing and tagged , , , .
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