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Belle - Dr Paula Hamilton study

Dr Paula Hamilton, Senior Lecturer in the University of Chester’s School of Education has produced the paper titled From ‘tiaras and twirls’ to ‘action and adventure’. Eliciting children’s gendered perceptions of Disney characters through participatory visual methodology using the fieldwork notes from former student Rhyannon Dynes who carried out the study for her dissertation.

Rhyannon captured the thoughts of a small group of children on gender stereotypes using Disney characters for her dissertation in 2021. Drawing upon the primary data Rhyannon collected for her dissertation, her supervisor Dr Paula Hamilton continued to develop the study which has now been published in the International Journal of Early Years Education. 

The paper draws out the voices and lived experiences of young children and uses child-centred research methods. Rhyannon’s initial study used images of Disney characters suggested that although the film studio has started to introduce less stereotypical female characters, such as Mulan, Merida and Moana, many young children still have firm ideas regarding gender roles and expectations with the girls extremely protective about aspects of femininity and the boys were equally protective about maintaining male characteristics. The paper finds that although there is flexibility in children's understandings about different ways of doing gender and it is more acceptable for others not to conform, many children still feel it important to belong to a specific gendered group and demonstrate societal norms. 

Rhyannon gathered the data while on her placement in primary schools using ‘draw and talk’ (asking the children to draw their thoughts during a conversation) and ‘image-value line activity and discussion’ (asking the children to choose an image from a selection) techniques. She found the children were eager to engage in fun research activities and were able to gather a large amount of data which reflected their diverse voices. 

During the activities with small groups, Rhyannon found that rigid gender binaries existed in the children’s thinking. The girls selected the princesses because they liked their ‘pretty and colourful dresses, long hair and really good singing voices’. One girl selected a male character, Wreck-it Ralph, as he was ‘funny’ with her second favourite Moana, a contemporary independent princess who goes on adventures but the character she drew for her art activity as her favourite was the traditional princess Rapunzel. The boys, who had selected male characters only, said it was because they were ‘fast, ‘brave, strong, and funny’ unlike princesses who were ‘boring, weak, polite, clumsy and dozy’. 

Dr Paula Hamilton continued to develop the study further adopting a critical feminist poststructuralist framework to the data analysis. The paper explores the evolving concepts of children on gender and contributes to an existing body of knowledge that informs ways to deconstruct stereotypes with children to promote positive gender development. 

Although there are various studies in this area, most focus on the Disney Princesses’ effects on girls’ gender development and few directly elicit the views of both girls and boys. This study attempted to address this gap by investigating how girls and boys, aged five to eight years, interpret messages circulated by Disney to make sense of the gendered norms and roles of its characters.  

The study found that all the children seemed to value the new age princesses who are challenging gender binaries. Critical discourse analysis identified two key gender discourses: physical appearance and gendered behaviours. The study found that both boys and girls valued the more active traits portrayed by the contemporary princesses. The boys admired the behaviours and skills demonstrated by these independent, courageous, and active princesses and might indicate that for boys that the behavioural traits (active, brave, strong) of a character have a higher priority than the character’s gender.  

Although the girls enjoyed the action and adventure of the modern princesses, they had high expectations for their female characters to remain attractive, well-groomed and to sing.

Despite the progressive shift in understanding the fluidity of gender, it seems that children still follow restrictive gender binaries. 

The small number of children in the study means that its findings should be viewed as a pilot study and the paper suggests that a follow-up study could triangulate children’s narratives with those of parents and peers to provide a more comprehensive insight. 

Paula said: “Publishing this paper is a significant achievement as it demonstrates the high standard of empirical data that is frequently collected by our Early Childhood Studies students and showcases the collaborative staff and student research/publication within the department. 

“Rather than doing work ‘on’ or ‘about’ children, it is essential that early years and primary education practitioners continue look towards creative and inclusive methods to capture young children’s views and experiences.” 

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Early Years Studies