I study the effect of media on children and families and recently finished a study on the effect of the superhero and princess culture on children. If you have ever been around a preschool child, you know that both superheroes and princesses are very popular with this age group. In fact, many children this age say that they would like to be a superhero or a princess when they grow up. I’ve pondered on how being a superhero or a princess might relate to our royal identity and what this might mean for the way we see ourselves in an eternal light.
Superheroes and the Ideal Man
From Superman to Spider-Man to Marvel’s Avengers, some of the most popular movies of all time have featured superheroes. Why are superheroes so popular today? Well, superheroes are pretty cool. Wouldn’t we all like to imagine ourselves being able to fly faster than a speeding bullet, see through buildings, or be almost invincible? And yet, cool as superheroes are, they are not always the greatest role models in how they use power. First of all, superheroes tend to embody a stereotypical hypermasculinization: They are often brash, arrogant, angry, and aggressive, and they take a lot of risks. Some of them misunderstand or abuse their power. It seems that to be a superhero or even to be a man in popular culture today, one needs to embody pretty negative behaviors.
In this one-size-fits-all mentality for our young boys and men, weakness is not tolerated, and humility, empathy, emotional connection, and softness are not valued. Indeed, some of the most damaging words you can say to a young boy who shows softness or emotional pain is “be a man” or “man up.” The hypermasculinization we so value in the superhero culture is a complete distortion and takes us away from understanding our royal identity as children of God.
We almost never talk to men about their body image. Men should not worry about trying to conform to the muscular ideal we see in the superhero culture. The body is not merely an object meant to be honed to ultimate perfection. Men, do not buy into the fantasy of the superhero culture when you think about the profound gift of your body from your Heavenly Father. Your acceptance of your body is a key part in understanding your royal identity.
The Ultimate Hero
Batman, Captain America, Iron Man, and Spider-Man all have excellent redeeming qualities, yet they pale in comparison with those of the ultimate superhero: Jesus Christ, who was both powerful and meek.
A real superhero is empathetic. He is someone who is “willing to mourn with those that mourn . . . and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). He is soft, gentle, tender, and kind. He understands and uses his emotions to bless the lives of others. We see none of the arrogance or brashness portrayed in the media; instead, we see humility and an understanding and acceptance of one’s own weaknesses.
A true superhero is a defender. I study bullying in childhood, and there is a small group of children who are termed “defenders.” When these children see someone picking on another, they are willing to stand up for the victim, to get a teacher, and to tell the bully to stand down. Defending someone against the schoolyard bully takes a unique type of courage.
I once saw a news article about some young defenders from the Bridgewater, Massachusetts, area. Danny Keefe, age 6, suffered a severe brain hemorrhage after birth and has some serious developmental delays, including some speech problems. He likes to wear a jacket, a tie, and a fedora to school every day. Danny is also the official “water coach” for the Peewee Football League Bridgewater Badgers, composed of a group of fifth-grade boys.
When some of the kids at school started picking on Danny for the way that he spoke and for his choice in outfits, the boys on the football team took action. The quarterback of the football team later said:
We thought that we would all have a day to dress up like Danny. We thought we would all come to school like Danny and sponsor Danny to show Danny that we love him—that we love him very much.
These boys are superheroes—better, in fact, than many of the superheroes we see in the media. They were able to defend someone who was being hurt without resorting to aggression themselves.
In our recent study on superheroes and defending in preschool boys, we found that boys did not pick up the defending themes in superhero media. Young fans of superheroes were no more likely to be defenders than their peers who were less into the superhero culture. And they were more aggressive than their peers.
As a mother, I want so badly for my three boys to understand what it means to be a true superhero: To be kind, honest, and true. To defend those who cannot defend themselves. To be righteous defenders of Christ’s authority. To understand where true power comes from and to respect the true source. To each love and respect their future wife and to be kind, gentle, and understanding fathers. To serve those around them and to show integrity for their values even as the world tries to knock them down.
My greatest hope for my boys is that they understand their royal identities as sons of God and live their lives in a way that would make Him proud.
A Royal Obsession
Today, we are obsessed with royalty. The Disney Princess line earns around $3 billion each year. Our own research suggests that 96 percent of preschool girls view Disney princess media and 82 percent play with Disney princess toys.
I did my graduate work in England and then worked there for a few years before we moved to Utah. While there, I watched people become obsessed when Prince William married Kate Middleton and then become even more so when she gave birth first to Prince George and then to Princess Charlotte. We see this same level of obsession in the media world.
One of my favorite stories is from the film, A Little Princess. If you remember, this was the story of Sara Crewe, a rich little girl who ended up losing her father and living in an orphanage. One day the headmistress was being particularly mean to Sara and told her that she was not a princess anymore. Sara stood up straight and tall and told her:
I am a princess. All girls are! Even if they live in tiny old attics, even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t pretty or smart or young, they’re still princesses.
One reason I think we are so interested in royalty is because it speaks, in part, to the royalty within us. Each of us is a very real prince or princess in our own right—the child of a loving heavenly king and queen. No matter our circumstances in life, we are princesses or princes of a royal family, destined to become queens and kings someday.
Speaking to the young women, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, said:
You are truly royal spirit daughters of Almighty God. You are princesses, destined to become queens. Your own wondrous story has already begun. Your “once upon a time” is now.
Each one of us, if we are righteous and endure to the end, will one day receive not a crown and scepter of jewels but, as it says in the scriptures, “a crown of eternal life” (D&C 20:14).
Someday My Prince Will Come
In princess stories, a common plot involves the princess finding true love. A prince rides up on a white horse to sweep the princess off her feet. He seems perfect in every way, and it is love at first sight. They kiss and ride off into a beautiful sunset together, ready to live happily ever after.
Instead of focusing so much on finding a prince, young women should focus more on becoming a princess. And I don’t mean a bratty, materialistic, helpless type of princess. I mean a daughter of God who is secure in her royal identity, who loves to learn and to help others, and who has a strong testimony of Jesus Christ. Good things happen when we focus more on becoming the right person and less on finding the perfect person.
The Thin Ideal
In the media, princesses typically have the same look: an impossibly tiny waist, large eyes, and lustrous long hair. In research this is called the “thin ideal.” Studies have shown that internalization of the thin ideal can have a damaging impact on girls’ body image, self-esteem, and self-worth.
We start this internalization with our very youngest girls, dressing them up as princesses and complimenting them for being “pretty.” As with superheroes and the muscular ideal, this appearance-based talk leads girls to believe that there is one correct size and shape. Is it any wonder that women tend to have so many body image issues?
One of my favorite princess movies is Brave. If you remember the story, Merida is an independent young princess in Scotland. Her mother is constantly telling her how a princess should behave and tries to arrange a marriage with three lackluster princes. The three candidates decide to have an archery contest to win Merida’s hand in marriage. Merida is forced to wear a corset and to watch her fate be decided by men she barely knows.
After the three men have shot their arrows, Merida comes up, gives a royal grunt, and stretches to rip her dress apart so she can move more easily. She then pulls out a bow and arrow and says, “I am Merida, firstborn descendant of Clan DunBroch. And I’ll be shooting for my own hand!” She then shoots a perfect bullseye.
Here Merida is taking charge of her royal future. Yes, she was meant to become queen, but she learns that she doesn’t need others to dictate the way she looks or decide her fate. She goes on to discover her true identity—that being a princess means being herself and not some contrived princess from fairy tales long ago.
Women, love who you are. And part of that means loving your body with every blemish, stretch mark, and perceived flaw. Do not waste any more of your precious time obsessing over the way you look. Yes, we want to be healthy, but this means very different things for each person, and body acceptance may be difficult to achieve for some of us.
In many princess stories, such as Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, the princess falls asleep and is rescued by a prince. Ladies, we are not on this earth to fall asleep!
Our Heavenly Father has much bigger plans in store for us. He has asked us to serve our communities and our families and to mother and nurture the children in our care, whether they are our own children, nieces, nephews, or other children in our sphere of influence. He has asked us to learn and to grow.
In a talk called “How Can I Become the Woman of Whom I Dream?” President Gordon B. Hinckley taught young women:
Find purpose in your life. Choose the things you would like to do, and educate yourselves to be effective in their pursuit. . . . You are hopeful that you will marry and that all will be taken care of. In this day and time, a girl needs an education. She needs the means and skills by which to earn a living should she find herself in a situation where it becomes necessary to do so.
Study your options. Pray to the Lord earnestly for direction. Then pursue your course with resolution.
The whole gamut of human endeavor is now open to women. There is not anything that you cannot do if you will set your mind to it. You can include in the dream of the woman you would like to be a picture of one qualified to serve society and make a significant contribution to the world of which she will be a part.
We need women who can speak up and speak out. Women, do not be afraid to share your experiences and your insights—especially when you are in a leadership position. The world needs your voices! We need you all. We need the single sisters, we need the mothers, we need the widows, we need the grandmas, we need the aunts, and we need the daughters. We need the women in the workplace and we need the women who stay home with their children. We are not here to fall asleep.
In our princess study we asked preschool girls who their favorite princess was and why. The vast majority chose Rapunzel, likely because the movie Tangled had just come out. The number one reason why they liked Rapunzel was because of the way she looked. In the entire study, there was only one girl who chose Mulan as her favorite princess. When asked why, the girl answered boldly, “Because she saves China.”
God has asked us not only to save China but to fight for and defend our brothers and sisters across the entire world. We simply cannot do this if we fall asleep and do nothing.
The Prince of Peace
After sharing several princess fantasies, I want to end with one reality. Even though we are not here to fall asleep, we will be rescued by a prince—the Prince of Peace. Our Savior Jesus Christ atoned for our sins, descending below all so that He could know exactly what we are going through. He sacrificed all so that we could live.
We are each of royal birth—princesses and princes in our own right. We have the potential to have greater power and reach than the most powerful superhero portrayed in the media today. Let us not waste this precious gift. Realizing we are “royal” can change the very way that we see ourselves, our bodies, our families, our lives, and our destinies.
Sarah M. Coyne is an associate professor of human development in the BYU School of Family Life. This article is adapted from a devotional address she gave on May 31, 2016. Watch the video below to see the entire devotional.