As early as pre-school, children begin to learn and act out gender stereotypes. For example, dress-up costumes, which are central to early childhood play, are highly gendered. While girls tend to prefer dressing as princesses and fairies, boys are more likely to dress as superheroes.
A research team led by Sarah M. Coyne theorized that costume-wearing might play a role in children’s gender development. Drawing from gender schema theory, the researchers proposed that when a child wears a gendered costume, they become more aware of their gender. This increased attention activates their gender schema, leading a child to engage with behaviors that are in line with their gender.
Coyne and her team conducted an experiment among a sample of 223 pre-schoolers aged 3 to 5 from the Western United States. Each child was given a costume to wear before completing several tasks. Depending on the condition, the costume was either gendered, nongendered, or counter-stereotyped.
For girls, the gendered costumes were of Disney princesses (e.g., Cinderella) and the counter-stereotyped costumes were of female superheroes (e.g., Wonder Woman). For boys, the gendered costumes were of male superheroes (e.g., Batman) and the counter-stereotyped costumes were feminine costumes (e.g., a sparkly unicorn). For both boys and girls, the nongendered costumes were a pumpkin, a pizza, or an emoji costume.
As expected, when presented with a selection of toys, girls showed more interest in the feminine toys (e.g., doll, tea set) while the boys showed more interest in the masculine toys (e.g., monster truck, action figure). However, the boys’ preferences differed slightly depending on the costumes they wore.
Boys who wore gender-neutral costumes were more interested in playing with feminine toys compared to boys who wore masculine-typed costumes. The study authors suggest that the gender-neutral costumes lowered the boys’ attentiveness to gender, leaving them free to explore toys that are not typically associated with masculinity. The masculine costumes and the feminine costumes, however, likely made gender more salient for the boys, causing them to hold back on choosing toys that do not fit with their gender.
Interestingly, the girls’ toy preferences were unaffected by the costumes. The researchers suggest that the princess costumes may not have elicited a gender-related schema among the girls, perhaps because today’s representations of princesses are more fluid and less “girly” than they traditionally have been. It could also be that girls are more flexible with the toys they play with compared to boys.
Remarkably, the costumes also influenced the boys’ prosocial behavior. Boys who wore feminine costumes were quicker to help the experimenter when they pretended to drop a stack of pencils. These boys also picked up more of the fallen pencils than boys who wore masculine-typed costumes. The authors say that the superhero costumes likely elicited scripts about superheroes, who are typically portrayed as using aggression to solve problems. This may have dissuaded the boys from helping the experimenter. It could also be that superhero costumes evoked gender norms that tend to downplay boys as helpers compared to girls.
Coyne and her colleagues propose that costumes may be a powerful tool for helping children reflect on gender roles and stereotypes, especially for children who are exploring their gender identity. Parents may want to include a wider array of costumes for their children to choose from, particularly for boys.
The study, “Dressing up with Disney and Make-Believe with Marvel: The Impact of Gendered Costumes on Gender Typing, Prosocial Behavior, and Perseverance during Early Childhood”, was authored by Sarah M. Coyne, Adam Rogers, Jane Shawcroft, and Jeffrey L. Hurst.