Results of a study published in the journal Sex roles suggest that gendered costumes encourage children to act according to gender stereotypes. The study found that boys who wore male-like costumes (eg, a superhero) were less likely to choose to play with female toys than boys who wore non-sexist costumes (eg, a pumpkin ). Additionally, boys who wore male-type costumes were less likely to engage in prosocial behavior compared to boys who wore female-type costumes (eg, a glittering unicorn).

From kindergarten, children begin to learn and act out gender stereotypes. For example, disguises, which are at the heart of early childhood games, are very 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 hypothesized that wearing costumes may play a role in gender development in children. Drawing on the theory of gender patterns, the researchers proposed that when a child wears a gendered costume, they become more aware of their gender. This heightened attention activates their gender schema, leading a child to adopt behaviors that correspond to their gender.

Coyne and his team conducted an experiment with a sample of 223 preschool children aged 3 to 5 in the western United States. Each child was given a costume to wear before performing multiple tasks. Depending on the condition, the costume was either gendered, non-gendered, or counter-stereotypical.

For girls, the gendered costumes were Disney princesses (eg, Cinderella) and the counter-stereotypical costumes were female superheroes (eg, Wonder Woman). For boys, the gendered costumes were male superheroes (eg, Batman) and the counter-stereotypical costumes were female costumes (eg, a glittering unicorn). For both boys and girls, the gender-neutral costumes were a pumpkin, pizza, or emoji costume.

As expected, when presented with a selection of toys, girls showed more interest in female toys (e.g. doll, tea set) while boys showed more interest in male toys. (eg, monster truck, action figure). However, the boys’ preferences differed slightly depending on the costumes they wore.

Boys who wore neutral costumes were more interested in playing with female toys than boys who wore male-type costumes. The study’s authors suggested that gender-neutral costumes reduced boys’ attention to gender, leaving them free to explore toys that aren’t typically associated with masculinity. Male and female costumes, however, have likely made the gender more important to boys, causing them to be reluctant to choose toys that don’t match their gender.

Interestingly, the girls’ toy preferences weren’t affected by the costumes. Researchers suggest princess costumes may not have sparked a gender-related pattern in girls, perhaps because current representations of princesses are more fluid and less “girly” than they are. been traditionally. Girls may also be more flexible with the toys they play than boys.

Remarkably, the costumes also influenced the boys’ prosocial behavior. Boys who wore feminine costumes were more quick to help the experimenter when they pretended to drop a stack of pencils. These boys also picked up more fallen pencils than the boys who wore male type costumes. The authors say the superhero costumes likely sparked scripts about superheroes, which are typically described as using aggression to solve problems. This may have deterred the boys from helping the experimenter. It could also be that the superhero costumes evoke gender norms that tend to downplay boys as helpers over girls.

Coyne and her colleagues suggest that costumes can be a powerful tool in helping children reflect on gender roles and stereotypes, especially for children who are exploring their gender identity. Parents may want to include a wider range of costumes for their children, especially boys.

The study, “Dressing with Disney and Pretending with Marvel: The Impact of Gender Costumes on Gender Type, Prosocial Behavior, and Persistence in Early Childhood,” was authored by Sarah M. Coyne, Adam Rogers, Jane Shawcroft, and Jeffrey L. Hurst.