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Study Says: Television with Powerful Female Characters Causes People to Have Higher Opinions of Women

At first this conclusion seems like something of a no brainer, but Christopher J. Ferguson‘s study on the attitudes of men and women who have recently watched television with sexual violence in it has some very interesting results, as summarized by the Atlantic.

And no, the study participants did not watch Game of Thrones. Its just a convenient example of the intersection between powerful women and sex in television.

Ferguson’s study split 150 participants into three random groups: one group got to watch Masters of Horror and The Tudors (in which Henry VIII avails himself of many a never again mentioned concubine), one group got to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Law & Order SVU (episodes featured sexual violence but also Buffy and detective Olivia Benson), and a third, the control, watched the more family friendly fare 7th Heaven and The Gilmore Girls. Afterwards, subjects were  quizzed on their attitudes towards women and their levels of depression and anxiety were evaluated.

And he found what you might expect: Watching shows with powerful women made women feel less anxious, despite the presence of sexual violence in the stories. Watching shows that contained sexual violence and passive female characters correlated with men identifying with more negative attitudes towards women.

But I found the rest of the results pretty fascinating. From The Atlantic:

Males who watched sexually violent shows with submissive female characters reported more negative attitudes about women than the control group. This effect did not occur for men who watched shows with powerful women. Women actually reported more negative attitudes after watching the G-rated shows, but how female characters were portrayed did not affect their beliefs.

Women who watched weak characters in sexually violent situations became twice as anxious as women who watched SVU or Buffy, who in turn actually reported less anxiety than the control group. The inverse occurred for men, who felt least anxious after watching The Tudors or Masters of Horror.

The idea that a powerful female character outweighs violence against women so much that women actually find those shows more reassuring than shows without violence at all is pretty amazing. The idea that the men in the study found shows with sexual violence against passive women to be the most comforting is less so. The participants were college students from a “southern university.” I’d love to know the particular politics on campus of the school, and whether they correlate with a rigid understanding of gender roles. I’d also love it if the sample size was bigger, but all in all, still an interesting demonstration.

(Positive Female Role-Models Eliminate Negative Effects of Sexually Violent Media via The Atlantic.)

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  • Arakiba

    I suppose the men found it comforting because it reinforced their superior position over women in our culture. And it’s not just the media that pounds this into our heads, it’s also religion, secular society, and the law. A bunch of mutually-reinforcing outlets, all telling us or showing us that women are inferior to men. They have to keep shouting it at us, so there’s no possible way we can forget it.

  • Zach Gaskins

    *Which* southern university makes all the difference here. Depending on which city/town it is in, you’ll have varying levels of transplant/urban influence on the results.

    <— Atlanta native/resident

  • Calum Syers

    This reminds me a little of when the makers of the new Tomb Raider trailer suggested that male players would relate to Lara Croft because they want to protect her. Problematic to say the least.

    I do love the vagueness on the “Southern University” though. I have no idea why.

  • Mark Matson

    If Lara Croft comes across as a powerful woman, though, it might not be as big of a problem as most of us assumed. This is definitely worth more study.

  • Calum Syers

    I totally agree.

    I was hoping to suggest, which I didn’t make clear, that this reminds me of the first few interviews with the makers, coupled with the fairly problematic trailer. Finished results and trailers are often totally dissimilar.

    I’m looking forward to the finished result.

  • Magic Xylophone

    I wonder about the specifics of “anxiety” and “negative attitudes.” One thing I would note is that incidence of strong female characters is not the only difference between the shows they tested.

    Masters of Horror is, well a horror show. The point is to make you anxious. There are no pat conclusions, and few stories end optimistically.
    The Tudors is a long-form soap opera with ongoing story lines that are never fully resolved, and it represents a dark period in history with a cynical, serious tone.

    They’re both premium cable shows, which tend to have more explicit sex, violence, and language.

    L&O: SVU and Buffy are network shows with content more limited in intensity. Buffy has underlying long story arcs, but also a lot of shorter stories that are wrapped up in an episode. SVU is almost completely episodic, with each case resolved over the course of the episode.

    Generally speaking, Masters of Horror and The Tudors are intended to disturb the viewer and leave them unsettled, while Buffy and SVU are specifically structured to reassure the audience and express a theme of good triumphing over evil. That viewers are more anxious after seeing the former than the latter is not only unsurprising, but unproblematic. That’s the type of experience viewers of dark cable dramas seek out.

    The only surprising, problematic aspect of this study is that male viewers were less anxious after watching Masters of Horror than after watching Buffy or Gilmore Girls. It reflects really poorly on guys that they would be more comfortable watching women being victimized than watching them triumph or just hang out. And I have to say, as a male viewer, that such has not been my experience. I don’t watch The Tudors, but plenty of GoT episodes have left me reeling from the brutality they depict. Some make me feel like they overdid it. Gilmore Girls and SVU have left me feeling bored before, but never more anxious than a hardcore cable drama.

    If they wanted to compare the effect of story details like violence and strong female characters, they should stick with comparisons within genre. For instance, The Wire has more empowered female characters than The Sopranos, in my opinion, but they have comparable violence and tone. How do women and men feel after watching those? As it stands, the study seems to indicate more about perception of narrative style than portrayal of female victimhood.

  • Laura Truxillo

    Stories shape who we are, news at 11.

    Nah, that’s snarkier than I meant. Good article, interesting study, and definitely something to keep in mind the next time the response to pointing out poorly done female characters is, “Well, it’s just a movie/tv show/book/comic.”

  • Elias Algorithm

    I wonder what the correlation would be for a show like Warehouse 13, where gender roles end up pretty evenly measured out.

  • Shard Aerliss

    Much could be said of this study but I’ll leave it at this; what were the students studying? If it was psychology or media then the study is defunct. It’s been years since we figured out that doing psych studies on psych students gives skewed results but we are still using them as if they represent the human race or Western society as a whole.

  • Ryan Perez

    Wait…secular society reinforces the misconception that men are superior to women?

    It seems to me you need to both relearn the actual definition of secularism, as well as the history behind it (particularly in America and its role in large women’s rights movements).

    Just saying things are an issue for any given subject does not magically make them true, nor does it add validity or force altruistic purity to those ideologies you believe as positive.

    In this case, an in-depth study of secularism would be highly recommended.

  • Magic Xylophone

    I don’t think Arakiba meant the secular movement specifically promotes misogyny. Just that many regressive gender roles are reinforced in non-religious spheres of society (i.e. commerce, business, politics, Playboy magazine, etc.).

  • Ryan Perez

    I see.

    Even so, the remaining disregard for female significance in any of those societal categories could very well be enforced by religion, as well. Commerce, business, and politics were all started and still contain individuals who let their religious views inform their contributions — politics is a prime example. Women can be seen as subordinate to men in the workforce for the same reason they were seen as such in the household, no way of telling for sure. Gotta consider all of the variables, though.

    Also…”misogyny” is a directly definable word that I don’t think accurately encapsulates the countless motives behind female disregard in the many facets of society, especially the ones listed. It’s a word meaning the outward hate, disliking and mistrust of women; really, it’s more often used to generalize any negative attitude towards women as “hateful” these days.

    Nonetheless, it doesn’t regard ignorance, nonchalance, condescension, objectification, etc. All of which are separately definable motives for negativity towards women, and none of which are defined by the simple term “misogyny.”

    Proper terminology and articulation is important in discussions around such deep topics…not so much throwing out the first buzzword that comes to mind.

    Using the term “misogyny” to regard any sort of female issue would be like a biologist spouting the term “mental illness” whenever someone questions or doesn’t understand evolution.

  • Magic Xylophone

    I didn’t say secular society was misogynistic. Nor did Arakiba. Though the implications of the study in question (if taken to be accurately interpreted by its authors, about which I have doubts) would seem to pertain more to an emotionally-seated dislike of women than to ignorance, nonchalance, condescension, and objectification.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t see where the study supports the statement “the fact that men in the study found shows with with sexual violence against passive women more comforting”.

    In fact, the study shows the opposite, at least, in the link you give. It says, “But in general, men responded more positively to shows with powerful women.”

    It is true that there are men who just don’t like women. It is true that men overall liked the shows less than women, and that there were a few men that expressed strongly negative views of the strong women. But more men liked the strong women than the passive women.

    This is a parallel response to the women’s response. I don’t think the study supports your statement in the slightest.

  • Sarcozona

    “The idea that a powerful female character outweighs violence against
    women so much that women actually find those shows more reassuring than
    shows without violence at all is pretty amazing.”

    I can definitely understand how this happens. Sometimes when I’m watching things without violence against women (including sexual harrassment), the show’s world sometimes doesn’t feel quite as real (which is not necessarily a bad thing!). But when violence against women is included, it feels very real and boy is it satisfying when the woman gets the upper hand. After all those times walking down the street working to ignore the catcalls, it’s empowering to see a woman take someone to task for behavior like that – and win!