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Nobody’s Damsel Study Looks at Modern Female TV Characters and the People Who Love Them

Good news and bad news.

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A new study on the 2014-2015 television season has some really fascinating insights into what men and women want to see from ladies on TV. The results… may surprise you.

For their paper Nobody’s Damsel: A Study on Modern Women on TV and the Audiences Who Watch Them (set to be published later this month), entertainment agency Trailer Park in conjunction with QC Strategy decided to examine how audiences of different ages and genders respond to media that passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test.

Trailer Park and QC Strategy worked with a “nationally representative” sample size of 1,200 participants (with a 50/50 gender split). In order to take the study’s online survey, participants had to be over the age of 13, watch at least seven hours of TV a week, and be “a current or past viewer of at least one female-led primetime show.”

The study focused on television, since fans generally have more time to develop a relationship with a character over several seasons of TV than they do with other forms of media, and found that viewers’ gender, age, and political values impacted the kind of female representation they want to see.

Of course, the fact that consumers’ identity impacts their viewing preferences isn’t really news; what is surprising is the preferences themselves.

The most unexpected (and exciting) part of Nobody’s Damsel, for me, was its findings about the 13-17 demographic, also known, terrifyingly, as Generation Z. The study showed that these teens, in contrast to viewers 25 or older, “want to see men in roles that are traditionally reserved for women, while they prefer to see women in leadership positions usually filled by men.” Generation Z was also more likely than any other age group studied to “strongly identify” as feminists. Way to go, youths!

The study also examined what male audiences members and female audience members want to see from female characters.

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Male viewers found beauty more important (by a 9% difference) than the overall audience, and found the characteristics of “tough” and “strong willed” to be less important (by 10% and 6%, respectively).

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While the top 5 desired traits by men are in line with the top 5 desired traits of the overall audience, 2 out of the 5 top traits women would like to see represented in female characters (“compassion” and “independence”) are not.

Nobody’s Damsel also researched the favorite female characters of the overall participants, and found that Law and Order: SVU‘s Detective Sergeant Olivia Benson was by far the favorite, followed by Empire‘s Cookie Lyon.

To help make more sense of the study’s results, we spoke via email to D’nae Kingsley, Head of Integrated Strategy, Trailer Park.

The Mary Sue: Would you be able to give some background on how you came to be involved with Nobody’s Damsel, and the kind of work Trailer Park does?

D’nae Kingsley: Trailer Park is a leading entertainment and content marketing agency. We work with all the major entertainment studios and brands creating content that engages consumers. One of our missions is to cut through the cultural noise and identify what matters most to consumers. We dissect pop culture, emerging trends and consumer insights to uncover shifts in culture before they happen.

Our Nobody’s Damsel study was inspired by our bi-annual publication called Cultural Threads that highlights the most important shifts, unravels their larger cultural context and advises brands on how they can use the threads to more effectively reach their target audiences.

One of the shifts we noticed was what we called the “mainstreaming of the Bechdel test.” We found that more entertainment content was passing this assessment for female portrayal in films. And we wanted to a take a closer look at why this is happening and how audiences are responding to female-centric content.

TMS: How do you think networks will benefit from increasing the number of female characters featured on their shows?

Kingsley: It’s less about increasing the number of female leads on TV shows and more about creating a diversity of characters. The “strong female character” has become the archetype for the modern woman. And even though it shows progress for female representations, it’s still a one-dimensional archetype.

Our study shows that audiences see this “strong female” archetype in their favorite female characters. They described them as intelligent, tough, beautiful, strong-willed and self-confident. Women, however, want to see compassion and independence represented in more female characters. This points to a demand for more diverse characters.

TMS: If I’m understanding correctly, Nobody’s Damsel only looked at shows that pass the Bechdel Test. What do you think makes the Bechdel Test the continued representational standard by which a lot of media is judged?

Kingsley: The reason that the Bechdel Test is still used as a standard for better female representations is because it’s easy to test. And even though it’s a relatively low bar to set, it’s still not widely met.

TMS: Why do you think younger millennials are more likely to identify as feminist than older millennials?

Kingsley: One possible reason is that younger Millennials have had access to the Internet for more of their lives than older Millennials, which allowed them to openly explore issues such as gender equality online. In the age of digital influence, ideas and discussions are more widely and quickly disseminated, which may be a reason we are seeing this divide in Millennials when it comes to their values.

Another reason is that more public figures such as Emma Watson and Beyonce openly champion feminism. So younger Millennials have more awareness around the movement and its current definition of gender equality.

TMS: Is there a chance that younger demographic will “age out” of their progressiveness?

Kingsley: With the influence of social media and the speed in which culture shifts, younger demographics could continue to espouse progressive values at similar rates. This could be the start of a larger, long-lasting progressive shift. However, there is a possibility that the younger demographic will become more traditional as they get older; we saw an upward trend in traditional values for older audiences. But we believe that social media has had enough of an impact to cause an actual progressive shift. It will be interesting to follow younger audiences as they get older to assess whether this is a trend or a product of life stage.

TMS: What kind of an impact do you think diversifying the people who work behind the camera–directors, writers, producer, etc–will have on the traits we see in female characters?

Kingsley: Diversification behind the scenes will be integral to creating more multi-dimensional and true-to-life representations of women on television. It will also be critical to the development of stories that are still traditionally reserved for male leads.

If there is a more varied pool of personal stories from writers to directors to producer, female representations will rely less on stereotypes and archetypes. They will also come from a place of truth and understanding.

For example, our study shows that women want to see compassion and independence at a higher rate than they are currently getting. By having more women behind the scenes, their desires are more fluidly and authentically translated to screen.

TMS: The results show that women of color identify as feminists at a higher rate than white women. Could you talk a little more about those results, and why you think that might be?

Kingsley: We expected to find that more women of color identify as feminist than popular opinion would have us believe, knowing that it is usually seen as a white woman’s movement. However, we were surprised to find that Asian women are most likely to strongly identify as feminist compared to women of other ethnicities. In fact, they identified as feminist at a rate equal to the total of the next two highest groups – African-American (22%) and Latino women (21%). White women were the least likely.

This was not the only surprising finding. Teen boys were more likely than older Millennial women (25-34) to self identify as a feminist.

So we need to reevaluate the way we think of feminists.

I can’t speak to anyone’s personal reasons for identifying as a feminist from our data. We would have to do further research. But I do think it is important to challenge the way not only women, but feminists are portrayed in the media.

As content creators, we cannot rely on old adages about age groups or movements without taking the time to really examine them. Culturally, public opinion on what it means to be a feminist has shifted drastically even in the past five years. Just look at public figures who openly identified as feminists in 2010 compared to now. So it would make sense that the face of the movement has changed as well, or perhaps has never been represented accurately.

TMS: What do you think the value of representation in media is? What do you personally think we gain as a society from seeing diverse, nuanced women on TV?

Kingsley: Media representation shapes consumer opinion. It will be more difficult for people to treat women as a stereotype if they are not presented with those stereotypes in the first place.

Representation on television has real impact on the people who view it. In our study, we found that the more hours of television a woman watches per week, the less beautiful and independent she feels. We have a responsibility as content creators to provide female characters whose representations are not harmful to the women watching them. Much of this can be fixed with diversity and nuance.

Diverse, nuanced representations of women on television mean representing women as who they are – individuals – not a homogenized group. It also makes for more multi-dimensional, interesting female characters, as well as more nuanced stories overall. As a society, we can expand our understanding of who women are and what we can achieve.

In our study, we found that not only do Gen Z and younger Millennials want women in traditionally male roles, but also want men in traditionally female roles. Achieving true gender equality will not happen until we broaden the horizons for everyone and move forward together.

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