The rise of violent female heroines in TV and film — like Snow White of Snow White and the Huntsman, Lisbeth Salander of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and of course, Katniss Everdeen — have sparked a lot of debate in the past year or two. Some laud the swashbuckling women characters and others are “leery” of how these roles “fetishize hyper-violent women.” But a recent study shows that strong women in otherwise violent TV shows might make men feel better about women — and women feel better about life.
Psychologist Christopher Ferguson showed 150 undergrads, half men and half women, episodes of sexually violent TV shows with weak or passive female characters (The Tudors and Master of Horrors) and of similarly violent shows featuring strong women (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit). For comparison, he also showed them episodes of 7th Heaven and Gilmore Girls, which had “no sexual or violent content of even mild intensity.” Afterwards, he gave students a questionnaire to measure their attitudes toward women, asking them how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like, “The intellectual leadership of a community should be largely in the hands of men” or, “There are many jobs in which men should be given preference over women in being hired or promoted.” He also screened the students for anxiety and depression.
Ferguson found that men who watched shows with sexual violence but no strong female characters felt more negative toward women afterwards than those who enjoyed a relaxing episode of Gilmore Girls. But that wasn’t true for men who watched shows with strong heroines — in his paper, Ferguson speculates, “it may be that negative depictions of women reawaken negative stereotypes that some men hold about women, whereas positive depictions challenge those stereotypes.” Elsewhere, he’s called this “the Buffy Effect.”
The sexually violent shows didn’t appear to affect women’s attitudes toward other women very much, perhaps because they “have set opinions about the value of women, too much so to be influenced by media.” However, women did show less anxiety after watching the shows with strong female characters than they did after those with more submissive women. Interestingly, some men actually showed more anxiety in response to the strong women, leading Ferguson to speculate that they might feel threatened.
Ferguson tells BuzzFeed Shift that his study “offers tantalizing clues that strong women’s roles in fictional media is related to reduced sexism among male viewers at least in the short-term.” He adds that fictional media like movies and TV might actually have a bigger effect than “an educational message being blatantly rammed down viewers’ throats.” And everyone might benefit if studios took this message to heart — he says portrayals of strong female characters appear to be beneficial to both men and women, though perhaps in different ways, and “it would be great for people to look for different ways to make the prevalence of such portrayals greater.”
Violence in media is a perennial topic of debate, and sexual violence in particular has come to the fore recently, as Game of Thrones repeatedly depicted rape, attempted rape, and abuse of women. One study, as Ferguson acknowledges, is far from enough to determine whether such depictions are good or bad for women across the board. But his findings do suggest that when it comes to viewers’ attitudes, what happens to women onscreen may matter less than how they deal with it. And shows like Buffy or films like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, where women fight back, may change some people’s perceptions for the better.