Study: We Benefit From Seeing Strong Women on TV

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The "Buffy effect" posits that strong characters can combat the negative effects of sexual violence in media.

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PROBLEM: What's the difference between a typical scene from The Tudors, in which nubile courtesans allowed themselves to be conquered and dehumanized by King Henry VIII, and an episode of Law and Order: SVU where the no-nonsense detective Olivia Benson comes perilously close to being raped? The latter depiction of sexual violence is portrayed as more disturbing, yes, but there's also a significant discrepancy as well in the way the women are characterized: as passive and submissive, as opposed to strong and independent. In the much-discussed issues of sexual violence in the media and its effects on attitudes toward women, this study focuses in on the interplay between content and character.

METHODOLOGY: One hundred fifty male and female students at a university in the southern United States attended screenings of one of six television shows that included both sexuality and violent content within the same scenes. The Tudors and slasher-esque Masters of Horror were selected as exemplars of sexually violent shows with negative depictions of female characters; SVU and Buffy the Vampire Slayer depicted sexual violence but featured positive female "role models"; and 7th Heaven and Gilmore Girls were used as the family-friendly controls.

After the screenings, participants were surveyed on their attitudes towards women and were evaluated for symptoms of depression and anxiety.

RESULTS: 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 subjects reported more or less similar levels of enjoyment for all of the shows.

CONCLUSION: It was the depiction of female characters, and not sexual violence per se, that appeared to influence audiences' emotional reactions and attitudes toward women. Positive female characters were in some ways able to negate the effects of degrading content.

IMPLICATIONS: The researchers found strongest evidence of women responding positively to strong female characters, while instances of men responding negatively to such characters were much lower. They admit, "it is possible that some males find the presentation of strong females to be threatening to traditional gender-role stereotypes," and speculate that machismo culture may have contributed to this effect.

But in general, men responded more positively to shows with powerful women. The researchers suggest this may be because "depictions of women reawaken negative stereotypes that some men hold about women, whereas positive depictions challenge these stereotypes." Further research is certainly needed, but this study at least points to a new, potentially significant factor in the effects of sex and violence in the media.

The full study, "Positive Female Role-Models Eliminate Negative Effects of Sexually Violent Media," will be published in the Journal of Communication.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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