According to some interesting new research, the portrayal of strong female characters may be more important than plot content (including sex, violence, and even sexual violence) when it comes to shaping viewer attitudes to women.
Past research has been inconsistent regarding the effects of sexually violent media on viewer’s hostile attitudes toward women. Much of the previous literature has conflated possible variables such as sexually violent content with depictions of women as subservient
The submissive characters often reflect a negative gender bias that women and men find distasteful. This outweighed the sexual violence itself, giving credence to what Ferguson calls the “Buffy Effect”—named after the popular television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its strong lead female character.
“Although sexual and violent content tends to get a lot of attention, I was surprised by how little impact such content had on attitudes toward women. Instead it seems to be portrayals of women themselves, positive or negative that have the most impact, irrespective of objectionable content. In focusing so much on violence and sex, we may have been focusing on the wrong things,” Ferguson said.
“While it is commonly assumed that viewing sexually violent TV involving women causes men to think negatively of women, the results of this carefully designed study demonstrate that they do so only when women are portrayed as weak or submissive,” added Journal of Communication editor and University of Washington Professor Malcolm Parks. “Positive depictions of women challenge negative stereotypes even when the content includes sexuality and violence. In this way Ferguson reminds us that viewers often process popular media portrayals in more subtle ways than critics of all political stripes give them credit for.
Proving once again what we all (or at least all of us of a certain age) already knew: Buffy is so much more awesome than Twilight ever could be.
[Author’s note: It’s possible that the entire point of this post was just an excuse to put up Jo Chen’s Buffy Illustration. I’m okay with that.]