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The Buffy effect: Sex and violence is OK if women are powerful

- August 30th, 2012
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Feeling empowered, ladies? I guess I just have that “effect” on people.

It’s not the combination of sexy times and ass-kicking on TV that reinforces negative ideas about women.  It’s the way female characters are portrayed, according to a new study.

From the news story I wrote today:

New research suggests sex and violence on TV make women feel anxious and men act sexist — but only when the female characters are portrayed as weak.

Christopher Ferguson, the Texas A&M University professor who led the research, dubbed it “the Buffy effect.”

He had 150 students watch three sets of TV shows, then fill out questionnaires about their state of mind and attitudes about women.

For the neutral shows, they watched non-sexual, non-violent episodes of 7th Heaven and Gilmore Girls. For negative shows, they watched episodes of The Tudors and Masters of Horror that depicted sex and violence and women as victims. For positive shows, they watched episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Law & Order: SVU with depictions of sexualized violence and strong, capable women.

Women scored the highest levels of anxiety after watching the sexually violent shows with victimized women. Men who watched the same shows showed the most negative attitudes about women.

What’s more, men felt the most anxious when watching powerful women kick some silver-screen butt, possibly due the stress of having their preconceptions challenged.

Watching the positive and negative portrayals didn’t do much to change women’s perceptions of other women. But, weirdly enough, women showed the most negative attitudes when subjected to the wholesome goodness of 7th Haven and the witty dialogue of Gilmore Girls.

To learn a bit more about why this might be, check out the full transcription of my Q&A with Ferguson below.

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Doesn’t just looking at them make you want to go all Mean Girls on your female co-workers?

What inspired you to pursue this study? 

Well, a good portion of the research I do is on media effects, particularly television and video games.  For many years scholars tended to treat all media as if it were the same, and that effects on viewers could be widely assumed. For instance you often hear people say “Why wouldn’t video game violence influence people when advertises put millions of dollars into changing behavior?” This was always an apples and oranges comparison, of course (getting people to switch from Coke to Pepsi, is far different from them hitting and shooting each other), but we now know it just isn’t true. Advertising clearly does work, but many of the media effects we had previous assumed were true are increasingly proving to be false.

That includes the research on sexualized violence in the media, which has tended to focus on either pornography or R-rated slasher-type films.  There hasn’t really been a lot of consistency in this research…effects are generally weak, and not all studies find them.  Several reviews now have concluded the evidence for such content being “harmful” is not convincing.  Further, there were confounds in much of the research in which shows in experiments differed not only in relation to the sexual and violent content, but also how they portrayed women.  That got me wondering what the crucial variable really was.  Should we really be focusing on sexual or violent content per se, or whether women were portrayed as strong or submissive?

How did you come up with the list of TV shows you used?

As much as possible I wanted to use shows that were as similar as possible aside from the variables of interest (sexual and violent content, portrayals of women).  Matching media (shows) across experimental conditions is always difficult as I note in the paper.  But I felt this particular group of shows was about as close as I could get for popular, enjoyable shows that would differ mainly in the variables of interest.

You called it “The Buffy effect.” Is that because the show was used in the study, or are you a fan?

I’ve honestly never watched a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although I’m supportive of what they do with that show.  I’d considered calling it the “Mariska Hargitay Effect” but it didn’t quite have the same ring.

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As Det. Olivia Benson, Mariska Hargitay wanders dark corridors, taking down sex criminals and gender stereotypes, alike.

What can we take from the results as viewers? What can people in the TV industry take from them?

I think we’ve seen a trend in recent decades for the inclusion of more strong female leads in shows whether serious dramas (Mariska Hargitay in Law and Order: SVU) or action-adventure type stuff (Scarlett Johansen in The Avengers, say, or Kate Beckingsale in Underworld).  This seems to be a positive trend that may simultaneously provide strong role models for girls, while helping boys to see women in a position of strength.

One thing that stood out for me was that men had more anxiety after watching the strong female characters. Why do you think that is?

That was a little surprising, and not what I’d hope to see for sure.  It’s quite possible that’s a lingering reaction to some sexism among some of the male viewers who may have been made uncomfortable by seeing women in positions of strength.

It was also surprising that women’s views of other women were lowest when watching the neutral shows. Any theories for that?

It certainly wasn’t anything I’d hypothesized in advance.  I think that the women viewers appreciated the strong roles in the sexually violent shows with strong female leads.  The other shows, whether sexually violent or not, impressed them less.  I think that’s something we’d really need to explore more to understand better.  It may be that women just particularly connect with other women who remain strong in the face of adversity.

This study was conducted after participants watched just one episode of each show. What do you think the long-term effects are for people who consume TV that poorly portrays women, or TV shows like Buffy? Are you planning further research in this area?

We always have to be careful not to generalize from short-term to long-term effects of course.  There would be value in examining viewership patterns over time, longitudinally, to see whether people who prefer to view shows with strong female leads ultimately have better attitudes toward women.  Of course, such data would be correlational even in longitudinal studies, but could provide further clues as to the value of watching such shows.  I certainly would be interested in conducting such a study, although I’ve got a few other projects on the docket first.

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