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Study: Seeing Women in Strong Media Roles Benefits Both Men and Women

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 Tutors 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…

Read more: The Atlantic


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