Strong Female Characters May Negate Effects of Violent Media

Reported by Swati Shroff, M.D., ABC News Medical Unit:

Sexual and violent content on TV may not affect viewers' attitudes as much as we thought - as long as there are strong leading ladies around to save the day, a new study finds.

Study researcher Christopher Ferguson, assistant professor at Texas A&M International University, dubs this the "Buffy Effect," named after the popular TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

The small study included 150 college students at a southern university who agreed to participate in exchange for extra credit. The group was equally comprised of men and women, and 95 percent of the students were Hispanic. The average age of the participants was 21.

The students were randomly assigned to watch an entire episode of one of the following: a neutral show without sexual or violent content, a sexually violent show with negative depictions of women, or a sexually violent show featuring strong independent female characters.

The neutral category included "7th Heaven" and "Gilmore Girls." Neither of these episodes showed any sex or violence, but rather focused on dramatic or humorous situations between family members.

"The Tudors" and "Masters of Horror" comprised the sexually violent shows with weaker female characters category. These shows depicted sexual aggression toward women, largely in environments where female characters were objectified and dehumanized.

Finally, the sexually violent shows with strong female characters were "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Law and Order: SVU." While both episodes included sexual violence, they also portrayed heroines fighting back successfully against violence directed at them.

After watching the assigned show, participants were asked to complete several surveys to assess their attitudes toward women, depression and anxiety. The study assessed depression and anxiety with standard scales used in psychiatry. To assess attitudes toward women, participants responded to a modernized version of a validated scale used in multiple prior studies in this area.

The study found that women who watched sexually violent media were more anxious, and males who watched sexually violent media had more negative attitudes toward women, but only when strong female leads were not present.

Interestingly, males were least anxious after watching negative female depictions and most anxious with positive female depictions.

Ferguson postulates in the study that the negative depictions may be uncovering negative stereotypes some men may have about women, while the positive illustrations may be challenging those stereotypes.

Surprisingly, women's negative attitudes towards women were highest among viewers of the neutral shows, even more so than the violent shows with subordinate portrayals of women.

"Negative portrayals of women in sexually violent media may actually provoke a kind of mild 'backlash' reaction at such negative portrayals, fostering a sense of female solidarity," Ferguson writes in the study.

Sarah Coyne, assistant professor in the school of family life at Brigham Young University, was not involved with this study, but she has done research in the past dealing with violence in the media.

"I resonate with the author when he says strong positive females can be good for the media," Coyne said. "I think it was a well-done study."

Additionally, Coyne points out that while men's attitudes may have been worst after watching sexually violent content with negative portrayals of women, their attitudes were also worse after watching sexually violent material with positive portrayals of women compared to watching neutral media.

"This was the most interesting finding to me," Coyne says.

But don't gear up for a "Law and Order: SVU" marathon just yet. The study had many limitations, so the results cannot be applied to the general population. First of all, it was very small, and there was significant answer variation among the individual participants. Second, the fact that most of the participants were of the same ethnic group suggests that cultural factors could have been at play. Finally, the participants were not surveyed before watching the shows, so it is unclear if and how much the shows were really responsible for the differences between groups.

However, the study may offer preliminary proof that the media's effects on people's attitudes toward women may have some connection to violent content, but also with how women are portrayed.

It may pave the way for more research in the area, or at least serve as one more reason to bring back Buffy.