I always knew watching all that television in high school would help me out later. According to new research from Psychologist Christopher Ferguson, watching strong women in otherwise violent TV shows might make men feel better about women — and women feel better about themselves.
Dubbed “The Buffy Effect,” after the lead on the popular late 90′s drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the study looked at the reactions of 150 college students (half men and half women and 95% hispanic) after they 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 (obviously the latter is referring to the ladies Gilmore.)
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.
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. The men were least anxious after watching negative female depictions and most anxious with positive female depictions. 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 (really? Who doesn’t like Loralai Gilmore?) But what is interesting is that the women preferred the violent but strong characters like Buffy and Detective Olivia Benson. “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.
Ferguson told BuzzFeed Shift that his study “offers tantalizing clues that strong women’s roles in fictional media is related to reduced sexism among male viewers at least in the short-term.” He adds that fictional media like movies and TV might actually have a bigger effect than “an educational message being blatantly rammed down viewers’ throats.”He suggested that studios pay attention to his findings as the strong female character appears to be appealing to both men and women.
But clearly some studios are seeing this trend as the world was exposed to two very strong and violent female characters this year, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Lisbeth Sander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. These films were both adapted from best-selling book series and made millions at the box office. Clearly the world is embracing these strong female characters. Dr. Swati Shroff, of ABC News wrote, “It may pave the way for more research in the area, or at least serve as one more reason to bring back Buffy.” One can only hope.