Today In Duh, Strong Female TV Characters Are Good For Everyone

Illustration for article titled Today In Duh, Strong Female TV Characters Are Good For Everyone

Psychologist Christopher Ferguson has done the empirical research, put in the legwork and figured out that Buffy is awesome, which I absolutely could have told you. More specifically, his piece in the Journal of Communication chronicles the results of 150 Texas A&M students' screenings of three disparate types of television: those with sexual violence and strong female leads (Law & Order: SVU, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) those with sexual violence and subordinate female characters (The Tudors, Masters of Horror) and a neutral PG-rated test group (Gilmore Girls, 7th Heaven).

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Afterwards, he asked the students to rank true or false questions such as: "A woman should not expect to go to exactly the same places or to have quite the same freedom of action of a man," and, "The intellectual leadership of a community should be largely in the hands of men."

The men who viewed The Tudors had more sexist responses to the questions overall, while the womens' questionnaires remained unchanged regardless of which group they viewed. Men had a low anxiety rate while watching sexually violent shows with weak women, but when they watched ladies kicking ass on Buffy and SVU, they registered high levels of anxiety—and answered the questions above with less sexist douchebaggery. The women, meanwhile, when watching The Tudors and Masters of Horror, unsurprisingly "registered higher levels of anxiety than were present in any other category."

While it's not mentioned in the journal, it's disclosed on on Slate's write-up that one notable factor here is that the students were:

150 largely Latino college men and women watching media overwhelmingly featuring lily-white women.

Now the duh part: Ferguson posits that watching strong female characters on television reinforces a positive image of women, while subservient female characters reinforce a negative, sexist image—even though Buffy and Olivia Benson find themselves in dangerous, violent sexual situations, they're never depicted as helpless.

The only really odd thing about this study is that 7th Heaven didn't seem to send anyone screaming from the room.

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'Study: We Benefit From Seeing Strong Women on TV' [The Atlantic]
'Strong female portrayals eliminate negative effects of violent media' [EurekAlert]

DISCUSSION

A lot of research is kind of "duh", but it's part of the scientific process to actually establish "duh" as a tried and true "duh" because frequently - and especially in psychology - what seems to be "duh" is actually the exact opposite of what actually happens and if you go on assuming that "duh" is obvious, and base a bunch of your experiments and assumptions on what is actually incorrect... You end up with a tangled mess and a lot of wasted resources. This research is actually very important because it establishes that it is beneficial to portray women as capable and independent in the media, and shut up anyone of those "It's only fiction, jeeze relax no one is taking it seriously!" idiots.

As for the significance of latino vs. white, the only thing I can think of is that watching shows with powerful white women might not necessarily lead the men viewing the powerful white women to extrapolate the same amount of respect to women of colour. (because there's an obvious tendency by men to not just view women as "others" but as "other that can be divided into groups" hence the comments like "Oh, if you want a subservient wife marry an Asian!")