Fall TV: Strong Female Characters Can Negate Violence

New research shows sexually violent media is rendered less harmful when women are given assertive roles

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Bob Mahoney / NBC

Tracy Spiridakos as Charlie Matheson in NBC's Revolution

If you watched any of the Olympics, you no doubt saw ads for a new TV series called Revolution, which premieres tonight on NBC. (The pilot episode is also available online.) The show follows the adventures of a young woman named Charlie (played by Tracy Spiridakos) trying to survive in a postmodern future in which electricity has ceased to function and civilization is run by ruthless warlords. Part Hunger Games, part Lord of the Rings, the show particularly intrigues me because the lead character is a strong female. This represents more than another step toward equality. (As TV and film director Joss Whedon famously said in a 2009 speech, “Why do [I] always write these strong women characters? Because you’re still asking me that question.”) Recent research I’ve conducted suggests that strong female characters actually mitigate the negative impact of edgy material in fictional media for both male and female viewers.

There’s been much debate about whether shows with sex and violence, particularly in combination, can lead to negative attitudes toward women. Unfortunately, the bulk of the research has focused on pornography, not mainstream media. An older study from 1988 found that exposure to “slasher” films mixing sex and violence might result in reduced empathy to victims of rape among viewers. But a recent study by Moon Lee and colleagues published in Mass Communication and Society suggests that watching sexual violence in crime dramas had little negative impact on male viewers and may have even reduced gender stereotypes. The one thing that these studies failed to tease out was whether it was the sexual and violent content that played a role, or the way in which women were portrayed. I decided to try to get to the bottom of this question.

(MORE: Jeff Alexander: Where Are All the (Good) Female Superhero Movies?)

What I found was that it wasn’t the combination of sex and violence — which is what we tend to focus on — that impacted male viewers’ negative attitudes toward women or women viewers’ anxiety, but rather whether women characters were presented as strong or submissive. Or put another way, sexually violent media doesn’t increase negative attitudes or anxiety, so long as it is presented in the context of strong female characters. I refer to this as the “Buffy Effect,” after the famous fictional vampire slayer (created by Whedon) who was part of a minor wave of strong female characters from the 1990s. Now, 20 years later, we appear to be in the middle of another wave with characters like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games to Kate Beckinsale’s Selene in the Underworld movie series, to Jennifer Morrison’s Emma Swan in the family-friendly Once Upon a Time.

(MORE: Ferguson: Is The Hunger Games Too Dark for Kids?)

To some degree, the Buffy Effect provides further evidence that we, as scholars and as a society, need to get more sophisticated in evaluating the impact of entertainment. Too often we have assumed that viewers are empty vessels waiting to be filled by anything they see, but our involvement with media is much more subtle and difficult to predict. For example, psychologists Larry Steinberg and Kathryn Monahan, writing in Developmental Psychology, demonstrated that, with other important family and personality variables controlled, viewing sex on television doesn’t influence sexual behavior in real life. And as I wrote last December, we now know that claims that violent video games were related to youth aggression were greatly exaggerated. By being obsessed with the wrong issues, we can miss the right ones. Perhaps Revolution is part of a revolution in our understanding too.

MORE: Lawrence J. Cohen and Anthony T. DeBenedet, M.D.: The War on Women Begins with Girls