Sex and violence on TV OK as long as female characters are strong: Study

Photo of Sarah Michelle Gellar from the WB's hit show "Buffy, The Vampire Slayer".



New research suggests sex and violence on TV make women feel anxious and men act sexist -- but only when the female characters are portrayed as weak.

Christopher Ferguson, the Texas A&M University professor who led the research, dubbed it "the Buffy effect."

"I think we've seen a trend in recent decades for the inclusion of more strong female leads in shows, whether serious dramas or action-adventure type stuff," Ferguson said. "This seems to be a positive trend that may simultaneously provide strong role models for girls, while helping boys to see women in a position of strength."

Frustrated by the inconsistency of previous research linking sexualized violence in the media to negative attitudes about women, Ferguson wondered: What if we're looking at the wrong thing? What if it's not about the sex and violence at all?

He had 150 students watch three sets of TV shows, then fill out questionnaires about their state of mind and attitudes about women.

For the neutral shows, they watched non-sexual, non-violent episodes of 7th Heaven and Gilmore Girls. For negative shows, they watched episodes of The Tudors and Masters of Horror that depicted sex and violence and women as victims. For positive shows, they watched episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Law & Order: SVU with depictions of sexualized violence and strong, capable women.

Women scored the highest levels of anxiety after watching the sexually violent shows with victimized women. Men who watched the same shows showed the most negative attitudes about women.

Women were the least anxious after watching the Buffy-type shows. Ferguson thinks that's because "women viewers appreciated the strong roles in the sexually violent shows with strong female leads."

Male viewers in this case regarded women more highly, but they also showed the highest level of anxiety.

"That was a little surprising, and not what I'd hope to see, for sure. It's quite possible that's a lingering reaction to some sexism among some of the male viewers who may have been made uncomfortable by seeing women in positions of strength," Ferguson said.

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