Why Portraying Strong Women Is Important

It’s Saturday morning.  Hubs is off for a ride with his buddy for a few hours, so I’m taking advantage of the quiet time to update Pots and Plots with the new recipes I cooked this week and working on planning my menu for next week.  It also means lazy internet time and TWITTER!  Woo.

When I opened up Tweetdeck this morning, the first thing I saw was a link to this article in The Atlantic Monthly “Study: We Benefit From Seeing Strong Women On TV“.  Being a big fan of strong female characters, of course I immediately went to check it out.  It’s talking about what they call “The Buffy Effect”, which posits that strong characters can combat the negative effects of sexual violence in media.   Basically they showed study participants

screenings of one of six television shows that included both sexuality and violent content within the same scenes. The Tudors and slasher-esque Masters of Horror were selected as exemplars of sexually violent shows with negative depictions of female characters; SVUand Buffy the Vampire Slayer depicted sexual violence but featured positive female “role models”; and7th Heaven and Gilmore Girls were used as the family-friendly controls.

Basically they found that the portrayal of women (i.e. strong vs. passive) rather than the sexual violence of the situations shown in the screenings, that influenced audiences’ emotional reactions and attitudes toward women.  What’s that mean?

The researchers found strongest evidence of women responding positively to strong female characters, while instances of men responding negatively to such characters were much lower. They admit, “it is possible that some males find the presentation of strong females to be threatening to traditional gender-role stereotypes,” and speculate that machismo culture may have contributed to this effect.

But in general, men responded more positively to shows with powerful women. The researchers suggest this may be because “depictions of women reawaken negative stereotypes that some men hold about women, whereas positive depictions challenge these stereotypes.”

Now, this study was about TV, not print.  And as a trained scientist, I know better than to definitively extrapolate from these results (particularly without seeing the full scientific journal article that this brief article was based on), but I have no problem theoretically extrapolating that similar effects might be found in written fiction.  Now, sure, to a large extent, there is less crossover between what men and women read than what they watch.  Few men read romance (though more now than ever before).  But there often is a lot of crossover among other genres, and I think that is an opportunity to really combat a lot of those socialized prejudices among men and strengthen women’s own perceptions of their gender in a method that is more subtle (and therefore more effective) than a direct confrontation saying “Dude, you’re a sexist pig” or “Girl, buck up and have a spine.”

This is one of the powers of fiction.  You can present alternatives, positive role-models, and challenge long-held beliefs, whether you’re talking about gender stereotypes, race stereotypes, or any other form of prejudice or bigotry.  And that, in and of itself, is a way to change the world.

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6 comments

  1. YES to this. I’ve read a few books in a row with a stereotypical cliche of a female character. Self-loathing, insecure, body image issues, inability to communicate, staying in an unhappy relationship just because. These things not only are boring to read, but I can’t relate to those characters anyway so I tend to tune out or just get annoyed at the author.

  2. I write in the young adult genre, and I think this is a huge issue when the writing is geared for teens. Who wants their daughters to buy into the notion that they are needy, helpless individuals, and cannot think for themselves, but must submit to the control of another?

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