Is Sexual Violence on TV OK if the Heroine Is Tough?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Aug. 31 2012 3:02 PM

Is Sexual Violence on TV OK if the Heroine Is Tough?

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Is there really such a thing as "The Buffy Effect"?

Does viewing sexual violence against women stoke sexist beliefs in men? And what if Buffy Summers swoops in to drive a stake in the heart of the male aggressor? In a new study published in the Journal of Communication, psychologist Christopher Ferguson argues that brawny, capable female role models like those found in Buffy the Vampire Slayer can “eliminate the negative effects of sexually violent media” among viewers. He’s even coined a buzzy new term for the phenomenon: “The Buffy Effect.” But Buffy Summers cannot exorcise all of our demons.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

In the study, Ferguson took 150 college students and offered them extra credit to watch one of three types of television shows—one that depicted sexual violence against women featuring weak, subordinate female characters, like The Tudors and Masters of Horror; one that depicted sexual violence against women featuring strong, independent female characters, like Law & Order: SVU and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and a third that featured no sex or violence against women at all, like 7th Heaven and Gilmore Girls. Then, he quizzed viewers on their attitudes toward women, registering their responses to statements like: “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.”

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The results: The men who watched the typical slasher-style sexualized violence of Masters of Horror—in the episode Ferguson screened, “a global epidemic” causes “men to become mad, attempting to rape and kill women when sexually aroused”—reported more sexist beliefs than those exposed to sexual violence a la Buffy, which features “strong female characters who are able to fight back effectively against violence.” (Female attitudes toward women remained unchanged, whether subjects were watching the Protestant moralizing of 7th Heaven or a violent 16th-century rape courtesy of The Tudors.) The results have inspired Ferguson to speculate that “negative depictions of women reawaken negative stereotypes that some men hold about women, whereas positive depictions challenge those stereotypes” and led commentators to claim that “strong women in otherwise violent TV shows might make men feel better about women.” 

But that's not really true. While watching Buffy stake a bad guy—or viewing Detective Olivia Benson book a rapist in SVU—may not have made these men more sexist, it didn’t make them “feel better about women,” either. In fact, the men involved in the study reported more sexist beliefs than did their female peers, no matter which type of programming they viewed. Ferguson was drawing from a pretty limited sample of TV viewers—150 largely Latino college men and women watching media overwhelmingly featuring lily-white women. And his study didn't actually rate viewers' sexist beliefs pre-TV viewing, but assumed that the students randomly assigned to watch each episode would average about the same base-level sexist attitudes. Over email, Ferguson told me that his study “doesn’t have a particular cut-off score above which you are a sexist bastard, below which you are an OK dude.” But he allowed that the average male college student involved in the study “isn’t remotely a completely sexist bastard, but could use a little work.” 

Taking in an episode of Buffy didn’t “challenge” these men’s baseline negative feelings against women. It did, however, make some of them nervous. The men who watched shows featuring strong female characters registered higher levels of anxiety than those who watched the neutral shows. Those men who viewed sexualized violence against weak, subordinate women reported the lowest levels of anxiety.  Meanwhile, women who watched violent shows featuring weak female characters registered higher levels of anxiety than were present in any other category—and given the rates of sexual assault against female college students, it’s no surprise that depictions of gratuitous sexualized violence against women makes some women anxious. 

Predictably, the study's results have inspired outlets like ABC to conclude that sexualized violence is good to go as long as there are “strong leading ladies around to save the day." But the study actually provides few clues for television producers—or viewers who would like to not hate women more—on how to best depict sexual violence on television. The way Ferguson defines “strong independent female character” isn't necessarily “strong” in the sense that she’s nuanced, realistic, and well-drawn—instead, she packs a gun and a badge, or else has the superhuman ability to neutralize male (and demonic) violence. Those types of female characters may provide for some fun feminist fantasy, but they don’t necessarily represent most victims of rape, who can be plenty strong without physically overpowering their attackers.

Meanwhile, the characters Ferguson points to as weak and subordinate don’t differentiate between women stuck in an institutionally sexist system like 16th century England, or those used to play out the “sexy” violent tropes of slasher horror flicks. Even Ferguson’s “neutral” sample ranges from the Christian conservative moral framework of 7th Heaven—which dropped teen star Jessica Biel after she posed topless for Gear Magazine—and the hippie-dippy female-led world of Gilmore Girls. The study also fails to differentiate between story lines about sexual violence and story lines that deliberately sexualize violence. It's important to figure out how to represent sexual violence in our crime procedurals and teen dramas, without stoking female fears or encouraging male sexism. But getting it right will require more than just handing out more badges and stakes.