Violence is everywhere in entertainment - in movies, television shows and video games. It is constantly invoked whenever tragedies of mass violence occur, and that it is easy to believe that we have been desensitized to it. Sexual violence is prevalent as well, though we are still averse to it. The reboot of the Lara Croft video game franchise received an outcry when it included an attempted sexual assault of the title character as part of her origin story (the executive producer explained its inclusion as making players "want to protect her" in an interview). Previous research had suggested that depictions of sexual violence made viewers and players see women as subservient.
But new research, published in the Journal of Communication, may contradict that a bit. The study, conducted by Christopher Ferguson at Texas A&M University, surveyed 150 college students who watched a variety of television shows. All of the shows showed women being sexually violated, but the women themselves were shown in various lights. The study found that both men and women displayed less anxiety and fewer negative emotions when the woman was depicted as a strong character rather than as a weak one. Ferguson calls it "The Buffy Effect," named after the long-running television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its eponymous main character.
"Although sexual and violent content tends to get a lot of attention, I was surprised by how little impact such content had on attitudes toward women. Instead it seems to be portrayals of women themselves, positive or negative that [has] the most impact, irrespective of objectionable content. In focusing so much on violence and sex, we may have been focusing on the wrong things," Ferguson said in a statement.
The study does have its limitations. Because the sample was entirely made up of college students, it may be that their view of women is different than that of their predecessors. The study, if recreated with older audiences, may show some variance. Still, the study was described as "carefully designed", and is encouraging.
"While it is commonly assumed that viewing sexually violent TV involving women causes men to think negatively of women, the results of [...] study demonstrate that they do so only when women are portrayed as weak or submissive. Positive depictions of women challenge negative stereotypes even when the content includes sexuality and violence," Malcolm Parks, an editor of The Journal of Communication and professor at the University of Washington, stated.