Do Super-Heroines Empower Women?

July 6, 2016 Katharina Lochner

image super heroines

The Impact of Film-based Role Models

Do you read super-hero comics or watch their film versions? It seems that there are more and more of them where there is not only a male super-hero, like Superman or Batman, but where there is also a very strong female super-heroine, like for example the “Black Widow” in Marvel’s “The Avengers”. Finally even in comics there are role models that can help empower women – or not?

Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Brehm-Morawitz from the University of Missouri were interested in whether female super heroines can empower women.

In their study that is outlined on BPS Research Digest and on Scientific American they exposed women to two different types of 13 minute movies. One group watched a scene in which a delicate and defenseless yet very sexy woman was rescued by super-hero Spider-Man – thus displaying the classical image of the weak woman. The other group watched a scene in which some of the female super-heroines from X-Men fought against their evil counterparts – thus representing the image of the strong and independent woman. Afterwards the authors assessed women’s gender role beliefs, body image, and self-objectification (i.e., the extent to which physical appearance is in the centre of one’s self). In order to conceal the true objective of the study (which would most likely have distorted the results) these questions were interspersed between questions assessing film tastes and habits. A control group just completed the survey.

As expected, the movie displaying the female victim enhanced classical gender roles, meaning they agreed less to statements like “Men and women should share housework chores equally” and more to statements like “Men are better at problem-solving than women” than the control group, so no surprise here. However, the movie did not affect their personal satisfaction with general appearance and specific body parts, and neither did it make them view their physical appearance more important.

By contrast, the movie displaying the female super-heroines did – counter to expectations – not change women’s attitude towards a more empowered role of a woman compared to the control group. Moreover, they showed less body self-esteem than the latter. However, one positive effect was that women valued competence and health over their physical appearance.

This means that super-heroines, at least the way they are now, won’t empower women and help them gain a more positive attitude towards their own appearance. On a more general level, this also shows how greatly the media we consume influence our world views. Thus, select carefully what you are watching – but don’t let this spoil you enjoying of such cool movies as Marvel’s “The Avengers”!

Behm-Morawitz, E. & Mastro, D. (2009). The Effects of the Sexualization of Female Video Game Characters on Gender Stereotyping and Female Self-Concept. Sex Roles, 61(11), 808-823.
Noll, S. M. & Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). A mediational model linking self-objectification, body shame, and disordered eating. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 22, 623–636.
Pennell, H., & Behm-Morawitz, E. (2015). The Empowering (Super) Heroine? The Effects of Sexualized Female Characters in Superhero Films on Women. Sex Roles, 72(5-6), 211-220 DOI: 10.1007/s11199-015-0455-3

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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