The Problem with Female Superheroes
What do you want to be when you grow up? When pondering this question, most kids have given at least passing consideration to one fantastical if improbable calling: superhero. There is an understandable allure to the superhero position — wearing a special uniform (possibly with powerful accessories), saving the world from evil, and let's not forget possessing a wickedly cool special power like x-ray vision or the ability to fly.
But new research by Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz at the University of Missouri suggests that, at least for women, the influence of superheroes is not always positive. Although women play a variety of roles in the superhero genre, including helpless maiden and powerful heroine, the female characters all tend to be hypersexualized, from their perfect, voluptuous figures to their sexy, revealing attire. Exposure to this, they show, can impact beliefs about gender roles, body esteem, and self-objectification.
Consider, for example, superhero movies like Spider-man or Superman. These action-packed films typically feature a strong, capable, intelligent man fighting a villainous force. The goal of course is to save humanity, but more often than not there is also an immediate need to rescue a damsel in distress. The female victim is typically delicate, naive, and defenseless, but at the same time sexy and beautiful. What she lacks in strength and cunning she makes up for in kindness and curves. It is not surprising (or insignificant) that she is often the object of the hero's affections.
Pennell and Behm-Morawitz posited that exposure to these stereotypic female victims, whose primary appeal is sexual, may lower women’s body esteem, heighten the value they place on body image, and result in less egalitarian gender role beliefs and expectations. However, female characters have come a long way in the superhero genre, and it’s possible that the antidote to the helpless fair maiden is the competent, commanding superheroine. The X-Men films, for example, feature a number of empowering female characters like Storm, Jean Gray, and Dazzler, each of whom wields a unique special ability and displays impressive cognitive and physical competence. Perhaps exposure to this new generation of female heroines will result in more egalitarian gender beliefs, higher body esteem, and greater prioritization of physical competence over appearance.
Still, today’s superheroines, like their female victim counterparts, are often unrealistic, sexualized representations of female figures, with large chests, curvaceous backsides and unattainable hourglass dimensions. Their skin-tight outfits accentuate their sexuality with plunging necklines and bare skin, and many of their names (e.g., Risque, Mystique, Ruby Summers) connote, shall we say, a slightly less respectable profession than superheroine.
Pennell and Behm-Morawitz thus speculated that while today’s powerful superheroines might elevate egalitarian beliefs about gender roles, their sexualized nature might simultaneously have destructive effects on body image and self-objectification.
To explore the effects of watching sexualized female victims and heroines, Pennell and Behm-Morawitz asked female college students to watch a 13-minute video montage of scenes that either featured female victims from the Spider-man series or female heroines from the X-Men series. After watching one of these video montages, participants completed a survey that assessed gender role beliefs, body image, and self-objectification. A number of other measures (e.g., movie-going habits, enjoyment of different film genres) were included to camouflage the purpose of the study, and in a control condition, participants simply completed the survey but did not watch either film montage.
Gender role beliefs were assessed via the Attitudes toward Women Scale, which evaluated participants' views about men's and women's responsibilities at home and in the workplace, appropriate attire and appearance in public, rationality and problem solving skills, and physical strength. Body image was measured using the Body Esteem Scale, which requires individuals to rate personal satisfaction with general appearance and specific body parts (e.g., face, chest, thighs). Finally, the Self-Objectification Questionnaire required participants to indicate the importance of their body image and body competence to their personal identity.
Relative to participants in the control condition, those who viewed the sexualized-victim female character did indeed report less egalitarian gender beliefs. Thus, women who watched the Spider-man montage were less likely to agree statements such as, “Men and women should share household work equally,” and more likely to agree with statements such as, “Men are better at taking on mental challenges than women.” They did not, however, experience drops in body esteem or rate the importance of body appearance more highly. It seems that watching the beauty-in-need-of-rescue reinforced traditional gender roles, but did not create the desire to appear more like her physically.
What happened when women instead watched the agile and proficient superheroines? Did these characters serve to empower women? Sadly, no. The superheroine montage did nothing to improve egalitarian views about gender roles, though at least it did not lower those views. Pennell and Behm-Morawitz argue that the sexualization of the superheroine characters serves to reinforce rather than challenge stereotypical gender role beliefs, and this effect may overshadow any benefit derived from observing a strong, intelligent, capable female character.
Watch out, as these superheroines pack a bigger punch: Relative to control participants, women who watched the X-Men montage reported lower body esteem. They also ranked the importance of physical competence more highly. Pennell and Behm-Morawitz suggest that women may admire the power and status of superheroines and consequently desire to emulate them. Because these sexualized superheroines have unattainable body dimensions and engage in unrealistic physical feats (e.g., saving the world in spiked heels), it’s not surprising that female viewers are left feeling dissatisfied with their own physical appearance and prowess.
Thus, while the roles for women in superhero movies have evolved from the helpless, easy mark to the commanding, mighty protector, the central appeal of these characters as sexual goddesses is the same. As a consequence, the superheroines, like their victim counterparts, are undermining rather than improving women’s perceptions of their own bodies and physical competence. And they are doing nothing to improve beliefs about women’s roles in society.
These new findings add to a growing literature demonstrating that the gender-related information conveyed in popular media can affect personal perceptions and cultural standards about gender. Expectations and attitudes about gender roles are shaped by a variety of entertainment media, from superhero movies and G-rated children’s films to music videos, advertisements, and video games. One recent study even found that regular viewers of a reality television show featuring pregnant teens had more favorable attitudes about teen pregnancy and believed that the benefits of teen pregnancy outweigh the risks. Clearly the things we watch, even if fantastical or sensationalized, affect our beliefs. Superhero movies and other forms of entertainment, which are often viewed as a temporary escape from reality, may in fact be shaping our realities in ways that are more harmful than heroic.
Cindi May is a Professor of Psychology at the College of Charleston. She explores mechanisms for optimizing cognitive function in college students, older adults, and individuals with intellectual disabilities. She is also the project director for a TPSID grant from the Department of Education, which promotes the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities in postsecondary education.