by Kim Belmonte

It’s summer! School’s out and you’re ready to hang out. When you’ve had your fill of the heat and humidity, maybe you’re like me and you want to head to see an exciting movie, with tons of action and maybe even superheroes?!  Unfortunately it seems like most action movies have some pretty disappointing portrayals of gender: the male characters do all the fun things like destroying—or saving—the world and the female characters are stuck playing sexy sidekicks, love-interests or victims who need saving.

I don’t know about you, but I get pretty frustrated with sexist movies that only show men as powerful, complex characters and women as sexy, weak, sidelined characters.  Even when women are cast as capable, they’re often still sexualized, meaning they’re wearing revealing clothing, and have thin bodies and large breasts. For example, I just watched Marvel’s The Avengers[1] where the only female superhero, the Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) is a butt-kicking assassin … who wears a low-cut spandex catsuit the whole time. But watching female superheroes at least is empowering for women, right? I mean, the Black Widow is a pretty cool hero, and on the one hand, I kind of want to be like her, but on the other hand, her super sexualized appearance makes me self-consciously think about how my own body looks.

I’ll admit it: I’m confused. It all really makes me wonder, what is the impact of seeing these kinds of sexualized-yet-heroic images of women in movies?

So I decided to do some research (I know, it’s summer but I’m kind of nerdy). And I found that researchers Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz[2] had a similar question. They wanted to know how seeing sexualized videos of female heroes or victims (e.g., the damsel in distress) might—in the short-term at least—impact women’s beliefs about gender and their bodies.  So they ran an experiment with female college students where women watched a 13-minute montage of clips from movies with sexualized female characters (e.g., thin, large-chested and wearing tight clothing).  They were either shown a montage with “sexualized victims,” female characters who were depicted as weak damsels in distress needing rescuing by a male counterpart (e.g., Mary Jane in the Spiderman series), or the “sexualized heroines,” female characters that were depicted as strong, intelligent and powerful (e.g., Storm in the X-Men series).  Another group of women didn’t watch any videos (this is known as a control group) so the researchers could compare women who saw sexualized images to women who didn’t.

After watching the film clips, women answered questions about their body image (satisfaction with their appearance and specific body parts like their face and stomach), self-objectification (their tendency to think about their body in terms of how it looks rather than how capable it is), and their agreement with traditional gender role stereotypes (e.g. “Men are better at taking on mental challenges than women”).

They found that compared to the women who didn’t watch anything, those who watched the sexualized heroines thought more about their own bodies in terms of being capable, rather than being attractive (which wasn’t true for those who watched the sexualized victim).  On the other hand, the women who watched the sexualized victims tended to agree more with traditional gender role stereotypes than women in the control group (which wasn’t true for those who watched the sexualized heroine).  This is great news because it shows that having more powerful roles for women in films may be related to women in the audience feeling more powerful.

But in an interesting twist, both groups of women who watched the clips (either the sexualized victim or the sexualized heroine) ended up with slightly worse body image than women in the control group.  Wait, you’re saying—why does watching female heroes make women feel worse about their bodies? I get it with the damsels in distress, but the heroes? Really?

Based on my own experience watching The Avengers, this totally makes sense to me: As women, we’ve been taught to compare ourselves to how others look, and any super-sexualized depiction of a woman can trigger that little voice in our heads that says, Oh my gosh.  She’s so sexy. Do I look like that? Should I look like that? Is that how women are supposed to look?  In previous blogs, we’ve written about how reading sexualized magazines or watching sexualized television shows makes women more willing to act in sexualized ways, like participating in a wet t-shirt contest.  Even choosing a sexualized avatar in a video game makes women more likely to self-objectify.  So it only makes sense that when we see a woman character—whether she’s a hero or not— we begin to compare our bodies to that often unrealistic portrayal of beauty and sexiness.

Lately, a few of the SPARK bloggers have been critiquing the lack of well-rounded female characters in film.  What Hollywood considers a “strong female character” is usually a one-dimensional portrayal of strength: a businesswoman or a superhero but without character development or complexity.  When we start consistently seeing films with female characters that focus not only on their strength, but also on their character, I think it will be easier for everyone to see those characters as capable of an amazing range of actions and emotions—not just as sexy objects.  So while the jury is still out on whether the Black Widow is a feminist icon, I do think it’s important to remember that even though super heroes are super fun, they’re fictional—not functional or full—portrayals of women.

[1] Side note: the movie only squeaks by the Bechdel Test of gender inequality which rates movies based on whether they meet the following three criteria: 1) there are at least two named women; 2) they talk to each other; 3) they talk to each other about something other than a man.

[2] Pennell, H. & Behm-Morawitz, E. (2015). The empowering (super) heroine? The effects of sexualized female characters in superhero films on women.  Sex Roles, 72, 211-220.