Is exposure to the pretty people found in movies and television warping our sense of how we should be, or look?
In a new study, researchers Laramie Taylor and Tiffany Setters review how media representation of gender roles changes the standards by which women judge themselves.
In the experiment, researchers showed a film clip of a major Hollywood motion picture to 122 male and female undergraduate students. The segment featured a female protagonist who was either stereotypically attractive or not; and physically aggressive or not.
Students perceived the more attractive film star as a better role model and believed the violent, attractive protagonist better reflected female gender role expectations –that is, a more masculine role expectation.
According to the authors, this suggests that both men and women expect women to fulfill both feminine and masculine roles; that women generally tend to have higher expectations of women than men; and that watching attractive, aggressive heroines exaggerates these expectations.
Films over the past decade reflect this media personification. Angelina Jolie in “Tomb Raider” was the stereotypically attractive, aggressive protagonist and Kathy Bates in “Primary Colors” was less attractive but also aggressive.
The non-violent clips where the protagonist was passive and submissive were from “Changeling” (Jolie) and “Fried Green Tomatoes” (Bates).
After viewing the film clips the students completed a questionnaire to assess their gender role expectations for women. For example, they were asked whether the female character portrayed in the clip was a good role model for women.
According to Taylor and Setters, “Exposure to attractive, aggressive, female characters actually increases expectations on women, including potentially inconsistent roles — after viewing, women are expected to be both more independent and ambitious and more socially connected and nurturing.
“These increased expectations for women occur not only among men, but among women as well, suggesting that women’s expectations for themselves are affected.”
The study is published online in the journal Sex Roles.