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Sexy superheroes send mixed messages

UC DAVIS (US) — Young women see sexy robot-crushing Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider as a better role model than sassy gun-toting Kathy Bates in Primary Colors.

A new study, published in the journal Sex Roles, finds movies reinforce and shape seemingly contradictory gender roles that expect women to be attractive and aggressive, but also nurturing.

“The media content we watch affects what we expect of others, and probably of ourselves,” says Laramie D. Taylor, assistant professor of communications at University of California, Davis and the study’s co-author.


“When it comes to gender roles, watching these women who can effortlessly do it all leads us to believe, at some level, not only that women can do it all, but that they should.”

Both women and men perceive attractive female leads in movies as better role models than less attractive leads.

In the experiment, 122 students—both male and female—viewed clips of films featuring “stereotypically attractive” actor Jolie, as well as Bates, in two violent films (Tomb Raider and Primary Colors). Students also looked at two non-violent films, Changeling and Fried Green Tomatoes also featuring female protagonists.

Attractive heroines, regardless of whether they were violent, were seen as better role models for girls and women than less attractive heroines. However, aggressive protagonists were considered better role models that less-aggressive role models regardless of whether the character was also considered attractive.

Both women and men had increased expectations of women after watching movies in which female leads fulfill both feminine and masculine roles, the study says.

“Exposure to attractive, aggressive female characters actually increases expectations on women, including potentially inconsistent roles. After viewing, women were expected to be both more independent and ambitious and more socially connected and nurturing.”

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