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Gender Differences in Movie Superheroes’ Roles, Appearances, and Violence

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 By Monica K. Miller, Jessica A. Rauch, and Tatyana Kaplan

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Abstract: It is important to understand the content of media, as media can promote stereotypes that communicate what gender roles, appearances, and acts of violence are acceptable in society. This content analysis of 147 superheroes in 80 movies found that male heroes appeared much more frequently than female heroes. Females were more likely to work in a group while males were more likely to work alone. Males were more powerful, muscular, violent, and evil while women were more attractive, thin, sexy/seductive, innocent, afraid, and helpless. Compared to males’, females’ clothes (both costumes and non-costumes) were more revealing on both the upper and lower bodies. Although both genders frequently have special abilities and use weapons, male characters were more likely than female characters to have more than one special ability and use more than one weapon. Males more often had super strength and resistance to injury, while female characters more often were able to manipulate elements (e.g. fire). Males were significantly more likely to use fighting skills, fire/flame weapons, and guns than females. The messages portrayed through superhero movies are discussed, along with implications for society, psychology, and criminal justice.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Movie heroes promote a sense of usefulness in movie viewers, allowing viewers to believe they can control the events in their lives (Calvert, Kondla, Ertel, & Meisel, 2001). Often these heroes act as role models who possess desirable qualities including personality attributes, goals, behavior (Bonneville, Kozar, Hussey, & Patrick, 2006) and body images (Bessenoff, 2006). Media portrayals communicate behavioral norms for both genders (Paek, Nelson, & Vilela, 2011) and potentially affect behaviors and attitudes. For instance, individuals who watch large amounts of television typically have more stereotypical beliefs about gender than people who watch less (Signorielli, 1989) and both adults and children imitate characters’ actions or appearance (e.g., Coyne, Linder, Rasmussen, Nelson, & Collier, 2014; Dittmar, 2009; Potter, 2002). Media viewing increases verbal aggressiveness, bullying, desensitization to violence, and depression (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009; Anderson et al., 2003; Anderson, Gentile, & Buckley, 2007) and these effects can be long-lasting if continuous and reinforced (Potter, 2002). Thus, studying the content of media is a necessary step in understanding the effects media might have on behavior and attitudes.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 More broadly, it is important to understand the messages that media sends. Content analyses of movies (and other media) are one method of understanding messages related to gender, crime, and other social phenomena (e.g., Schultz, Moore, & Spitzberg, 2014). The purpose of this content analysis is to analyze superhero movies and identify gender differences in superheroes’ roles, appearance, and violence. Results have implications for psychology, society, and criminal justice.

The Importance of Studying Superhero Movies

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 Superhero movies have grown in popularity, especially in recent years, and attract a large number of viewers (Time Magazine). Seven of the top 30 grossing films of all time are superhero movies (BoxOfficeMojo.com). These movies are important to study because they communicate ideas about gender roles and prompt child and adult viewers to imitate superhero characters. Children idolize superheroes and view them as role models (Bonneville et al., 2006), which contribute to expectations and perceptions of gender roles (Jaffe & Berger, 1994). Messages about gender are communicated in both the quantity and qualities of male and female characters. For instance, male characters are more common than females perhaps because boy viewers outnumber girls (Thompson & Zerbinos, 1997) or because boys are less likely to watch programs that have female lead characters than those that have male leads (Carter, 1991; Thompson & Zerbinos, 1997). Further, male and female characters are portrayed differently. Male heroes are highly aggressive (Milkie, 1994) while female heroes are compassionate, nurturing, and understanding (Calvert et al., 2001).

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 Children imitate the actions (Aubrey & Harrison, 2004; Dietz, 1998) and try to achieve the characteristics (Calvert et al., 2001) of media characters. For example, children often choose media characters as role models because of traits (e.g., appearance) or skills (e.g., weapons, violence) the characters possess (Anderson & Cavallaro, 2002; Bonneville et al., 2006). Viewing superhero programs was positively related to male stereotyped play for boys and playing with weapons for both genders (Coyne et al., 2014). Even adults sometimes compare themselves to characters and use extreme measures to be similar (Dittmar, 2009; Olivardia, Pope Jr., Borowiecki III, & Cohane, 2004).

Content of Media: Roles, Appearance, and Violence

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 Previous studies evaluated gender roles in video games (Dietz, 1998; Ivory, 2006; Miller & Summers, 2007), cartoons (Baker & Raney, 2007; Calvert et al., 2001), and TV advertising (Paek et al., 2011), but have not specifically focused on superhero characters. This content analysis expands on previous studies by analyzing superhero movies and will reveal how superhero movies portray men and women in terms of their roles, appearance, and the type/quantity of violence they commit.

Gender Differences in Roles

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Understanding messages portrayed through media is important for both men and women, as both genders are influenced by the media (Bessenoff, 2006). Male characters often outnumber female characters in video games (Dietz, 1998; Ivory, 2006; Miller & Summers, 2007; Scharrer, 2004), television shows (including cartoons; Aubrey & Harrison, 2004; Baker & Raney, 2007), and advertising (Paek et al., 2011). When women are shown in media, they are sometimes portrayed as non-essential or passive characters (Dietz, 1998; Haninger & Thompson, 2004; Ivory, 2006). Female characters are more likely than males to have a mentor (Baker & Raney, 2007) and majority of female characters work in a team rather than alone (Baker & Raney, 2007). Collectively, these results may suggest to viewers that women are less important, knowledgeable, and capable than men – and less likely to be a hero (Miller & Summers, 2007; Signorielli, 1989; Thompson & Zerbinos, 1997). Further, these portrayals may suggest that males do not need to consult others or require help. In sum, media research suggests that there might be important gender differences in the roles of male and female superhero characters.

Gender Differences in Appearance

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Previous content analyses of media characters have revealed that women are shown primarily as sex objects (Miller & Summers, 2007). Females are more likely than males to be portrayed in a sexualized fashion (Ivory, 2006) or as engaging in sexually suggestive behavior (Haninger & Thompson, 2004). In doing so, women typically wear less but more provocative clothing than men (Dietz, 1998; Thompson & Haninger, 2001; Scharrer, 2004). Generally, females are portrayed as attractive, sexy, and feminine (Baker & Raney, 2007; Dietz, 1998; Ivory, 2006; Miller & Summers, 2007; Scharrer, 2004), while males are usually portrayed as rugged, tough, masculine, and muscular (Baker & Raney, 2007; Miller & Summers, 2007; Scharrer, 2004). Females are more often portrayed as helpless or as victims than males (Aubrey & Harrison, 2004; Dietz, 1998; Miller & Summers, 2007; Thompson & Zerbinos, 1997). Also, in cartoons, females are depicted as more emotional and superficial or more likely to get overexcited in a crisis than males (Baker & Raney, 2007). Such results indicate that men and women are portrayed very differently in terms of appearance and behaviors. The current study will determine whether superhero movies have similar portrayals.

Gender Differences in Violence

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 Past content analyses have indicated that male characters are frequently violent (Scharrer, 2004), use more weapons, and have more abilities than female characters (Miller & Summers, 2007). Females’ victories are achieved through wit, nurturing, compassion, and persuasion rather than the weaponry, physical strength, and aggression of their male counterparts (Calvert et al., 2001). Thompson and Zerbinos (1997) found that both male and female children perceived male cartoon characters as more violent than female characters. In contrast, Baker and Raney (2004) found no significant differences in aggression between male and female characters in cartoons. These studies indicate that, in some contexts, the media portrays men and women differently in terms of violence and conflict resolution. This could reinforce gender stereotypes that women are less powerful or have fewer abilities than men and that men are not capable of nurturing or compassion. The current study might also find similar gender differences.

Overview of Study

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Prior research examined gender differences in roles, appearances, and violent behavior in video games (Dietz, 1998; Ivory, 2006; Miller & Summers, 2007; Scharrer, 2004), advertising (Paek et al., 2011), cartoons (Baker & Raney, 2007) and television shows (Anderson & Cavallero, 2002; Calvert et al., 2001). This study examined full-length superhero movies to determine if there are gender differences in characters’ roles, appearances, and violence.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 A general research question and several hypotheses were developed based on past content analyses. The general research question asks how characters are portrayed in superhero movies. Specifically, what roles do the superhero characters play (e.g., hero or supplemental character)? Are they portrayed as muscular, attractive, powerful, or sexy? Are they violent, do they have special powers, and do they use weapons? Analysis will present an overall idea of how the characters look and behave.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 Hypothesis 1 predicts gender differences in the roles of the superheroes. Hypothesis 1a predicts that male characters will have different general roles (e.g., less likely to work in a group) than females. Hypothesis 1b predicts that males will have specific roles (e.g., soldier, detective) more often than females.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Hypothesis 2 predicts gender differences in the appearance and attire of the characters. Hypothesis 2a predicts that males will appear more muscular and powerful than females, who will be more attractive, sexy, and thin than men. Hypothesis 2b predicts that female characters will wear more revealing clothing than male characters.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Hypothesis 3 predicts gender differences in violence, special abilities, and usage of weapons. Hypothesis 3a predicts that males will have more special powers/abilities (e.g., super strength) than females. Hypothesis 3b predicts that males will use weapons more often than females.

Methods

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Sampling

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 1 Movies were selected from a list of “comic book /superhero” movies categorized by Blockbuster.com. The list contained 146 movies released between 1978 (starting with Superman: The Movie) and 2009. Eighty full-length motion pictures or cartoons available for rent in the English language were selected for analysis. Researchers selected the two main male superheroes (if two were available; if more than two were available, two were selected randomly) and all female superheroes. A total of 147 hero characters were evaluated. Despite over sampling of female heroes, there were only 47 female heroes and 100 male heroes, a rate of 1 female for every 2.13 male characters.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Coding and Inter-rater Reliability

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 A codebook was developed based on past content analyses and a literature review. Researchers watched one movie in order to operationalize study definitions (e.g., societal standards of thin, sexy, violence). Changes to the codebook were made based on discussion between researchers. Next, inter-rater reliability analysis ensured that researchers had a common understanding of the questions and operational definitions of variables. Two researchers watched the same movie and completed their codebooks individually. They then compared responses and settled disagreements through discussion. Sixteen movies were included in the inter-rater reliability analysis. As shown in Table 1, Holsti’s coefficient revealed an overall inter-rater reliability rate of .90, indicating that coders had a high level of overall agreement. The coefficients for individual variables ranged from 0.66 for the sexy or seductive variable to 0.97 on other variables. Once inter-rater reliability was determined, one researcher coded the remaining 64 movies.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 2 Table 1 – Holsti’s coefficient of reliability for all factors:

Variable Holsti Variable Holsti
Gender of main character 0.97 Role of character 0.97
Character’s looks: muscular 0.84 Character’s looks: sexy or seductive 0.66
Character’s looks: attractive 0.7  0.78 Character’s looks: thin 0.69
Character’s looks: powerful 0.84 Character’s looks: helpless 0.88
Character’s looks: helpful 0.81 Character’s looks: evil 0.91
Character’s looks: happy 0.72 Character’s looks: mad 0.78
Character’s looks: carefree 0.84 Character’s looks: innocent 0.84
Character’s looks: afraid 0.81 Character’s looks: violent 0.69
Character’s ability: invisible 0.97 Character’s ability: super speed 0.94
Character’s ability: martial arts 0.94 Character’s ability: skate/board/bike 0.97
Character’s ability: special senses 0.97 Character’s ability: flying 0.97
Character’s ability: magic 0.97 Character’s ability: using weapons 0.97
Character’s ability: swim 0.97 Character’s ability: super strength 0.94
Character’s ability: resistance to injury 0.97 Character’s ability: manipulates elements 0.97
Character’s weapon: gun 0.97 Character’s ability: other 0.97
Character’s weapon: fire 0.97 Character’s weapon: knife/sword 0.91
Character’s weapon: fighting 0.94 Character’s weapon: grenades 0.97
Character’s weapon: tank 0.97 Character’s weapon: ice 0.97
Character’s weapon: magic spells 0.97 Character’s weapon: bow and arrow 0.97
Character’s weapon: rope 0.97 Character’s weapon: poison 0.97
Character wears costume 0.94 Character’s weapon: other 0.97
Costume: overall 0.84 Costume: overall tightness 0.84
Costume: revealing lower body 0.94 Costume: revealing upper body 0.91
Non-costume clothes: overall 0.88 Non-costume clothes: overall tightness 0.84
Non-costume clothes: revealing lower body 0.91 Non-costume clothes: revealing upper body 0.88
Overall Holsti coefficient 0.90

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Measures

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 The codebook included variables measuring gender, appearance, special abilities, and weapons. Variables pertaining to appearance and attire were rated using a Likert scale of 0 (not at all) to 4 (extreme). Variables pertaining to special abilities and weapon usage were scored with a “yes” (present) or “no” (not present)., several “yes/no” questions assessed characters’ roles (e.g., Does the hero work in a group?).

Results

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Difference of proportions tests determined the variation between male and female superheroes in regards to roles, weapon usage, and special abilities. Difference of means tests (t-tests) determined whether there were significant differences between male and female superhero appearance and attire.

Research Question: General Portrayal of Characters

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 The research question asks how characters are portrayed in superhero movies. For example, what abilities do they have? What roles do they play? Are they muscular, attractive, powerful, or sexy? Males were rated an average of 2.83 (out of 4) on the powerful scale, with 84% of the characters scoring above the scale midpoint.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Similarly, males scored 2.42 on the muscular scale, with 77% scoring above the scale’s midpoint. Females averaged 2.36 on the sexy/seductive scale, with 74.5% of the characters scoring above the midpoint. Similarly, females scored 2.66 on a scale measuring thinness, with 78.8% scoring above the scale’s midpoint. They also averaged 3.15 in attractiveness, with 100% of the characters scoring above the midpoint. These findings indicate that the majority of male characters were portrayed as powerful and muscular, while the majority of females were portrayed as sexy, thin, and attractive. Twenty of 47 (42.6%) female characters and 75 of 100 (75%) male characters had more than one special ability, indicating 1 female for every 3.75 male characters.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Twelve of 47 female characters (25.5%) and 58 of 100 male characters (58%) had more than one weapon, indicating 1 female for every 4.83 male characters.

Hypothesis 1: Gender Differences in Roles

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Hypothesis 1 investigated gender differences in superheroes’ roles. Hypothesis 1a and 1b were both partially supported.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Hypothesis 1a. This hypothesis predicted that male characters would have different roles than females. Most (71.9%) male characters did not work in a group while 66% did so; further, 46.8% of women were considered to be supplemental characters.

Hypothesis 1b

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 This hypothesis predicted that males and females would have different specific roles. As shown in Table 2, the only significant gender difference was that men were more likely to be detectives or secret agents.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Table 2 – Difference of proportions: Gender differences of character roles

Female (n=47) Male  (n=100) 95% CI p value z-score
Looks like real man/woman 93.6% 83.0% [0.47%, 20.77%] 0.04 2.05
Detective, secret agent 0.0% 7.0% [-12.00%, -2.00%] 0.006 -2.74
Robot 0.0% 2.0% [-4.74%, 0.74%] 0.153 -1.43
Zombie or other “undead” 0.0% 6.0% [-10.65%, -1.35%] 0.012 -2.53
Non-human cartoon 2.1% 14.0% [-19.83%, -3.93%] 0.003 -2.93
Police officer or security officer 2.1% 7.0% [-11.36%, 1.61%] 0.141 -1.47
Soldier, warrior, ninja 10.6% 19.0% [-20.06%, 3.34%] 0.161 -1.4
Human that can transform into something else 12.8% 22.0% [-21.76%, 3.29%] 0.149 -1.44
Other 8.5% 16.0% [-18.23%, 3.25%] 0.172 -1.37

Hypothesis 2: Gender Differences in Appearance and Attire

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Hypothesis 2 determined whether there were gender differences in characters’ appearance and attire. Both Hypothesis 2a and 2b were mostly supported.

Hypothesis 2a

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 This hypothesis predicted that there would be gender differences in the appearance of characters. As shown in Table 3, the means for males were significantly higher than the means for females on the items measuring power, muscularity, violence, and evil. In comparison, the means for females were significantly higher than the means for males on attractiveness, thinness, sexiness/seductiveness, innocence, fear, and helplessness. Other differences (e.g., carefree, happy, angry, and helpful) did not significantly differ by gender.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Table 3 – Difference of means: Gender differences in character appearance

Female M

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 1 (n = 47)

Male M       (n = 100)    95% CI p value t-Score
Evil 0.128 0.33 [-0.4, -0.004] 0.045 -2.02
Afraid 1.32 0.704 [0.236, 0.994] 0.002 3.23
Helpless 1.3 0.81 [0.155, 0.821] 0.005 2.92
Innocent, Sweet 1.85 0.96 [0.48, 1.303] 0.000 4.3
Sexy or Seductive 2.36 0.97 [0.954, 1.829] 0.000 6.33
Carefree 0.81 0.97 [-0.528, 0.205] 0.383 -0.88
Happy 1.85 1.69 [-0.212, 0.534] 0.394 0.86
Angry 1.36 1.78 [-0.843, 0.006] 0.053 -1.96
Attractive 3.149 1.8 [1.01, 1.688] 0.000 7.87
Thin 2.66 2.14 [0.092, 0.945] 0.018 2.42
Violent 1.37 2.23 [-1.296, -.0425] 0.000 -3.92
Muscular 0.872 2.42 [-1.929, -1.166] 0.000 -8.03
Helpful 2.4 2.58 [-0.548, 0.197] 0.352 -0.94
Powerful 1.66 2.83 [-1.663, -0.678] 0.000 -4.74

Hypothesis 2b

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 1 This hypothesis predicted that female characters would wear more sexy and revealing clothing than males. As shown in Table 4, the means for female characters were significantly higher than the means for male characters on variables measuring the revealing nature of non-costume clothing (e.g., clothes the character wore when not acting as the superhero) and costume clothing (e.g., the superhero costume). This result held for both the upper body and the lower body. Similarly, females’ non-costume clothing was significantly tighter than males’. The only category not significant was the overall tightness of the costume clothing.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 1 Table 4 – Difference of means: Gender differences of character attire

Female         M            (n = 44) Male      M          (n = 89) 95% CI p value t-score
Non-costume Clothing Revealing Overall 0.86 0.34 [0.163, 0.891] 0.005 2.88
Non-costume Clothing Upper Body Revealing 1.16 0.52 [0.256, 1.029] 0.001 3.31
Non-costume Clothing Lower Body Revealing 1.23 0.66 [0.153, 0.976] 0.008 2.73
Non-costume Clothing Tightness 1.36 0.76 [0.158, 1.041] 0.008 2.71
 (n = 32) (n = 70)
Costume Revealing Overall 1.50 0.59 [0.386, 1.442] 0.001 3.48
Costume Lower Body Revealing 1.13 0.53 [0.096, 1.097] 0.020 2.39
Costume Upper Body Revealing 1.44 0.69 [0.183, 1.321] 0.011 2.65

Hypothesis 3: Gender Differences in Violence: Special Abilities and Weapon Usage

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Hypothesis 3 determined whether there were gender differences in characters’ special abilities and weapons.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Both Hypothesis 3a and 3b were partially supported.

Hypothesis 3a

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 This hypothesis predicted significant differences in special abilities of male and female characters. As shown in Table 5, males have significantly more special abilities than females. Males more often had super strength and resistance to injury, while female characters more often were able to manipulate elements (e.g., fire, water,). Other variables (e.g., magic, flying,) did not significantly differ by gender.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Table 5 – Difference of proportions: Gender differences of character special abilities

Female  (n=47) Male  (n=100) 95% CI P-Value Z-Score
Special Abilities Overall 68.1% 85.0% [-31.97%, -1.86%] 0.028 -2.20
Become invisible 2.1% 1.0% [-3.44%, 5.59%] 0.628 0.48
Swim 0.0% 2.0% [-4.74%, 0.74%] 0.153 -1.43
Skateboarding/snowboarding/

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 bike riding

0.0% 2.0% [-4.74%, 0.74%] 0.153 -1.43
Manipulate elements (fire, water, ice, wind, etc) 21.3% 7.0% [1.55%, 27.00%] 0.028 2.20
Magic 4.3% 7.0% [-10.38%, 4.89%] 0.481 -0.70
Flying 17.0% 20.0% [-16.28%, 10.32%] 0.661 -0.44
Special senses (seeing, hearing) 12.8% 22.0% [-21.76%, 3.29%] 0.149 -1.44
Super speed 17.0% 23.0% [-19.52%, 7.57%] 0.387 -0.87
Resistance to injury 10.6% 32.0% [-34.06%, -8.66%] 0.001 -3.3
Martial arts 29.8% 40.0% [-26.43%, 6.01%] 0.217 -1.23
Super strength 17.0% 44.0% [-41.47%, -12.48%] <0.005 -3.65
Using weapons 36.2% 52.0% [-32.70%, 1.04%] 0.066 -1.84
Other 14.9% 8.0% [-4.59, 18.38%] 0.239 1.18

Hypothesis 3b

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 This hypothesis predicted that male characters would be more likely to use weapons than females. As shown in Table 6, males were significantly more likely to use fighting skills, fire or flame weapons, and guns than females. Other categories considered (e.g., poison, rope) did not significantly differ by gender.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Table 6 – Difference of proportions: Gender differences of character weapon usage

Female  (n=47) Male   (n=100) 95% CI P-Value Z-Score
Were weapons used 70.2% 87.0% [-31.43%, -2.15%] 0.025 -2.25
Ice / Freezing Device 4.3% 0.0% [-1.52%, 10.03%] 0.148 1.45
Rope 0.0% 1.0% [-2.95, 0.95%] 0.315 -1.01
Bow & Arrow 4.3% 1.0% [-2.84%, 9.35%] 0.295 1.05
Tank or other vehicle 0.0% 2.0% [-4.74%, 0.74%] 0.153 -1.43
Magic Spells 2.1% 2.0% [-4.83%, 5.08%] 0.96 0.05
Grenades 2.1% 9.0% [-13.84%, 0.09%] 0.053 -1.93
Fire / Flame 2.1% 13.0% [-18.65%, -3.10%] 0.006 -2.74
Knife / Sword 21.3% 32.0% [-25.57%, 4.13%] 0.157 -1.42
Guns 23.4% 40.0% [-32.05%, -1.15%] 0.035 -2.11
Fighting 34.0% 62.0% [-44.51%, -11.40%] 0.001 -3.31
Other 31.9% 28.0% [-12.06%, 19.89%] 0.631 0.48

Discussion

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 1 Considering their popularity, superhero movies might influence many members of society if viewers adopt the attitudes and behaviors that they portray (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009; Anderson & Cavallero, 2002; Paek et al., 2011; Thompson & Zerbinos, 1997). The media can also shape stereotypes (Dittmar, 2009).

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Children who frequently watch programs that depict certain behaviors or physical attributes are more likely to imitate and be affected by stereotypes than those children who watch less television (Aubrey & Harrison, 2004).

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 This content analysis revealed significant gender differences in the portrayal of superhero characters’ roles, appearance, and violence. Supporting earlier findings of video games characters (e.g., Miller & Summers, 2007), television shows including cartoons (Aubrey & Harrison, 2004; Baker & Raney, 2007), and advertising (Paek et al., 2011), female characters are less represented than male characters. Researchers selected and analyzed only two male heroes and all female heroes per movie, yet this still resulted in 2.13 males for every 1 female. Thus, the ratio of males to females, if all heroes in each movie were analyzed, would certainly be even bigger. Also similar to past studies (e.g., Baker & Raney, 2007), males were portrayed more often as a hero not working in a group than females. Current findings replicated previous studies, which found males were portrayed as more powerful and muscular (e.g., Scharrer, 2004) and females were portrayed as sexy and more attractive (e.g., Ivory, 2006). Female characters wore significantly more revealing clothing, in both non-costume and costume (see also Miller & Summers, 2007; Scharrer, 2004) and were portrayed as more helpless than males (Aubrey & Harrison, 2004; Dietz, 1998; Miller & Summers, 2007; Thompson & Zerbinos, 1997). Finally, male characters were more likely to have more than one special ability and use more than one weapon.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 2 Results have implications for superhero movie viewers, and society more broadly. If media frequently and consistently underrepresent female characters and portray them as supplemental characters that need the help of others, then viewers might believe that these depictions apply to women in general (Aubrey & Harrison, 2004; Signorielli, 1989). Differences in gender role portrayals within the media are influential because these portrayals can help create stereotypes about behavioral norms for males and females (Paek et al., 2011). For example, when media portrays females as helpless and passive, males might develop negative attitudes toward females because of these perceived stereotypes. Similarly, females might be encouraged by these stereotypes. For instance, they may feel the need to be rescued by males or that they cannot be successful in a work environment.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 Results of this study correspond with previous research (Dietz, 1998; Ivory, 2006; Miller & Summers, 2007) in which the media portrays men as powerful and muscular and women as attractive, sexy, and thin. Such portrayals might have effects on self-esteem and body image in both males and females. Females might feel compelled to participate in more sexualized behavior by wearing more revealing and tight clothing in order to gain acceptance from males. Females might also adopt unhealthy eating habits in order to be thin like their media role models. Similarly, men may consider themselves inferior after comparing themselves to the unrealistically muscular and powerful male superhero characters in the media. This could result in negative self-esteem, steroid usage, or other drastic attempts to create a muscular physique. According to Dittmar (2009), body image has emerged as a main feature of mental and physical well-being. Depression and social anxiety can result from dissatisfaction with one’s physical appearance when comparisons are made to other people, whether fictional or real.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Finally, the study has implications for viewers who watch violent media. This content analysis confirms that male heroes more frequently used violence to resolve conflict (e.g., more use of abilities and weapons) as compared to females (who were portrayed as significantly more helpless and afraid). Viewers might infer that it is not acceptable for a man to be compassionate; instead, he must be violent. These media portrayals might relate to aggressive or uncooperative behavior (Anderson et al., 2007; Bartholow & Anderson, 2002; Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski, & Eron, 2003; Sherry, 2001) or bullying (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009). Viewers may perceive that because there is so much violence (e.g., usage of weapons) in the media that violence in real life is an acceptable solution to resolving conflict. This has negative consequences for the criminal justice system if media sends the message that violence is acceptable in society.

Limitations

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 1 One limitation of this study is that not all movies on the list were evaluated. This content analysis examined approximately 55% of the movies provided on the full list from Blockbuster. Due to the lack of availability or because of a foreign language, researchers were unable to determine if there are systematic differences in gender roles, appearance, and violence presented in those movies that were excluded. Further, it is possible that some superhero movies were left off the Blockbuster.com list and not considered in this study. Another limitation is that not all superhero characters were analyzed. Researchers chose all females, but only two main male characters. Male characters who appeared only briefly in the movie may differ from main characters. This procedure also means that main male characters were compared to all female characters. A comparison of only main male and main female characters would be a more direct evaluation.

Future Directions

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 2 As we conducted this content analysis, an important pattern emerged: nearly all the characters were White. A quick perusal of popular superhero movies (e.g., Batman vs. Superman, Iron Man 3, Spider-man) indicates that most leading characters are White males. On the rare occasion that a female is a leading superhero character (e.g., Supergirl, Jessica Jones) or the most powerful character (e.g., X-Men’s Jean Grey/Phoenix), the character is also White. Although not the focus of the current study, it is worth a mention that future studies should investigate portrayals of White versus minority race characters. An intersectionality perspective recognizes that individuals are often classified by more than one social category and that research examining gender should also consider race-ethnicity and meanings associated with their intersection (Brooks & Hérbet, 2006; Shields, 2008). In their review of mediated portrayals of gender and race, Brooks & Hérbet (2006) were able to highlight important ways in which patriarchal and essentialist viewpoints govern popular media and serve to reify oppressive and dominant stereotypes. This work is important because it discloses ways in which race, ethnicity and gender are socially constructed in media. Cultural representations influence not only the ways in which individuals view and respond to others but also how they view and conceptualize themselves (Brooks & Hérbet, 2006). Brooks & Hérbet (2006) discovered that media portrayals often perpetuate sexist social norms and the objectification women. Additionally, mainstream media commonly trivializes or hypersexualizes women of color (Brooks & Hébert, 2004) and promotes impossible standards of beauty (Brooks & Hérbet, 2006). Furthermore, Non-White women are often seen as characters that assimilate to a White, Westernized culture and are repeatedly dominated or defined by men (Brooks & Hérbet, 2006). Brooks & Hérbet (2006) also examined media portrayals of racialized masculinities. They report that several high-profile movies feature conflicts occurring between stereotypically masculine White males or a male hero against the threat of outsiders (e.g., Fight Club and Independence Day as cited in Brooks & Hérbet, 2006). Also, Black men can be characterized in stereotypically antagonistic ways (e.g., sexually aggressive and violent) and are often overrepresented in television shows featuring crime (Brooks & Hérbet, 2006).

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 The current content analysis confirmed that women were underrepresented in superhero movies. Future research could examine the frequency with which members of minority groups are represented in superhero movies and the degree to which their roles, appearance, and tendency for violence may differ, especially in terms of gender. While much research is still needed, this study provides evidence that male and female superhero characters are portrayed differently in superhero movies. Future research should identify the impacts of these gender differences on movie viewers. Also, more research needs to be conducted in order to determine the impact the media, specifically superhero movies, has regarding gender role expectations and sexual stereotypes.

Conclusion

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 2 The current study revealed significant gender differences in the portrayal of superhero characters in movies. In general, male superheroes outnumbered females and more often did not work in a group. At the same time, females were more likely to work in groups, and were often supplemental characters. Overall, females wore more revealing clothing than men. Male characters were more muscular and powerful while female characters were more attractive, sexy, thin, afraid, and helpless. Lastly, males used special abilities and weapons more often than females. Media influences gender roles (Signorielli, 1989), appearances (Agliata & Tantleff-Dunn, 2004; Anderson & Cavallaro, 2002), and the propensity for violence (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2009; Anderson et al., 2003). Gender inequality may be harmful because it limits socially accepted roles and reinforces stereotypes within society, which may affect how people judge and treat others (Milkie, 1994; Paek et al., 2011). In sum, the media has potential to affect viewers in a variety of ways. Future research can identify whether viewing such content is related to viewers’ self-esteem, attitudes and behaviors.

Acknowledgments

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 The authors would like to thank Mariah Evans for her help in preparing the analysis of this article.

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