Angelina Jolie vs. Kathy Bates -- who is a valid role model?

March 31, 2011

Exposure to attractive, aggressive, female leads in films affects how men and women think about who women ought to be in the real world. Women in particular have high standards for other women, and expect them to be both stereotypically feminine and masculine i.e. beautiful and aggressive rather than beautiful and passive. That's according to new research by Laramie Taylor and Tiffany Setters, from the University of California, Davis in the US, published online in Springer's Sex Roles journal.

Taylor and Setters' work looks at the impact of media representations of film stars on gender role expectations for - or those behaviors and attitudes expected of, or held as standard for, women in general. In their experiment, 122 male and female college undergraduates, from a large university on the US West Coast, were shown a film clip of a major Hollywood motion picture, featuring a female protagonist who was either stereotypically attractive or not; and physically aggressive or not.

The results showed that students perceived the more attractive film leads as better than the less attractive leads. Students who watched the violent, attractive protagonist endorsed feminine gender role expectations significantly more than those who viewed the violent, less stereotypically attractive lead. In addition, participants who viewed the attractive, aggressive lead also endorsed more stereotypically masculine gender role expectations for women. 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.

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).The students then 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."

More information: Taylor LD & Setters T (2011). Watching aggressive, attractive, female protagonists shapes gender roles for women among male and female undergraduate viewers. Sex Roles; DOI:10.1007/s11199-011-9960-1

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