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Viewers found to be less likely to have negative opinions of women when watching strong female character

Cover art from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete First Season" Warner Brothers

(CBS News) Watching strong female characters on TV may make men and women less likely to have negative opinions of women.

The theory, nicknamed the "Buffy Effect," was developed by Christopher Ferguson, an assistant professor at Texas A&M International University, and his team. Their work was published on Aug. 27 in the Journal of Communication.

"Although sexual and violent content tends to get a lot of attention, I was surprised by how little impact such content had on attitudes toward women. Instead it seems to be portrayals of women themselves, positive or negative that have the most impact, irrespective of objectionable content. In focusing so much on violence and sex, we may have been focusing on the wrong things," Ferguson said in the press release.

One hundred fifty university-aged students were asked to watch different sexually violent TV shows with women characters. The subjects then completed a survey about their attitudes toward women and their levels of depression and anxiety were measured. A control group of shows consisting of "Gilmore Girls" and "7th Heaven" was also played for the subjects.

When the shows featured a submissive woman - including examples from "The Tudors" and "Masters of Horror" - women experienced more anxiety. The men were more likely to report more negative attitudes toward women.

But, both sexes had the most neutral reaction toward women when they were shown episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "Law and Order: SVU."

For the most part, the subjects enjoyed the shows regardless of content with the same level of enjoyment.

Other interesting facts emerged from the study. Men actually felt more anxiety watching strong women than when watching weaker female characters, which researchers hypothesized might come from internal male feelings that arise when they feel women are threatening traditional gender roles. Surprisingly, women were most likely to have negative opinions about women after watching the control shows, even compared to watching subordinate female characters.

"Negative portrayals of women in sexually violent media may actually provoke a kind of mild 'backlash' reaction at such negative portrayals, fostering a sense of female solidarity," Ferguson explained in the study.

Journal of Communication editor and University of Washington Professor Malcolm Parks commented in the press release that the results show that how the media portrays women may play a bigger role than people think.

"While it is commonly assumed that viewing sexually violent TV involving women causes men to think negatively of women, the results of this carefully designed study demonstrate that they do so only when women are portrayed as weak or submissive," added Journal of Communication editor and University of Washington Professor Malcolm Parks. "Positive depictions of women challenge negative stereotypes even when the content includes sexuality and violence. In this way Ferguson reminds us that viewers often process popular media portrayals in more subtle ways than critics of all political stripes give them credit for."