The Effects of the Sexualization ...
ORIGINAL ARTICLE The Effects of the Sexualization of Female Video Game Characters on Gender Stereotyping and Female Self-Concept Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz & Dana Mastro Published online: 1 August 2009 # Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2009 Abstract The present study utilized an experimental design to investigate the short term effects of exposure to sexualized female video game characters on gender stereo- typing and female self-concept in emerging adults. Bussey and Bandura���s (1999) social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation was used to explicate this relationship. Undergraduate students (N=328) at a large U.S. Southwestern university participated in the study. Students were randomly assigned to play a ���sexualized��� heroine, a ���non-sexualized��� heroine, or no video game then completed an online questionnaire. Female self-efficacy was negatively affected by game play with the sexualized female character. Results cautiously suggest that playing a sexualized video game heroine unfavorably influenced people���s beliefs about women in the real world. Keywords Video games . Gender roles . Gender stereotyping . Media effects . Social cognitive theory Introduction The present study experimentally investigates the short term effects of exposure to sexualized female video game characters on gender stereotyping and female self-concept among U.S. college students. Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation (Bussey and Bandura 1999) is used to explicate the process through which mass media images influence gender-related beliefs and self-concept. Although this study is based in the U.S., the findings are of consequence to scholars, parents, gamers, and the gaming industry not only in the U.S. but also abroad. The gender images under investigation here are mass produced and distributed in many countries across the world. Accordingly, the implications of exposure to the images and themes characterized in video games take on global importance. As such, the goal of this study is to shed light on the impact of exposure to these characterizations on young adult users. Over the past three decades, the video game market has developed into a $10 billion a year industry in the U.S. (CNNmoney.com 2006). As the popularity of video games has increased, the profile of the gamer has shifted, reflecting the wider variety of consumers that play video games today. The image that comes to mind when picturing a video gamer should no longer be an adolescent, or even teenage, boy, as women and adults are playing games in greater numbers. An industry survey indicates that 40% of all game players in the U.S. are female (ESA 2009), and 80% of girls (grades 4���12) report playing games in their homes (Walsh et al. 2005). Further, the average age of video game players is 35 years old (ESA 2009), demonstrating that gaming is no longer just a childhood pastime. Thus, the effects of video game play on both men and women should not be trivialized. The growing popularity of E. Behm-Morawitz (*) Department of Communication, University of Missouri-Columbia, 115 Switzler Hall, Columbia, MO 65211, USA e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org D. Mastro Department of Communication, University of Arizona, 211 Communication Building, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA Sex Roles (2009) 61:808���823 DOI 10.1007/s11199-009-9683-8
this medium has provoked concern among parents and advocacy groups regarding the potentially harmful effects of playing video games. Although this has led to significant research on the influence of violent video games on subsequent aggression (e.g., Gentile and Anderson 2003 Sherry 2001), the effects of exposure to many other content features have largely been ignored. This is particularly disconcerting when considering the stereotypical manner in which females are commonly portrayed in these games. Media effects theories and empirical research support the idea that individuals can and do learn about gender roles as well as gender-related attitudes and beliefs from mass media offerings including: television and advertising (e.g., Davidson et al. 1979 Herrett-Skjellum andAllen 1996 McGhee and Freuh 1980 Morgan 1987 Signoriellli 1989) as well as magazines (e.g., Carpenter 1998 Hatoum and Belle 2004 Morrison et al. 2004). Moreover, exposure to idealized images of the female body in the media has been shown to negatively affect girls��� and women���s general feelings of self worth. Specifically, exposure to idealized images of the female body affects self-esteem and self- efficacy (Bessenoff 2006 Clay et al. 2005 Hawkins, et al. 2004). Taken together, this research indicates that media use has a measurable influence on gender roles and gender- based cognitions. Although little to no empirical inves- tigations have examined the effects of gender stereotypes in video games on video game players, the findings based on traditional media point to the gender-related outcomes that can be anticipated with new entertainment technology. As such, the present study examines the effects of exposure to sexualized portrayals of women in video games on individuals��� gender attitudes and beliefs and on female self-esteem and self-efficacy. Portrayals of Females in Video Games In terms of the characterization of women in video games, content analytic research indicates that females are vastly underrepresented in popular video games and are often hypersexualized when depicted (Beasley and Standley 2002 Dietz 1998 Glaubke et al. 2001 Ivory 2006 Miller and Summers 2007). Not unlike other media, video games offer a narrow range of roles to female characters. Overall, research suggests that when female characters appear in video games they most often serve as victims or prizes (Provenzo 1991) and occupy stereotypical gender roles such as brazenly sexualized beings and objects of sexual desire (Miller and Summers 2007). Glaubke, et al.���s (2001) work examining the content features of video games demonstrated that ���female sexuality [is] often accentuated with highly revealing clothing��� (p.14) underscoring the prominence and perpetuation of the sexualized image of females in video games. Further, Beasley and Standley (2002) found that 70% of female characters in Mature-rated video games and 46% of female characters in Teen-rated video games were depicted with abundant cleavage, 86% of female characters were portrayed wearing clothing with low/revealing necklines, and 48% of female characters were dressed in outfits with no sleeves. This is in contrast to only 22% of male characters represented in clothing with no sleeves and 14% of male characters wearing clothing with low/revealing necklines. Moreover, females were twice as likely as males to be shown wearing revealing clothing. In addition, the vast majority of female characters have been found to be non-playable, meaning that they cannot be played by the gamer (Miller and Summers 2007)���thus underscoring their secondary and exiguous status. When playable female characters do appear in video games, they are typically overtly sexualized and portrayed wearing promiscuous dress and engaging in seductive acts (Dietz 1998). Notably, however, these characters are often high status, powerful characters, such as the heroic figures more commonly associated with men. Although this type of female character fits the normative characteristics of an action hero (i.e. male action hero) by demonstrating strength, speed, intellect, and independence (Richard and Zaremba 2005), her sexuality is her defining feature, relegating her status to that of an object to be gazed upon (Mikula 2003). In other words, her role as an action hero is tied to her sexuality and body. The present study is concerned with measuring the influence of exposure to such videogame content. Specifically, this study investigates the effect of playing a highly sexualized video game heroine compared with a less sexualized (i.e. falling on the low end of the sexualization continuum) heroine or no exposure at all. For ease of discussion, the characters used in this study will be referred to as either sexualized or non-sexualized. Although, strictly speaking, the ���sexualized��� character is conceptualized as being highly sexualized and the ���non-sexualized��� character is conceptualized as being low in terms of her sexualization. Generally, sexualization is defined by the degree to which the female body is exposed and ���idealized��� with larger breasts and a smaller waist. Considering the scarcity of females in video games, the mere presence of a prominent female video game character may trigger attention and serve as a motivator for individuals to adopt congruent gender-related beliefs (Bandura 1986). In particular, gamers may adopt beliefs and standards that are in line with these sexualized portrayals, resulting in the desire to be like the characters (among women) and to judge self and others based upon the characters (among both men and women). Although it could be the case that exposure to images of strong, powerful female heroines in video games may empower Sex Roles (2009) 61:808���823 809
girls and women through these characters��� embodiment of female success, strength, and intelligence, the overwhelming presence of female sexualization is likely to diminish positive effects that may emerge. The blending of stereotypical and counter-stereotypical attributes into female heroines, like Lara Croft, complicates the task of understanding the influence of such portrayals on media consumers. On the one hand, such female characters are strong, bold, intelligent, and independent, but on the other hand they are ���made-up��� (with makeup and clothing), sexualized, and objectified (Inness 1998). These latter characteristics are what maintain females��� vulnerable and non-threatening status (Inness 1998). Thus, the powerful role of the female heroine is diminished by the emphasis on her physical feminine appearance. In particular, it is the sexualization of female characters in video games that seems likely to negatively influence video game players��� perceptions of self and women in society. Based on the assumptions of social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation (Bussey and Bandura 1999), exposure to sexually objectified women and girls in video games would be expected to influence social perceptions about gender and women���s gendered self-concept. Theoretical Framework Social cognitive theory of gender development and differen- tiation (Bussey and Bandura 1999) offers a framework for understanding how exposure to mediated models (e.g., video game characters) may impart gender lessons to consumers, influencing their attitudes and beliefs about gender and their own gender-related self-concept. According to Bussey and Bandura (1999) media messages serve as one source for ���the development of gender-linked knowledge and competencies,��� (p. 686) influencing perceptions of appropriate gender-based conduct, normative gender roles, self-evaluative gender-specific standards, and even self- efficacy beliefs. Accordingly, video game portrayals of the female body, for example, may be used to help form an individual���s social and moral standards about gender- appropriate dress, ideal female body-type, and even evalua- tions of female (self)worth. It is the symbolizing capability that allows one to observe and cognitively organize mediated symbols so they having meaning for that individual. Further, Bandura (1986) argues that media messages are a powerful source of information in our culture, greatly expanding consumer���s exposure to issues, images, and phenomenon they would otherwise never encounter in their daily lives. The pervasiveness and unique role of media in both reflecting and creating culture (Bandura 1986) suggests that media may be an important source of learning about gender norms and values. Research demonstrates that there is a significant rela- tionship between media exposure to modeled gender stereotypes and individuals��� stereotypical gender role beliefs and expectations (e.g., Herrett-Skjellum and Allen 1996 Signorielli 1993). ���Modeling is one of the most pervasive and powerful means of transmitting values, attitudes, and patterns of thought and behavior��� (Bandura 1986, p. 686). As evidenced by content analytic work (see above discussion), video games often present exaggerated gender stereotypes (e.g., hypersexualized female body), communicate unrealistic standards for women���s bodies, and encourage the treatment of women as sexual objects. From a social cognitive perspective, then, it would be expected that exposure to such sexualized, stereotypical portrayals of female characters has the potential to diminish self-esteem and self- efficacy in female players. Indeed, traditional media research findings indicate that exposure to sexualized images of women can negatively influence female self-concept (Lavine et al. 1999). More specifically, viewing idealized images of female bodies has been repeatedly linked to lower feelings of worth in women and girls. This may, at least in part, be explained by research which suggests that acquisition of gender stereotypes is related to lower feelings of efficacy, and this decreased self-efficacy is a function of holding stereotypic beliefs���not a person���s actual capabilities (Bussey and Bandura 1999). This is particularly true of females, (rather than males), due to the differential value ascribed to male versus female gender roles. Typically, gender stereotypes of men (e.g., representations of men as strong) are more positive and have more desirable out- comes (e.g., high status and dominance) than gender stereotypes of women (e.g., representations of women as sexual objects) (Berscheid 1993). Thus, exposure to sexualized images of women in video games may have damaging effects on women���s self-efficacy (i.e. belief in their ability to accomplish things in life). Additionally, findings from Funk and Buchman (1996) lend support to the assertion that video game play may be negatively associated with self-esteem in women. Their investigation into the influence of video game play on adolescent self-concept found gaming to be negatively associated with self-esteem for girls. For girls, then, as video game playing increased their self-esteem decreased. However, Funk and Buchman only examined the influence of time spent playing video games, in general, and did not specifically test the effects of gender portrayals in video games. Further, they did not identify the causal mechanisms that may be at work. The present study will help elucidate the processes underlying this relationship and lend insights into why female self-esteem may be negatively associated with video game play by examining the effects of playing specific types of female characters. It stands to reason that the type of character played may have an influence on the 810 Sex Roles (2009) 61:808���823