Do movie super-heroines empower women?

The super-heroines who feature in the X-Men series and other comic-book films challenge traditional gender stereotypes in the sense that they are powerful, strong and smart. You’d think watching them in action might have an empowering influence on female viewers. But there’s a catch – heroine characters like Mystique, Storm and PsyLocke (pictured) are also hypersexualised. Their clothing is tight and revealing, they are typically buxom and ultra thin-waisted, and they often use their sex appeal for influence. On balance, then, what is the effect of these fictional characters? With super-hero films dominating at the box office, it’s a timely question.

Researchers Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz recruited 82 female undergrads at a US university and split them into three groups. One group watched a 13 minute montage of scenes from the Spider Man film franchise that featured a hypersexualised female victim – Mary Jane (busty and in revealing clothing) – in distress and peril, before rescue by Spider Man. This was to test the short-term influence of the traditional comic book trope of vulnerable woman rescued by powerful man. Another group watched a 13-minute montage from the X-Men franchise, this time featuring super-heroines acting brave, powerful, and well, heroic, yet all the while portrayed as lissom, amply breasted and dressed in their trademark sexy outfits. A final control group didn’t get to watch a movie montage.

Afterwards, the participants (who thought the study was about movie-going habits) filled out surveys about their film tastes and habits. Interspersed were all-important survey questions about their views on gender roles and equality, their body self-esteem and their self-objectification (essentially how much their physical appearance, or physical health and competence, is central to their sense of self).

Comparing the scores of the different groups, the researchers report that watching scenes of a scantily clad female victim saved by a male hero leads to increased endorsement of traditional gender roles, such as the idea that women should put their children before their careers. Little surprise there, but the results for the super-heroine montage were less expected. While the super-heroines had an adverse effect on the participants’ body self-esteem, they had no effect on traditional gender beliefs and actually reduced the participants’ self-objectification, leading the female students to place greater importance on their physical health and competence than looks.

Based on these findings, then, the effects of female super-heroines on young women are mixed – they make them feel bad about their bodies (presumably by representing impossible bodily ideals), but actually foster a prioritisation of physical health and ability over appearance. And unlike traditional super-hero plots, they don’t encourage belief in traditional gender roles (but they don’t reduce them either). Of course the findings come with caveats, as the researchers acknowledge – the study looked only at short-term effects, used montages rather than entire films and involved US undergrads, so the results might not generalise to other cultures.


Pennell, H., & Behm-Morawitz, E. (2015). The Empowering (Super) Heroine? The Effects of Sexualized Female Characters in Superhero Films on Women Sex Roles, 72 (5-6), 211-220 DOI: 10.1007/s11199-015-0455-3

further reading
How do women and girls feel when they see sexualised or sporty images of female athletes?
By age three, girls already show a preference for thin people

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.