Monday, September 24, 2012

Buff Superheroes Make Men Feel Stronger; What About Women?

by Sara N.

Oh, Power Girl. You may be offender #1.
Observers have long criticized the fact that many female superheroes are depicted as scantily clad, busty babes in impractical shoes. However, it's easy to overlook the effect that those ridiculously bulky male physiques may have on the male psyche — until now.

In fact, researchers have found that rather than demoralizing male fans, Batman's buff bod actually makes some men feel better about themselves, according to a study published last week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (and reported on CNN). This got me wondering what a similar study might show about women.

Just as most women can't hope to achieve the tiny waists and generous busts of their cape-wearing counterparts, male superheroes have become impossibly broad-chest, big-biceped and narrow-hipped. To test the effect of brawny superheroes, researchers from the University of Buffalo had male undergrads report  how much they like or are familiar with Batman and Spider-Man, then showed the participants a photo of either buff Batman and Spider-Man, or scrawny Batman and Spider-Man. Those who strongly liked or were very familiar with the superheroes were said to have "parasocial" relationships —  or one-sided psychological bond — with the characters.

The images of scrawny and buff Batman and Spider-Man that were used by researchers. Source: CNN.

The researchers found that male undergrads who reported these parasocial relationships with Batman or Spider-Man were more likely to be in better moods and have better self-esteem and body-esteem when they were shown pictures of buff-looking Batman and Spider-Man, while those without the parasocial bond reported lower body-esteem when shown the buff superheroes than did those who looked at images of the scrawny characters.

In addition, the researchers measured participants' physical strength with a hand-held dynamometer. They found that participants with a higher parasocial bond who looked at the buff superheroes registered more physical strength than those with the parasocial bond who looked at the scrawny heroes or than those without the bond who looked at the buff heroes.

"The thing that I find most interesting ... is the idea that these media figures have real psychological effects on the self," study author Ariana Young told CNN. "It's not just mind-numbing entertainment. The bonds that we form — and we do form real bonds — they affect how we feel about ourselves. And it's not always in a bad way."

Naturally, this made me wonder what a similar study would look like with women. If you take women with a strong parasocial bond to Wonder Woman and showed them images of her either in her usual costume or with a muscular figure in a less revealing costume, would it affect the women's sense of strength, body-esteem or sexiness?

And what about the reverse: If you take a strong, sensibly dressed character such as Michonne from The Walking Dead and put her in a bikini with more curves than muscles, what would happen to the self-esteem of women who view the different images? Would it be positively or negatively affected?

JohnRaptor on deviantART knows what I'm talking about; check out his illustration of the realistic female superhero. Put those women in costumes and see how female survey respondents rate their self-esteem. I can't predict what that study would show, but I'd sure love to read about.

By JohnRaptor at deviantART.

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