Connecting you with the University of Missouri’s innovative research and creative activity

Countering Media Stereotypes

A visit with Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, Assistant Professor of Communication

By Sean Powers
Published: - Topics: media sex race stereotypes graphics

Lara Croft in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend is known as much, or more so, for her hyper-sexualized body as for her skills and adventures. This is often the norm for female characters in video games, says Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, Assistant Professor of Communication at MU. Having recently finished her first year at MU, Behm-Morawitz actually began studying video games as a doctoral student at the University of Arizona. “Seeing these hyper-sexualized images of women caught my attention,” she recounts.

Behm-Morawitz’s research focuses on the effects video games can have on college students: “This is a stage of life when you’re on your own for the first time. You’re doing a lot of identity exploration, making sense of the world, coming into your own. So, this is a time when media images might have an impact on how you think about gender and how you think about yourself.”

In her Switzler Hall office, Behm-Morawitz exhibits a series of video games that portray women as sexual objects. Holding a copy of Tomb Raider: Legend, she describes one research study in which she compared the effects of playing a highly sexualized Lara Croft to playing a less sexualized Lara Croft and to playing no video game at all. The experiment revealed that students who played the sexualized character reported more negative feelings about women’s capabilities in real world settings.

Behm-Morawitz remarked on the women who played the sexualized character and experienced a negative sentiment towards their own sex’s physical capabilities: “That’s very interesting because Lara Croft is a very physical character.” She suggests that the nature of the character may have lowered the female players’ confidence, or, with regard to some of the male players, activated certain “submissive and weaker” female stereotypes.

Even with all the negative images that pop into people’s minds, Behm-Morawitz says there are plenty of positive video game messages. Some of the counter-stereotypical images she is studying, for instance, position female characters as heroic, intelligent, and strong. Behm-Morawitz hypothesizes that these positive portrayals can be empowering.

Despite this potential for the media to promote strong and healthy images of women, most female characters in video games are treated as a sort of eye candy, conforming to traditional gender stereotypes and defined most strongly by their sexuality. Behm-Morawitz provides an example of how many female video game characters are sexualized. She displays an image of a hyper-sexualized female character holding a sharp weapon above her head. The character in this sketch has body proportions unrealistic for any human being. This is one image from a special issue of Playboy Magazine that features animated video game characters instead of real models. “I think this just demonstrates how people actually define these characters by their sexuality,” she says. “At the more adult and teen level you see this jump towards images consistent with what we’d see in Playboy.”

The realism of sexy character images continues to improve with advancements in video game animation. The graphics are so realistic, Behm-Morawitz suggests, that people confuse certain characters with real people. When she asked a group of students to identify video game characters and real models in video game magazines, some of the students had trouble separating reality from fiction, distinguishing a sexualized image of a real woman in the media from the sexual image of a character in video games.

As she explains, “I think we are so socialized into this notion of the sexualized female in American culture, that I don’t think it is that much of a leap for them. For kids who are sitting down to play these games, I do not think it is startling to them. I think it is a fairly normative image.” So normative that even video game ratings do not necessarily filter out everything: “Certainly you see a greater degree of [sex and violence] when you get to the ‘T for teen’ rating and above, but in some of these ‘E for everyone’ games you do see some of this content slip through,” she notes. “The degree of violence has really advanced.”

Games that are representations of real life, like the virtual experiences of Second Life and The Sims, usually provide more options for changing a character’s appearance. “You’re no longer just watching; you’re being that character,” Behm-Morawitz says. “So, when you have the option to change how that character looks, do you use that to communicate your own real life identity? Do you take on a fantasy identity? Are you merely replicating these sexualized identities you have seen in the media already, and living out that type of character?” With these questions in mind, Behm-Morawitz plans to study Second Life to see how people communicate their identity through their avatar’s simulated physical appearance.

Recently awarded a grant to replicate the study she did with Tomb Raider, Behm-Morawitz will continue to study the effects on college students of playing games involving stereotypical female video game characters. She will also examine stereotypical depictions of African Americans in video games: “Race is understudied. The stereotypes of the African American as the criminal, as the thug, as the delinquent are common portrayals of African Americans [in the media].”

While the media cannot and should not be blamed for all problems related to gender, stereotyping, and identity, Behm-Morawitz insists that the media’s effect is a measurable one, and she even offers a course of action for savvy consumers: “We can control what we expose ourselves to; we can try to influence writers and producers to put out more positive images.”