Sexualized video game heroines are bursting women’s self-efficacy and raise negative gender stereotypes (maybe) (Behm-Morawitz & Mastro, 2009)

I have discovered the powers of an RSS feed and Delicious! Now I’m more stuck on my chair obsessively waiting for the next bit of news, such despair! More despair is my lack of time and money in playing the latest video games, a particular video game relevant to this post is Bayonetta. The titular character is a subject on the sexualisation of female video game characters within the gaming community.

Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz (University of Missouri-Columbia) and Dana Mastro (University of Arizona) have published an article in Sex Roles on the particular case of gender stereotypes in video games on women’s self-concept. However, their study’s results should be taken with caution since it has a few significant methodological weaknesses.


The present study utilized an experimental design to investigate the short term effects of exposure to sexualized female video game characters on gender stereotyping 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.

Before continuing with the post, please watch Daniel Floyd’s video on the subject of sex in video games (you might need to subscribe to youtube). Opinions on Bayonetta can be found here, here and here.

I hope the Professor’s video was instructive. I’ll just plug in some missing details relevant to the post. Research on older media (TV, advertisement, fashion shows, etc.) showed that idealized images of the female body has been found to negatively affect the female side of our species to the point of battering their self worth (i.e. self-esteem, self-efficacy), hence the stereotypical questions posed to a man, like “Does my butt look fat?” In the case of video games, characters are often sexualized that it can make cosplay difficult to achieve to physical impossibility which makes the cosplayer really sad.

Going back on topic, video game heroines’ identity are often tied to their sexuality and body. It is quite rare to see heroines, such as April Ryan and Zoë Castillo (The Longest Journey series) and Alix Vance, portrayed realistic and that doesn’t follow gender stereotypes (Physically and psychologically). This naturally lead to the concern that “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).” Nevertheless, sexual content and interpretation is never uniform across games and between individuals. Some heroines can be positive role models that empower women (like Bayonetta if I were to follow Leigh Alexander’s reasoning), but the sexual stereotyping complicates how female characters affects us. In short, “the powerful role of the female heroine is diminished by the emphasis on her physical feminine appearance.” and “exposure to [these] counter-stereotypical portrayals may decrease negative gender attitudes and beliefs in consumers.”

The theoretical working on this sexualisation issue is centered on the Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation (google scholar it). Basically, models are an effective means of transmitting values, attitudes and manners prescribed by our cultural standard. When it comes to media characters, it would (IMO) be to the media standard, although a culture does not necessarily endorse it. So, if there’s a difference between your model and yourself, then you would feel bad and sad since you’re not on par. Get a lot of exposure to these models, then the pressure builds on you (if it does bother you, men don’t get bothered as much to adhering male stereotypes or appearances), the same holds true for video games, potentially powerful with interactive and immersion (to which they investigated, but found little evidence in this study).

The qualities transmitted from media characters to us are qualified on several dimensions: trait (personality), physical characteristics, role behaviours (boys only shed manly tears), and occupations (female characters typecasted as healers. Given female video game characters are often complex entities with stereotype and counter-stereotype qualities, it complicates what dimensions would be affected.


Participants: 328 undergrads (206 are women, 167 are men). Average age was not disclosed. Video game experience information wasn’t helpful; they disclosed the proportions of students who play a range of hours of video game play per week.


Presence: Used the Presence Questionnaire and the Presence Scale to measure telepresence and immersiveness. Items are on a 7-point scale.

Self-esteem: Rosenberg’s Self-esteem Scale, a 10-item scale where participants rate their current feelings on a 7-point scale.

Self-efficacy: The General Self-Efficacy Scale, a 10-item scale where participants rate statements on a 7-point scale.

Gender attitudes and Beliefs: The Attitudes toward Women Scale, items from the Personal Attribute Questionnaire, Sex-Role Egalitarianism Scale, and Gender Attitude Inventory were used to measure the four dimensions of gender beliefs and attitudes: career, appearance, cognitive capabilities and physical capabilities.

Video game performance satisfaction: two items asking about their feelings on their gaming performance during the experiment.

Recognition of video game character: ask participants if they recognize the video game character in the experiment.

Video game used: The authors conducted a pilot study to determine which video game to use for the study’s purposes. Not going to bore you on the details, they ended up with Tomb Raider: Legend. Their decision is based on the large wardrobe in the game allows a change of clothes without changing games, thus permitting identical gameplay mechanics. However, the change of clothes necessitated a change of levels. This could be a minor or insignificant confound factor, although it might rise if there were any sexual symbols in the game besides Lara. Additionally, Lara’s is a famous sex symbol, participants’ opinion or pre-existing relationship with the character may have a confounding effect.

Lara Croft in the low sexualized condition

Lara Croft in the high sexualized condition

As you can see, there’s quite a clear difference in sexual appearance. Although, I would want to bring it the difference a notch up with a Japanese video game (maybe Oneechanbara, although I don’t think there would be a non-sexual costume…) and this would take of care of the character recognition issue. In addition, they used only one video game, thus limiting its generalization, at least, it’s a stepping stone for further research into other gender stereotyping in other gaming genres. For example, Barbie games, girl-oriented video games, etc.


Participants are randomly assigned to three groups: the high-sexual group, the low-sexual group and the no-game group (control group). Participants were given a tutorial on how to play the game.

They were also told that their gaming performance won’t be recorded or counted for anything in the experiment. If their performance won’t count for anything, then what were the participants told about the purpose of the study? The truth? It doesn’t look like they didn’t used any attempts to cover up the study’s true purpose or debriefing. So this could be a potential confound.

Play time is 30 minutes long. After playtime, they complete all the questionnaires and were promptly booted out.


There was no significant difference among women’s levels of self-esteem. There were none for attitudes towards women’s career, or appearance. They attributed these non-significances to lack of statistical power (i.e. not enough participants) or participants’ gender-based judgements and its components may be inconsistent. (IMO) It’s quite possible that media differences, Lara’s artificial appearance or the type of gaming activity may have a bearing on these non-significances. Perhaps, gender-based attitudes may be affected if specific stereotypes are brought into attention because Lara Croft is an adventurer and her actions are limited in gunfights and acrobatics. Exploring other games that highlights female characters’ typical roles or actions may help determine how video game content prime gender stereotyping (i.e. female characters in a gender-stereotypical jobs (e.g. nurses) or roles (e.g. damsel-in-distress)).

There was one significant difference in that female players scored lower in self-efficacy when they played the sexualized Lara versus those who didn’t play a video game. No information about the group who played the non-sexualized Lara. They argued that such idealized imagery reduces women’s confidence to succeed in the real world and that Lara’s prominent feature, her sexualized figure, confines her and limits her power in the eyes of the audience, so they say. Those in sexual Lara reported less favourable attitudes towards women’s cognitive capabilities than those in the no-game group. When it comes to the non-sexual Lara, they wrote no significant difference which I gather that Lara’s non-sexual image has unclear effects. (IMO) It’s possible that priming stereotyped female characteristics in a male-dominated activity might lead female participants feel less capable of doing something. It’s like a pimple sticking out. Furthermore, Lara is a rather two-dimensional character in the context of a 30 minute playthrough, it is possible that the negative attitudes on cognitive capabilities may lessen if participants were exposed to cut-scenes showcasing her intelligence.

Women who played the sexual Lara reported unfavourable physical capabilities attitudes compared to women in the nonsexual Lara and no-game group. IMO, I don’t know what to comment.

Here’s something that isn’t surprising among media sex researchers. Men held unfavourable attitudes towards women in terms of physical capabilities, regardless of group condition (no-game, sexy or not). They reasoned that something else in the game besides Lara’s appearance may be responsible for gender stereotyping, such as other character traits or formal features of the game. They added that powerful female video game characters may be a positive influence on male players that it could decrease gender-stereotyping based on appearance. Well we could test that theory with weak female characters from some RPG, a modded Neverwinter Nights 2 game or play some games featuring Princess Peach.

Some limitations they listed are the lack of statistical power (i.e. not enough participants) because some of the expected results did not achieve statistical significance. They only used one video game, so the need to investigate other video games and to investigate the different type of gender portrayals (from lolis to sexy appearances, heroines vs. token love interest). Let’s not forget male portrayals, like Dante from Devil May Cry. They also mentioned that “the difference in appearance between the two character portrayals was not great enough to demonstrate effects…” Really?

Dante (Devil May Cry 3)

I think they looked quite different, unless Lara’s breasts are sticking out too much or her big lips are a significant priming agent. Hmmm… perhaps we can subject participants in playing silhouetted video game characters with exaggerated proportions versus those with normal proportions. If further replication is needed, then I recommend the UT-Eastin experiment paradigm with modifications to include third-person view and sexualized skins.

Behm-Morawitz, E. & Mastro, D. (2009). The effects of the sexualization of female video game characters of gender stereotyping and femal self-concept. Sex Roles, 61, 808-823. doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9683-8

9 thoughts on “Sexualized video game heroines are bursting women’s self-efficacy and raise negative gender stereotypes (maybe) (Behm-Morawitz & Mastro, 2009)

  1. Who gives a damn about video game heroines.
    They’re just a a pair of tits and ass made to entertain us through out our gaming sessions

  2. WOW i cant believe you just said that!!! you dont even know how this effects young women. Its disgusting!!! and it should stop!

    • How stupid do you have to be to compare yourself to fictional characters. Why don’t you go back to Tumblr you whiny SJW.

  3. Dude,I love playing games,but then again,I seriously loath the fact that the female characters are exageratedly depicted as useless,less strong, and sex objects.
    And games for girls seriously suck!
    I’m fine with some,but too many of the same concept,and too little battle and fun rpg games for girls,those people who create those kind games serioulsy don’t know what girls really want!

    Even if it was girls that created those games,no offense but need some changes.

  4. Pingback: Self-objectification by embodying sexualized virtual selves (Fox et al., 2013) | VG Researcher

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