The idea that representation matters may have already seemed obvious. But a new study from Women’s Media Center and BBC America, has finally quantified the impact female sci-fi characters and superheroes on television and in movies have on girls.
The study, "Superpowering Girls," suggests that female leads make girls feel more "strong, brave, confident, inspired, positive and motivated," and ultimately empower them to feel like "they can achieve anything they put their mind to." It also found that female superheroes play an even more impactful role in inspiring female confidence than male superheroes in their male counterparts—58 percent of girls said female heroes made them feel that way, while 45 percent of boys said the same of male heroes. The percentage was even higher for girls of color, with 63 percent feeling empowered by seeing versions of themselves on screen.
Other findings from the study included:
- A "confidence gap" means that only 70 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 feel "confident" compared to 81 percent of boys, and 57 percent of girls feel "not listened to" as opposed to 38 percent of boys. The feeling of being not listened to was "significantly higher" for girls of color.
- Female superheroes are extremely rare—DC's Wonder Woman is the only woman-led superhero blockbuster. Not coincidentally, Wonder Woman was far and away the most popular superhero role model among girls, and the next two most popular role models among girls aged ten to 19 were male heroes.
- Eighty-one percent of girls said that having a female Doctor Who "makes them feel like they can become anything they want," and 73 percent felt it was "long overdue."
- Two out of three girls from age ten to 19 felt that there weren't enough female "strong characters," "relatable characters," or "role models" on screen.
- Two out of three boys said they enjoy watching female characters just as much as watching male ones. Seventy-one percent said that a female Doctor Who will be "just as exciting."
"For decades, male protagonists have dominated the science-fiction and superhero genres, building rabid fan-bases, enduring franchises, and billion-dollar businesses in their wake," the authors of the study explained. "Women, often relegated to roles of damsel-in-distress or plucky side-kick, have been both misrepresented and underrepresented in the genre, comprising only a fraction of characters and frequently hypersexualized, brutalized and objectified."
The study demonstrates how important strong female leads are, and how much representation truly matters. Wonder Woman wasn't just hugely profitable, it gave an entire generation of girls a confidence boost that they sorely need. Girls are watching, and they need to see themselves onscreen.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Nicole Clark on Twitter.