Is it a Male or Female Thing? Identification and Enjoyment of Media Characters
Student researcher

Meghan Sanders

For a complete report of this research, see:

Sanders, M. S. (2004 May). Is it a male or female thing?: Identification and enjoyment of media characters. Paper presented to the Mass Communication Division at the 54th annual convention of the International Communication Association (ICA), New Orleans, LA.


Media entertainment portrays a plethora of characters that viewers relate and respond to both negatively and positively. Of interest in this paper is what happens when the intriguing character is a villain. Media are filled with the so-called “bad guys” whom the audience makes more popular than the protagonists themselves (i.e. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Hans Gruber [Alan Rickman] in Die Hard, and professional wrestling). Do viewers still favor this type of character? Or is entertainment the end all and be all of viewing? Past research indicates that as long as the character is entertaining, heroism and villainy become irrelevant. In previous studies, attraction to characters has been linked character’s behavior, perceived personality trait of the character, character identification, or the desire to be in the character’s shoes. In addition, gender was also identified as a strong and consistent predictor in responses to entertainment. Building on past research, the present study attempts to examine the relationship between a viewer’s gender and the type of characters, in an effort to gain greater insight with regard to the specific motivators that predict identification with and enjoyment of different characters.

Research Questions

Specifically, we asked the following research questions:

RQ1: What is the relationship between participant gender and levels of identification?

RQ2: What is the effect of participant gender and character role on identification?

RQ3: What are the effects of participant gender and character role on enjoyment?


A within subjects repeated measures experiment was conducted in order to investigate these questions. A total of 88 (48.9 % male, 51.1% female) participants were first randomly assigned to one of three different versions of a clip set which were designed to reflect three types of characters – hero, villain, and ambiguous, and which contained a movie synopsis, video clip, and screenplay excerpt. Each clip set consisted of each character portrayed by three different actors. For example, a participant may have seen Michael Keaton portray a hero, Aidan Quinn portray an ambiguously-valenced character, and David Duchovny portray a villain. In a different clip set, a participant may have seen Aidan Quinn as the hero, Michael Keaton as the villain, and David Duchovny as the ambiguously-valenced character. Each actor portrayed all three character types. In each of the three versions, the storyline, names, and actions of the character were changed to reflect the roles of hero, villain, and ambiguous characters. After exposure to one of the three versions of the clip set, participants were asked to respond to scales measuring their identification with and enjoyment of the three types of characters.

All participants (N = 48) in a 3 (Interactivity: Low, Medium, High) x 2 (Animation: Static, Animated) x 2 (Ad Shape: Banner, Square) experiment design were exposed to 12 Web pages containing news articles, with each page containing a stimulus ad. They saw one of three different samples of stimulus ads in one of four orders. After browsing through each Web page for a maximum of 90 seconds, they filled out a paper-and-pencil questionnaire eliciting their attitudes toward the ad and the product advertised in it.


RQ1 and RQ2: The results indicate that heroes were identified with significantly more than were ambiguous characters and villains. Identification with ambiguous characters was significantly higher than identification with villains. Further, males appeared to exhibit significantly higher levels of identification than did females.

RQ3: The results revealed a nearly-significant gender x role interaction effect. As shown by the first graph below, males’ enjoyment of villainous characters was significantly higher than their enjoyment of ambiguous characters. And although their enjoyment was higher for villains than for heroes, this difference was not significant. Females were found to enjoy heroes significantly more than they did both villains and ambiguous characters. The difference between females’ enjoyment of villains and ambiguous characters was not significant. Additionally, a main effect for role indicates that heroes were enjoyed significantly most, followed by ambiguous characters and then by villains.


The findings from this study suggest that gender does have an effect on identification with characters but affects enjoyment only as a function of the character’s role. In examining the particular effects of gender and role, role seemed to only marginally affect enjoyment for men in terms of hero, villain and ambiguous characters, but there were non-significant differences for women in terms of which character they enjoyed the most. When it comes to gender differences in evaluations, these results suggest that male and female frameworks are similar when evaluating characters, but the intensities vary. Although males have been found to enjoy and have a preference for violent media and enjoy villains the most, they do not identify with these violent characters. Villains were actually identified with the least. Previous research has found viewers to wishfully identify with villains rather than heroes, arguing that people may wish to break social norms as villains do. However, these study results suggest that when it comes to absorption and placing oneself in a character’s shoes this is not the case.

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

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Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University