Susannah Chappell, a researcher at the Open University, found that society sees violent women in five different stereotypes that can be found in real life and fiction.
Presenting her findings on "Violent Women - Reality or Media Hype?" to the British Psychological Society conference yesterday, Ms Chappell said the most extreme form manifested itself in the fictional portrayal of "the bitter and twisted revenge-seeker". A classic example in film, she said, was the psychotic nanny played by Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.
"Society believes that more women are becoming violent," said Ms Chappell. "The research showed that there was a split between the portrayal of a new breed of uncontrollable violent women on television and in film and the more mundane violence of everyday life."
The study analysed the responses of 100 people who were asked to think of a violent person, real or fictional. They rated them on a 13-point scale for 81 statements such as: she is cruel and sadistic; she does not care who she hurts; she is well able to stand up for herself; she has a nasty temper. Seventy- two respondents identified a real person while six people identified a fictional character and 22 could not think of a violent woman.
Ms Chappell then grouped the portrayals of violent women into five groups. The most violent was the bitter and twisted revenge-seeker, who was seen as menacing and sadistic.
The second, the attention-seeking outcast, was both selfish and impulsive with a nasty temper. She did not trust others, yet craved their approval.
The third type was the bully who was seen as intolerant, someone who "gets a kick out of having power over others". Ms Chappell said: "This image is much more normal, an unpleasant but sane person." The fourth type, the "stroppy friend", was verbally aggressive rather than physically violent. She was seen as strong-willed and stubborn but also as lovable and loyal; Bianca from the television soap opera EastEnders was a prime example of this personality type.
The fifth type, the "assertive go-getter" such as Melanie Griffith in the film Working Girl, was seen as self-assured and able to stand up for herself.
Bitter and twisted, this woman is seen as menacing and sadistic
Selfish, impulsive with a nasty temper but craving the approval of others
Intolerant, she gets a kick out of having power over others
Aggressive, strong-willed and stubborn, but also lovable and loyal
Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, self-assured and able to stand up for herself