People who watch transgender characters on television tend to have more positive attitudes toward both transgender people and related policies, according to a new study at the University of Southern California (USC), Annenberg.
The findings show that watching a fictional story may influence people’s attitudes more than exposure to transgender issues on the news.
“While media visibility of transgender people reached new levels in recent years, little has been known about the effects of that visibility. Our study shows the power of entertainment narratives to influence viewers’ attitudes toward transgender people and policy issues,” said Traci Gillig, a doctoral candidate at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the lead author on the study.
For the study, the researchers surveyed 488 regular viewers of the USA Network series “Royal Pains,” of whom 391 saw a particular episode aired in June 2015 which featured a transgender teen, played by transgender activist Nicole Maines.
Participants who watched this episode had more positive attitudes toward both transgender people and related policies, such as students using bathrooms aligned with their gender identity.
The fictional “Royal Pains” episode was more influential than news events. In fact, exposure to transgender issues in the news and Caitlyn Jenner’s transition (which was unfolding during the study period) had no effect on attitudes.
The study is also the first to show the effect of cumulative exposure to transgender portrayals, across multiple shows. The more shows featuring transgender characters (such as Amazon’s “Transparent” and Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black”) that viewers watched, the more transgender-supportive their attitudes.
Viewing two or more transgender storylines reduced the association between participants’ political ideology and their attitudes toward transgender people by half.
The study was conducted in collaboration with Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S), a program of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center that serves as a free resource to the entertainment industry on TV storylines addressing health, safety, and national security issues.
“We worked closely with the ‘Royal Pains’ writers, connecting them with medical experts and providing information for the storyline,” said HH&S Director Kate Langrall Folb.
The study findings suggest that increased visibility of transgender characters in mainstream entertainment can have far-reaching influence on public perceptions of transgender people and the policies that impact them.
“Watching TV shows with nuanced transgender characters can break down ideological biases in a way that news stories may not. This is especially true when the stories inspire hope or when viewers can relate to the characters,” said HH&S Senior Research Associate Erica Rosenthal.
The study findings are published in the journal Sex Roles.