Television Storylines Influence Public’s Perception of Transgender Issues

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

Traci-Gillig

Traci Gillig

Traci K. Gillig
Doctoral Candidate
Annenberg School of Communication and

Erica L. Rosenthal Senior Research Associate

Erica L. Rosenthal

Erica L. Rosenthal
Senior Research Associate

Hollywood, Health & Society
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90211

 

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: Time magazine declared America reached a “transgender tipping point” in 2014, with the media visibility of transgender people reaching new levels. While research has shown that entertainment shapes viewers’ attitudes, no prior studies had explored the cumulative effects of exposure to media portrayals of transgender people. To address this gap, we worked with the TV show Royal Pains (USA Network) to assess how viewers’ attitudes toward transgender people and related policy issues were influenced by seeing a brief fictional portrayal of a transgender teen as well as other transgender TV characters.

We had advance notice of the storyline through Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S), an organization affiliated with the USC Annenberg School of Communication. HH&S serves as a free resource to the entertainment industry, providing accurate health (and other) information through consultation with subject matter experts. Royal Pains assisted us in recruiting viewers for our study through their social media accounts. A total of 391 viewers who saw the episode featuring a transgender teen participated in our study, and we supplemented this sample with Royal Pains viewers who had not seen the episode, accessed through market research panels.

Findings of our study showed that viewers who saw the Royal Pains episode featuring a transgender character had more supportive attitudes toward transgender people and related policies, compared to viewers who did not see the episode. Additionally, cumulative exposure to transgender entertainment narratives improved viewers’ attitudes toward transgender people and policies. Neither exposure to transgender issues in the news nor Caitlyn Jenner’s story influenced attitudes.

Further, aligning with prior research, viewers who were more politically conservative reported more negative attitudes toward transgender people and less support for transgender-affirming policies. However, seeing multiple such storylines reduced the strength of this link by one half. Political ideology also influenced viewers’ responses to the Royal Pains episode. Those who were politically liberal were more likely to feel hope or identify with the transgender character in the episode, while those who were politically conservative were more likely to react with disgust. 

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Entertainment can influence viewers’ attitudes more than news stories. In our study, seeing news coverage of transgender issues, including Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, did not affect viewers’ attitudes. Because many people may not personally know someone who is transgender, TV portrayals can provide an important opportunity for viewers to “meet” or “get to know” a transgender person in a way that news stories cannot.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: Future research might explore what aspects of stories involving marginalized groups, such as transgender people, heighten positive narrative effects and which risk a “boomerang effect” (i.e., the story results in unintended consequences). Further, evaluating storylines and characters with different prominence levels (e.g., regular/recurring character vs. incidental/background character) would help increase our scholarly understanding of exposure effects.

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add? Any disclosures?

Response: Further details about our study are available in our analysis article in The Conversation. Erica L. Rosenthal is a Senior Research Associate at HH&S (disclosure).

Citation:
More than a Media Moment: The Influence of Televised Storylines on Viewers’ Attitudes toward Transgender People and Policies
Traci K. GilligEmail authorErica L. RosenthalSheila T. MurphyKate Langrall Folb
First Online: 02 August 2017 Journal Sex Roles

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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