While transgender characters on fictional TV shows has the power to influence attitudes toward transgender people and policy issues, news coverage, even when pervasive, does not have the same effect, suggests new research.
“While media visibility of transgender people reached new levels in recent years, little has been known about the effects of that visibility,” says lead author on the study Traci Gillig, a doctoral candidate at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
“Our study shows the power of entertainment narratives to influence viewers’ attitudes toward transgender people and policy issues,” Gillig says.
The researchers surveyed 488 regular viewers of the US Network series Royal Pains, of whom 391 saw a June 2015 episode featuring a portrayal of a transgender teenager, played by transgender activist Nicole Maines.
Those who saw 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 storyline was more influential than news events — exposure to transgender issues in the news and Caitlyn Jenner’s transition (which was unfolding at the time of the research) had no effect on attitudes.
Beyond the impact of the Royal Pains episode, the study also demonstrated 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 saw, the more transgender-supportive their attitudes.
Viewing two or more transgender storylines reduced the association between viewers’ political ideology and their attitudes toward transgender people by half, the study found.