Watching transgender characters on fictional TV shows has the power to influence attitudes toward transgender people and policy issues, according to new research from USC Annenberg. Just published in the peer-reviewed journal Sex Roles, the research further highlights the ways political ideology shapes viewer responses to transgender depictions in entertainment.
The researchers surveyed 488 regular viewers of the USA Network series “Royal Pains,” of whom 391 saw a June 2015 episode featuring a portrayal of a transgender teen, 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 is the first to demonstrate 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 results of this research suggest 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.