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Can Television Teach Tolerance?

Research that focuses on the 1970s, '80s, and '90s suggests it can.
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A scene from Transparent. (Photo: Facebook)

A scene from Transparent. (Photo: Facebook)

In accepting his Emmy for lead actor in a comedy series on Sunday night, Jeffrey Tambor dedicated the award to the transgender community. Tambor, who stars in the critically acclaimed Transparent, concluded with the words "Thank you for letting us be a part of the change."

There is certainly hope in the transgender community that sympathetic characters, such as Tambor's courageous yet vulnerable Maura Pfefferman, will reduce the prejudice they face. But can television really open minds and hearts?

Recently released research suggests it can.

"Efforts by those concerned with the rights of minority groups to monitor and influence the entertainment industry do not appear to be in vain," Stony Brook University political scientist Jeremiah Garretson writes in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities. "(Television) still has the potential to be used to increase political tolerance, and eliminate racism, sexism, and heterosexism."

Recently released research suggests television really can open minds and hearts.

Garretson examined how television's portrayals of African Americans, gays, lesbians, and working women influenced societal attitudes from 1970 to 2000. Not surprisingly, he found that, over the 30-year period, fictional shows featured an increasing number of recurring characters who identified as members of one or more of those groups.

In the early years of the study, when few recurring characters fell into one of those categories, frequent television viewers expressed more bigoted attitudes toward these minorities than non-viewers.

But later on, as such characters proliferated, regular viewers expressed "similar or higher levels of social tolerance" than people who watched little or no television.

Garretson used data from the General Social Survey, a large-scale annual survey that measures changes in societal trends. Among other things, it asks participants the amount of television they watch in a typical day (from zero to 24 hours).

He also noted participants' answers to a variety of questions measuring their tolerance of minorities, including whether interracial marriage should be allowed, and whether they view sexual relationships between two people of the same gender as morally wrong.

Using a variety of sources, Garretson measured the number of recurring characters appearing in each television season that were black, gay, lesbian, or working women. He focused on these characters, who appear frequently on a given series but aren't part of the core cast, because they "have greater visibility" than those who appear just once or twice, and they are "less prone to negatively stereotyped portrayals."

He found that, when "aggregate fictional television contains few or no recurring working women or minority characters, frequent viewers exhibit lower levels of social tolerance than non-viewers. When the number of recurring characters is high, this negative effect evaporates."

Of course, one can argue that television was simply keeping up with the changing attitudes of its viewers, rather than leading the way. But Garretson finds that argument highly doubtful.

"Given the one- to two-year lag involved in developing and airing new shows," he writes, "it seems unlikely that executives would be able to anticipate a shift toward more liberal attitudes among viewers on top of any current level of social tolerance."

So are transgender people the next minority group to gain acceptance, in part through their portrayal on fictional television? Quite possibly, but there's reason to believe this effect might not be as strong today.

In the early years of Will & Grace, NBC's pioneering sitcom featuring gay characters, network viewership was much higher than it is nowadays. In today's multichannel, streaming-video world, you can easily switch over to some other program if a character makes you uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, this appears to be one area in which the sort of self-congratulation that typifies the Emmy Awards appears to be justified. The "vast wasteland" may have made us more sedentary and overweight, but it has also helped propel positive social change.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.