The news doesn’t significantly influence public perceptions of trans people, but TV characters do. That’s the core finding of a USC Annenberg study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Sex Roles.
Researchers conducted surveys on 488 regular viewers of Royal Pains, a USA Network series that featured a transgender teenager in a June 2015 episode. After viewing the episode, participants reported having a more positive attitude toward trans people and trans policies, like trans students’ access to the bathroom that correlates with their gender identity.
Viewers were also more likely to respond with supportive attitudes based on the number of shows they saw that featured trans characters, such as Transparent or Orange Is the New Black. Researchers also found that viewing two or more TV shows with trans storylines “reduced the association between viewers’ political ideology and their attitudes toward transgender people by half,” researchers said in a press release obtained by the Daily Dot.
“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,” Hollywood, Health, and Society senior research associate Erica Rosenthal said in the press release. The research report was conducted in collaboration with HH&S, a program part of the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center that worked with Royal Pains writers to provide accurate information for the transgender episode.
Meanwhile, trans issues in the news largely had no reported effect on viewer’s attitudes toward transgender people. Caitlyn Jenner’s transition did not sway respondents one way or the other, either, even though her coming out and gender transitioning was a major news story during summer of 2015. The study suggests that entertainment, fiction, and sympathetic storylines may play a larger role in trans acceptance than previously anticipated. Even single-episode appearances or small story arcs can make an impact in trans acceptance, the report suggests.
“While media visibility of transgender people reached new levels in recent years, little has been known about the effects of that visibility,” lead author Traci Gillig said in the press release. “Our study shows the power of entertainment narratives to influence viewers’ attitudes toward transgender people and policy issues.”
Transgender representation in entertainment still remains underwhelming in American media. Trans actors and actresses have previously pushed for more visibility in acting roles, arguing that both writers and casting directors have a long way to go before trans stars and characters are treated with the respect they deserve.