Some good news for those of us who spent last weekend on the couch with Netflix: new research suggests that watching television shows with women and racial minorities makes us more tolerant of both.
The study was conducted by political scientist Jeremiah J. Garretson of Stony Brook University and appears in a 2015 issue of the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities. In it, Garretson examines the impact of increased representation of racial minorities and women in television on our attitudes towards race and gender. He found that “television viewers have similar or higher levels of social tolerance compared with non-viewers when recurring portrayals [of women and racial minorities] become more frequent.”
Garretson compiled information from several major studies examining the representation of women, racial minorities, and LGBT people in television programs from 1970 through 2000. The studies revealed that representation of these groups generally went up during this time period.
He then compiled data from the General Social Survey (GSS) on racial attitudes, attitudes towards LGBT people, and attitudes towards women for the same time period of 1970 to 2000. Along with the responses to these questions, Garretson included in his models information about “birth cohort, education, religion, region, race, sex, ideology, and party identification” – all major factors which impact social tolerance. Included in his model was the number of self-reported hours of television consumption for each person.
Garretson found that when representation of racial minorities, women in the workforce, and LGBT people on television was low, increased consumption of television made people less socially tolerant. However, when representation of these groups is higher, increased time in front of the television was correlated with more tolerant attitudes.
“When regular gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters are absent from television, six hours of reported television consumption results in a drop in the probability of believing that same-sex relations are not wrong by about 14%,” Garretson reports. “However, when gay, lesbian, and bisexual representation is high, not only do these negative effects disappear, but increased television consumption becomes associate with more positive effects.”
The study suggests that television “[e]fforts by those concerned with the rights of minority groups to monitor and influence the entertainment industry do not appear to be in vain.”
Indeed, Garretson notes that “[b]y isolating an independent effect of fictional portrayals, this study also suggests that those in positions of control within the entertainment industry can increase public tolerance if they exert the effort to change the images they put before us.”
Politics, Groups, and Identities
Jeremiah J. Garretson, Stony Brook University