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How TV shows like 'Modern Family' helped shape perceptions of same-sex marriage (POLL)

by James Kim and Michelle Lanz | The Frame

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A promotional image of Mitch and Cam from ABC's Modern Family. ABC

Today’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage was the opinion of five judges. But their decision also reflects changing attitudes among the population at large.

One of the contributing factors has been television, which has gone through its own evolution of how to portray gay Americans.

Whether TV has helped change attitudes about gay marriage is not just anecdotal. There has been plenty of research done on this topic, much of it by Edward Schiappa, a Professor of Media Studies at MIT.

Schiappa joins the Frame to talk about what his research shows about televisions influence on public opinion, and he runs through some key moments from the past 25 years. 

Interview Highlights

You conducted five separate studies on this topic while you were at the University of Minnesota, briefly walk us through what that entailed, particularly as it related to television depictions.

What we already know from years of research is that one way to decrease prejudice is to have meaningful contact between majority and minority members. What we found is was that that process can actually be duplicated through media, through television and film exposure. In particular, we focused on gay men in television and film and how television could change people’s attitude by basically allowing people to get to know gay people in a safe environment if you will. And so we found from a number of studies from ‘Six Feet Under’ to ‘Will & Grace,’ to ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,’ that the more people had contact, mediated contact, then the lower their prejudice would be as a result.

How would you characterize the evolution of depiction of gay characters over the years?

There’s a difference between some generalizations that may have some basis in reality and negative over-generalizations. That’s how I define a stereotype, as a both negative and false overgeneralization. There are flamboyant gay men. One of the things about ‘Will & Grace’ is you had two very different gay male characters in leading positions. One who might be described as more flaming, one who could pass as a straight guy. And so it’s that diversity of representation that’s so important.

What do you think have been some key turning points in the past 20, 25 years?

There are some historic landmarks, such as Ellen coming out and even going back to the show ‘Soap,’ with Billy Crystal. But I think in terms of meaningful change, the two big landmarks that I would point to would be, certainly first and foremost, ‘Will & Grace’ because it was a very successful, mainstream show that played with gender a lot... And then I would also point to, more recently, ‘Modern Family,’ because we sort of travel with them in their relationship. They adopt a child and then, reflecting the realities of legal changes in California, they get married. And that episode was important because the patriarch of the show clearly starts out uncomfortable about it. And that reflects a lot of potential viewers out there. And yet we see his character change and evolve and accept the marriage. And I think that does important psychological work for mainstream viewers who may not have direct interpersonal contact with gay people in their lives.

I think we can safely say that not only have attitudes of viewers changed but probably attitudes at television networks and among advertisers as well. What role did that all play in getting to this moment?

Let’s be realistic and say the networks have gotta make money. I think that, though there are shows produced in a way because of certain social justice goals, if they’re not gonna make money they’re not gonna be on the air very long. I’ll again point to ‘Will & Grace’ and ‘Modern Family’... shows that were phenomenally successful and had significant gay characters on there, showed that money could be made and entertaining television could be done. And I don’t mean to limit it to just those two shows. You also have gay characters on more niche shows like ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ of course ‘Glee,’ cable shows like ‘Six Feet Under,’ ‘The Wire,’ ‘The L Word.’ And so, the collective success of those shows basically helped cement the deal if you will. That you could have diversity of representation and still make money and still have quality television. And now, what we’ll see in the future I suspect, is even greater efforts of diversity.

The Frame's Oscar Garza also spoke with Andrew O’Hehir, a Senior Writer for Salon.com and the author of an essay titled, “Did TV change America’s mind on gay marriage?”

Interview Highlights

You wrote that the biggest single factor that’s driven social change on gay marriage is that all straight people in America have gotten to know someone gay in the past 20 or 30 years and have not found them as you say, ‘fundamentally alien.’ You added that ‘what we know about the world from our real lives and what we experience on TV tend to reinforce each other.’ So I wanted to ask you, what have been the key moments in television in that progression of American attitudes?

There have been so many, even shows that don’t maybe seem incredibly progressive from the standpoint of what we just learned about America in 2015. Even going back to ‘Will & Grace,’ -- in some ways a silly show but one that was extremely popular and had an effect on people’s consciousness. ‘Modern Family,’ a show that is about as mainstream as you can get and was watched by millions of people every week, I think it was really making LGBT people, same-sex households, appear normal as ridiculous or as boring or as noble or as ordinary as everybody else. And I think the effect of that in ideological terms is very profound over the decades.

Do you think there have been landmark moments on television or has it been a slow and steady climb?

I tend to look  more towards the slow and steady climb. I think probably you could pick some if the network TV and cable series of the last couple decades and identify things. Every show that you can think of had to deal with this at some point. You know, the depiction in ‘Mad Men’ of the agony endured by a closeted gay man in the period that that depicted. The depiction in ‘The Sopranos’ of an Italian American gangster who had to deal with the fact that somebody in his circle was gay. There were so many moments that I think it becomes difficult to say that there was something specific that turned the tide.

Why do you think people are more accepting of social issues like gay marriage when it’s portrayed on TV?

I think I incline towards the idea that entertainment as a medium, especially in the context of TV -- network TV in particular -- it’s not really presented as confrontational. It’s not something that speaks to challenging your preconceptions directly. It’s entertaining, it’s meant to be funny, it’s meant to present an emotional response. That’s a really effective way of changing hearts and minds. You go back to Charles Dickens in the 19th Century who wrote novel after novel designed to call attention to social justice questions, but they were tremendously melodramatic and exciting and adventure stories. And I think that’s proven to be the case over and over again with popular entertainment.

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