How TV Brought Gay People Into Our Homes

May 12, 2012
Originally published on May 12, 2012 5:05 pm

In one of the most talked-about moments from the hit TV show Glee, Blaine declared his love for Kurt and then — they kissed.

Glee is just one of many popular shows on television right now that feature gay characters. Those characters aren't just entertaining us, they're changing Americans' attitudes toward homosexuality.

In five separate studies, professor Edward Schiappa and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota have found that the presence of gay characters on television programs decreases prejudices among viewers.

"These attitude changes are not huge," he says. "They don't change bigots into saints. But they can snowball."

Schiappa tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that indeed, as Vice President Joe Biden said last Sunday, the hit TV show Will and Grace really did help America get to know gay people.

"With the emergence of the extraordinary Will and Grace show, more and more Americans, sort of from the safety of their armchair, could learn a bit about gay people who they might not otherwise have learned from in real life," Schiappa says.

That was a turning point, he says, even though there were gay characters on TV before Will and Grace premiered in 1998.

"I think that was a turning point simply because of two factors: One is it was enormously popular, so the popularity of that show and the fact that there were two major gay male characters who were very different, allowed the show to do what I call important 'category work' " Schiappa says.

"What I mean by that is there were some critics who said, 'Well, Will isn't gay enough, and Jack's too gay.' Well, actually that's great, because you learn that there's diversity within that category that you had in your head before of gay men," he says.

Viewers met straight-laced Will, an attorney, and his friend, the flamboyant Jack — characters who were likable and could even be identified with in some way, no matter if viewers weren't gay or didn't know gay people. Schiappa says his research found two key ingredients can lead to attitude change.

"Are they likeable? Or are they trustworthy? Are they attractive — there's research that says if they're attractive it can influence your attitudes," he says.

"The other part of the mix is are you learning things through their behaviors and observing them that you didn't know about that category beforehand?" he says. "If so, then the more complicated your category of whatever it is — lesbians, gay men — the less likely you are to reduce them down to a stereotype."

Modern Family is now the most popular TV show in the U.S. There's not only a gay couple, but this couple is in the process of adopting a second child. Schiappa says the idea of a gay couple with children is much more mainstream now.

It must be: Modern Family has won awards from Catholic organizations and even Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said he likes the show.

"There's no question that that the show is doing what I just described before as category work," Schiappa says. "It's changing our understanding of what gay men are like, particularly as parents."

More and more gay married couples are showing up on TV these days — like Grey's Anatomy, for example — making something of a trend. NBC plans to roll out more programs with gay married couples next season. Whether these shows continue to build a positive image of gay people depends on how they'll be portrayed, Schiappa says.

"If they continue to be sympathetic, [it] will only contribute to that larger sea change that we see — across society, really — in terms of the attitudes toward gay marriage," he says.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLEE")

DARREN CRISS: (as Blaine Anderson) You move me, Kurt. And this duet would just be an excuse to spend more time with you.

RAZ: This is a clip from the hugely popular TV show "Glee." It's about high school glee club. And in that scene, Blaine, who's played by Darren Criss, declares his love for Kurt, who's played by Chris Colfer. Now, what you didn't hear was their kiss, which became one of the most talked about moments of that season. And "Glee" is just one of many shows on TV right now that's featured gay characters.

And Edward Schiappa, a professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota, has been looking into this for the past decade. He's been studying the correlation between more gay characters on TV and public attitudes about gays and lesbians.

EDWARD SCHIAPPA: Really with the emergence of the extraordinarily popular "Will and Grace" show, more and more Americans sort of from the safety of their armchair could learn a bit about gay people who they might not otherwise have learned from real life.

RAZ: That was a turning point, "Will and Grace," you say, even though there were gay characters on television before "Will and Grace" premiered in 1998. But that was a turning point.

SCHIAPPA: I think it was a turning point simply because of two factors. One is it was enormously popular. So the popularity of that show and the fact that there were two major gay male characters on the show who were very different allowed the show to do what I call important category work. And what I mean by that is, you know, there were some critics who said, well, Will isn't gay enough and Jack's too gay. Well, actually that's great because you learn that there's diversity within that category that you had in your head before of gay men.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WILL AND GRACE")

SEAN HAYES: (as Jack McFarland) Will, what do you think, too gay?

ERIC MCCORMACK: (as Will Truman) Yeah. Definitely. But the shirt's good.

RAZ: So viewers saw Will, and he was this kind of straight-laced attorney, and Jack was more sort of flamboyant. But, I mean, they were characters. They were likable, and people could identify with them in some way even if they weren't gay, or they didn't know gay people.

SCHIAPPA: Right. And what our research found was that a couple ingredients, if you will, can lead to attitude change. One of those ingredients is - which you just nailed - is, you know, are they likable, or are they trustworthy? Are they attractive? There's research that says if they're attractive, it can influence your attitudes.

The other part of the mix is, are you learning things through their behaviors and observing them that you didn't know about that category beforehand? If so, then the more complicated your category of whatever it is - lesbians, gay men - the less likely you are to reduce them down to a stereotype.

RAZ: When Ellen DeGeneres came out on her show, "Ellen," in 1997 and, of course, in real life, that was a big deal. I mean, that was a huge sort of television moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")

ELLEN DEGENERES: Why can't I say the word? I mean, why can't I just I'm gay.

SCHIAPPA: Yes, it was a big deal. I was a certainly symbolic breakthrough. But I think that there was a lot of other heavy lifting left to be done, which at least in part has been done.

RAZ: Let me ask you about the show "Modern Family." This is the most popular show in the United States today, not only does it primarily feature a gay couple, but a gay couple that has a child and is in the process of adopting a second child.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MODERN FAMILY")

JESSE TYLER FERGUSON: (as Mitchell Pritchett) Cam, what's this scribble on the Vanity Fair about an adoption agency?

ERIC STONESTREET: (as Cameron Tucker) Oh, yeah, they called to say they wanted to reschedule our home visit.

FERGUSON: (as Mitchell Pritchett) When? Why didn't you tell me? This is kind of important.

STONESTREET: (as Cameron Tucker) Well, when does it say?

FERGUSON: (as Mitchell Pritchett) Who knows? It disappears into Jennifer Aniston's hair. You got to get a better system.

STONESTREET: (as Cameron Tucker) There is nothing wrong with my system. Ask me anything about any upcoming event, and I can tell you when and where it is.

FERGUSON: (as Mitchell Pritchett) When is the adoption agency visit?

STONESTREET: (as Cameron Tucker) OK. Is that a five or a curl? Oh, I hope Jen's finally found love.

RAZ: This is a show that's won awards from Catholic organizations. Mitt Romney has talked about "Modern Family" as a show that he really likes. It seems to attract wide appeal, and yet it does have a gay couple at its core.

SCHIAPPA: The idea of their being a gay couple who have children is much more in the mainstream now than it certainly has been recognized at almost anytime prior to that. So there's no question that that show is doing what I've described before as category work. It's changing our understanding of what gay men are like, and particularly as parents.

RAZ: Now that we're seeing - increasingly seeing gay married couples on TV, not just in "Modern Family," but also in "Grey's Anatomy." This seems to be more and more of a trend. And apparently, next season, NBC will be introducing more programs that include gay married couples. What's your sense of how that is going to impact how the American public thinks about this issue?

SCHIAPPA: Part of it, of course, is going to depend on how those portrayals are because if they're not sympathetic or positively portrayed...

RAZ: I mean, so far, they have been.

SCHIAPPA: That's right. So those portrayals, if they continue to be sympathetic, will only contribute to that larger sea change that we see across society, really, in terms of the attitudes towards gay marriage.

RAZ: That's Professor Edward Schiappa. He heads the Communication Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, talking about the correlation between gay TV characters and public opinion. Professor Schiappa, thank you so much.

SCHIAPPA: Thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.