Media exposure and viewers' attitudes toward homosexuality: evidence for mainstreaming or resonance?

Author:Calzo, Jerel P.

Attitudes towards homosexuality have been shown to vary along different demographic dimensions such as gender or political orientation (e.g., Herek, 2002; Strand, 1998), but little is known about how these attitudes form. As with other sexual topics, attitudes towards homosexuality are not inborn, but are socialized. Multiple agents contribute to this socialization process, including parents, peers, and religious institutions (e.g., Ballard & Morris, 1998). Prominent among them are likely to be the media, which youth frequently cite as a top source of sexual information (e.g., Brown, Halpern, & L'Engle, 2005; Ward, 2003). Indeed, it is argued that media portrayals may be especially influential in this domain because the controversial nature of the topic may silence discussion from some parents and peers, and because first-hand experience may be limited (Gross, 1991). Media portrayals may be a primary source of information for the 40% of American adults who claim not to know a gay person personally (Pew Research Center, 2003).

Based on cultivation theory (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002), it is reasonable to assume that exposure to media representations of homosexuality may help cultivate viewers' own attitudes about homosexuality. What might viewers learn about homosexuality from the media? Does frequent media exposure make them more accepting, or less so? Although studies show that media sources play a prominent role as sex educators (for review, see Ward, 2003), few have assessed media contributions to viewers' attitudes toward homosexuality. This gap is addressed by examining whether multiple forms of media use correlate with viewers' attitudes toward homosexuality, and by examining which factors moderate these connections, focusing on the roles of social position (i.e., race and gender) and viewers' religious involvement. Finally, the overall patterns of associations are investigated, examining whether they are consistent with either the mainstreaming or resonance mechanisms of cultivation theory.

Media Representations of Homosexuality

Although early analyses of television's sexual content reported minimal to zero references to homosexuality across the episodes coded (e.g., Greenberg & Busselle, 1996), more recent analyses indicate that these trends are slowly changing. In an analysis of prime-time network programming for fall of 2001, Raley and Lucas (2006) report that gay male and lesbian characters were represented in 7.5% of the dramas and comedies on the schedule. A recent study of programming from 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 found that sexual content associated with sexual minorities occurred in 15% of programs overall (Fisher, Hill, Grube, & Gruber, 2007). Most of these portrayals were in movies or in sitcoms.

Qualitative analyses of the nature of this content note that although recent portrayals rarely show gay and lesbian characters as mentally ill (Hart, 2000), most representations continue to perpetuate stereotypes about homosexuality. If represented at all, gays and lesbians tend to be promiscuous, infected with HIV, or have unsatisfying sexual and romantic relationships (Hart, 2000; Herman, 2005). Even successful sitcoms that present gay and lesbian characters as the leads, such as Ellen and Will & Grace, may reinforce stereotypes by portraying these characters as lacking stable relationships, as being preoccupied with their sexuality (or not sexual at all), and by perpetuating the perception of gay and lesbian people as laughable, one-dimensional figures (Cooper, 2003; Fouts & Inch, 2005; Herman, 2005).

Such characterizations may not be limited to electronic media. Limited research on homosexual content in popular print media also suggests a similar marginalization and perpetuation of stereotypes. For example, in a content analysis of articles and advice columns from the women's magazines New Woman and Essence, Gadsen (2002) found that over the span of 10 years, only 6% of New Woman and 5% of Essence magazine issues addressed homosexuality explicitly, generally focusing on male homosexual activity, the nefarious nature of husbands and male lovers who have sexual liaisons with other men, and the physical and emotional health risks these men pose to women. Absent are positive portrayals of sexual minority romantic and sexual relationships as well as a discussion of sexual minority civil rights.

However, not all findings suggest that media portrayals of homosexuality are universally negative. For example, in a qualitative analysis of the lesbian teenager, Bianca, on the daytime soap opera All My Children, Harrington (2003) argues that the presentation of a stable lesbian character who accepts her sexual identity, has successful romantic relationships, and continues to develop other aspects of her identity (not just the sexual) may improve viewers' attitudes toward homosexuality. In addition, Hart (2004) argued that the increase in the representation of politically conscious gay characters and themes may also increase attitudes of acceptance. In the review of the successful make-over show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Hart argued that one reason for the show's success in attracting and maintaining a diverse audience may be the fact that the makeover team continuously pokes fun at the gay stereotypes they represent. Their use of humor may expose the absurdity of gay stereotypes, revealing that gay men are not a threat to straight men or women, and that rigid adherence to traditional gender roles may actually be detrimental to the well being of the makeover targets. Thus, although stereotypical and negative portrayals of homosexuality have dominated the media, recent trends indicate a possible increase in the diversity and the positive nature of portrayals of sexual minorities.

Effects of Media Use on Attitudes Towards Homosexuality

Given that mainstream media are beginning to include homosexual characters, and that both stereotypical and more multi-dimensional portrayals co-exist, the question then becomes: Does exposure to this content shape viewers' attitudes toward homosexuality? Existing data are minimal. In one study, Riggle and colleagues (1996) measured the attitudes of 82 students prior to and after watching a documentary about Harvey Milk, a prominent gay politician who was murdered in a hate crime. The researchers found that watching the film was generally associated with reporting less prejudiced attitudes in the post-test. Mazur and Emmers-Sommers (2002) found similar results in their study, in which watching a film about a nontraditional family with homosexual characters resulted in greater acceptance of homosexuality. In addition, German adolescents exposed over the course of a week to talk show segments featuring discussions of homosexuality later expressed more accepting attitudes toward homosexuals than did adolescents in the control group (Rossler & Brosius, 2001). Similarly, Bonds-Raacke, Cady, Schlegel, Harris, and Firebaugh (2007) demonstrated that participants primed to think about and evaluate a positive portrayal of a gay character later expressed more positive attitudes towards gay men than participants primed to think about and evaluate a negative portrayal. Finally, Shiappa and colleagues (2006) found that the more frequently undergraduates viewed Will & Grace, the lower their levels of prejudice toward gay men.

Although these findings suggest that directed exposure to homosexual characters appears to affect viewers' attitudes, to date no studies have documented whether everyday media exposure is associated with attitudes toward homosexuality. Drawing from cultivation theory, it is expected that frequent, regular media consumption would lead viewers to cultivate beliefs about homosexuality that coincide with those portrayed in the media. If negative stereotypes dominate in the media consumed, regular exposure could make people less accepting, leading them to accept those unfavorable portrayals (Gross, 1991). However, as media content concerning homosexuality becomes more positive and diverse, it is possible that such shifts may be associated with greater attitudes of acceptance towards homosexuality. Accordingly, given the diversity of portrayals in today's media environment, the focus turns to the contributions of media genre and media consumer in order to better understand which kinds of attitudes may be cultivated.

Contributions of Media Content: A Focus on Media Genre

Although Gerbner and colleagues (2002) argue for cultivation effects based on overall viewing amounts, there are both conceptual and empirical reasons to consider genre-specific effects. First, analyses indicate that content and portrayals may vary across genres, and may therefore convey somewhat different messages. In comedies, for example, portrayals of homosexuality tend to be one-dimensional, and homosexual characters and homophobia are often exploited for comic effect (Cooper, 2003; Fouts & Inch, 2005). In dramas, soap operas, and films however, more in-depth storytelling permits deeper characterizations. This does not free these genres from stereotypes however, as most commercial films are no more welcoming to gay characters than television (Gross, 1991). Second, empirical evidence concerning [inks between media exposure and viewers' general sexual attitudes report stronger cultivation effects for specific genres than for overall TV viewing (e.g., Bilandzic & Rossler, 2004; Potter & Chang, 1990). Based on these conceptual and empirical expectations, the first hypothesis is offered:

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