How Entertainment Affects Our Politics

By Newsroom America Staff at 14 Nov 2016

(Newsroom America) -- Hillary Clinton’s stunning defeat begs the question: when will the highest and hardest glass ceiling be shattered in the U.S.? While change is not yet coming to the nation’s political stage, it is under way on our screens, and new research reveals that the fiction we watch influences our gendered perceptions of what it takes to be an effective leader.

The number of roles for strong women has grown in the stories we're watching -- think Rey from The Force Awakens and Katniss from The Hunger Games -- expanding beyond the limited portrayals of female characters of the past.

And these changes are likely to have ramifications on our political landscape, says Jack Gierzynski, UVM political science professor.

His study, conducted with help from students in his “Political Effects of Entertainment Media” seminar, used clips from The Hunger Games, Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica, in which characters exhibited either stereotypically male or female leadership traits, each with positive outcomes.

Results showed that after watching these clips, viewers valued female leadership traits (like compassion and empathy) over male traits (decisiveness and self-confidence).

This was especially true for the Doctor Who clip, in which the male lead drew on empathy and forgiveness to prevent a war, scoring higher points than the the clips showing a female lead using these traits.

“It may be that we are more open to learning about the value of traits associated with women,” Gierzynski says, “only when they are shown to be effective by a man.”

Gierzynski points out, though, that acceptance of that gender fluidity doesn’t always flow both ways — and has created for women what he calls a double-bind.

“Since most Americans value stereotypical male traits more than stereotypical female traits in executive leadership posts, women who vie for those posts must exhibit those traits,” he says.

“When female candidates do that, they violate our subconscious normative expectations of how women are supposed to act, and we end up not trusting them.”

Ultimately, the study adds to growing proof that what we watch has deep impact on how we think.

Gierzynski’s work, including his popular book about the effect of Harry Potter on Millenial support of Obama in 2008, is grounded in narrative transportation theory, which posits that when we become immersed in a story, and begin to engage with it as if it were real, it changes us -- and our understanding of the world.

“There is some evidence that a change in the public’s notions of what makes a good leader has already begun,” Gierzynski says, “but this trend will need to continue in order to attain substantive gender equality in leadership.”

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