Ram Leela poster
Native Americans continue to look forward despite the barriers they face, embracing medicine, language, the fortitude to be a distinct nation within a nation, and of course, our history and culture.
We celebrate the challenges our people have overcome, and the unity we feel as a people.
SAN FRANCISCO— For thousands of years, Indigenous persons have inhabited North America, before there were borders between the United States and Canada. There are shared histories, reserves, treaties, boarding schools, assimilation, and current issues that they face in the modern world, no matter where they live in the continent. Battling social welfare issues, impoverished urban conditions, homelessness, mineral exploration and exploitation, media apathy, missing and exploited women, and more, the Native people continue to face an unprecedented number of challenges. It is the relationship between tribes in the United States and Canada that thrives. Native Americans continue to look forward despite the barriers they face, embracing medicine, language, the fortitude to be a distinct nation within a nation, and of course, our history and culture. That is what the American Indian Film Festival celebrates every year. We celebrate the challenges our people have overcome, and the unity we feel as a people. And we will continue to do this at the 42nd annual American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco from Nov. 3-11, 2017.
The public is invited to enjoy film screenings, appearances by filmmakers, actors and directors, Q&A sessions, and memorable entertainment during the nine-day event, capped by the American Indian Motion Picture Awards Show.
“AIFI is proud to launch its 42nd annual American Indian Film Festival. This assembly of new film works of the USA American Indian and Canada First Nations is presented to foster public truth and understanding to the social and economic culture and ways of life of contemporary Indian peoples. Despite a history of genocide and exploitation of our nation’s people and land base, we have persevered… We have maintained and rebuilt our nation’s infrastructure, spirit, culture and language. This is our truth, and we look forward to sharing it with our audiences in the coming days,” said AIFI founder and president, Michael Smith (Sioux). “Film is an important tool that we can use to educate and entertain our audiences, and this is the best of Native cinema in the world.”
The festival will be held at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco (2781 24th Street). The full program can be found online at http://www.aifisf.com/film-schedule-2017. Tickets can also be purchased on the website, with an intricate look at the captivating and emotional films that will be featured. The awards ceremony will be held on the evening of Nov. 11.
The festival kicks off on Nov. 4 with the film The Road Forward, a musical documentary by Marie Clements, which connects a pivotal moment in Canada’s civil rights history, the beginnings of Indian Nationalism in the 1930s, with the powerful momentum of First Nations activism today. The Road Forward‘s stunningly shot musical sequences, performed by an ensemble of some of Canada’s finest vocalists and musicians, seamlessly connect past and present with soaring vocals, blues, rock, and traditional beats. A rousing tribute to the fighters for First Nations rights, a soul-resounding historical experience, and a visceral call to action. The show begins at 7 p.m.
Other notable moments of AIFF 42 include: Dynamic Women’s Series on Sunday, Nov. 5 from 12-10 p.m., featuring six powerful documentaries displaying the Native American women’s fight for justice.
Nov. 7: Bainbridge’s documentary feature, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, a 103-minute feature film, which dives into Native American influences on music history.
Nov. 9: Wind River, Taylor Sheridan’s 111-minute feature. The film follows a rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) who teams up with a local game tracker with deep community ties and a haunted past (Jeremy Renner) to investigate the murder of a local girl on a remote Native American reservation in the hopes of solving her mysterious death. The film also stars Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, and Kelsey Asbille.
November 10: Directed by Jeremy Torrie and starring Adam Beach, Emma Tremblay, and Roseanne Supernault, the film Juliana & The Medicine Fish tells the story of 12-year-old Juliana. The 110-minute feature film looks into a complicated relationship between a father and a daughter, and the power of believing in oneself.
The festival’s formidable artwork was done by Crow Indian artist Del Curfman. The poster “Standing for Justice” is an inspiring piece of art, and perfectly encapsulates the meaning of the festival.
The 42nd annual American Indian Film Festival® is sponsored by: San Francisco Grants for the Arts, The Hewlett Foundation, Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Chickasaw Nation, Twin Pine Casino & Hotel, The George Lucas Family Foundation, and CBS.
The American Indian Film Festival® is open to the general public-at-large and invites all communities to celebrate November American Indian Heritage Month.
Advance tickets for the film festival and awards show are available through aifisf.com.
Joi (Ana de Armas) and K (Ryan Gosling). Photo credit: Warner Bros.
Can corporations become so powerful that they dictate the way we feel? Can machines get mad – like, really mad – at their makers? Can people learn to love machines?
These are a few of the questions raised by Ridley Scott’s influential sci-fi neo-noir film “Blade Runner” (1982), which imagines a corporation whose product tests the limits of the machine-man divide.
Looking back at the original theatrical release of “Blade Runner” – just as its sequel, “Blade Runner 2049” opens in theaters – I’m struck by the original’s ambivalence about technology and its chillingly prescient vision of corporate attempts to control human feelings.
From machine killer to machine lover
Even though the film was tepidly received at the time of its release, its detractors agreed that its imagining of Los Angeles in 2019 was wonderfully atmospheric and artfully disconcerting. Looming over a dingy, rain-soaked City of Angels is Tyrell Corporation, whose namesake, Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel), announces, “Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. More human than human is our motto.”
Tyrell creates robots called replicants, which are difficult to differentiate from humans. They are designed to be worker-slaves – with designations like “combat model” or “pleasure model” – and to expire after four years.
Batty (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Darryl Hannah) are two members of a small cohort of rebelling replicants who escape their enslavement and hope to extend their lives beyond the four years allotted them by their makers. These replicant models even possess fake memories, which Tyrell implanted as a way to buffer the machine’s anxieties. Instead, the memories create a longing for an unattainable future. The machines want to be treated like people, too.
Deckard (Harrison Ford), a policeman (and maybe a replicant too), is tasked with eliminating the escaped machines. During his search, he meets a special replicant who lacks the corporate safeguard of a four-year lifespan: the beautiful Rachael (Sean Young), who shoots and kills one of her own in order to save Deckard. This opens the door for Deckard to acknowledge growing feelings towards a machine who has developed the will to live and love beyond the existence imagined for her by Tyrell Corp.
The greatest challenge to Deckard comes from combat model Batty, who has demonstrably more passion for existence than the affectless Deckard.
The film’s climax is a duel to the death between Deckard and Batty, in which Batty ends up not just sparing but saving Deckard. As Deckard watches Batty expire, he envies the replicant’s lust for life at the very moment it escapes him. Batty seems more human than the humans in this world, but Tyrell’s motto is both clue and trap.
Deckard’s end-of-film decision to escape with Rachael defies the rules of the corporation and of society. But it’s also an acknowledgment of the successful, seamless integration of machine and human life.
“Blade Runner” imagines a world in which human machines are created to serve people, but Deckard’s interactions with these replicants reveals the thinness of the line: He goes from being on assignment as a machine killer to falling in love with a machine.
A world succumbing to machines
Today, the relationship between corporations, machines and humans defines modern life in ways that Ridley Scott – even in his wildest and most dystopic imagination – couldn’t have forecast in 1982.
In “Blade Runner,” implanted memories are propped up by coveted (but fake) family photos. Yet a world in which memory is fragile and malleable seems all too possible and familiar. Recent studies have shown that people’s memories are increasingly susceptible to being warped by social media misinformation, whether it’s stories of fake terrorist attacks or Muslims celebrating after 9/11. When this misinformation spreads on social media networks, it can create and reinforce false collective memories, fomenting a crisis of reality that can skew election results or whip up small town hysteria.
Our entrancement with technology might seem less dramatic than the full-blown love affair that Scott imagined, but it’s no less all-consuming. We often prioritize our smartphones over human social interactions, with millennials checking their phones over 150 times a day. In fact, even as people increasingly feel that they cannot live without their smartphones, many say that the devices are ruining their relationships.
And at a time when we’re faced with the likelihood of being unable to differentiate between what’s real and what’s fake – a world of Twitter bots and doctored photographs, trolling and faux-outrage, mechanical pets and plastic surgery – we might be well served by recalling Deckard’s first conversation upon arriving at Tyrell Corp. Spotting an owl, Deckard asks, “It’s artificial?” Rachael replies, not skipping a beat, “Of course it is.”
In “Blade Runner,” reality no longer really matters.
How much longer will it matter to us?
A significant portion of the NFL’s fan base has reacted negatively to the national anthem protests of the past year. The responses tend to follow a pattern:
The stadium is no place for political protest. The game is a color-blind meritocracy. To protest football is to protest America.
But according to a study we published last year, white football fans and black football fans hold very different views about the relationship between football and national pride. And it might explain why there have been such divergent, emotional responses to the protests.
Black Americans love football, but…
Social scientists who study sports have long argued that sports are a powerful political stage. Popular wisdom, on the other hand, tends to maintain that sports are inherently apolitical, and should remain that way.
It’s true that until recently, visible black protests in American sports were rare. Yes, Muhammad Ali was outspoken about politics and became a symbol of black protest in the 1960s. And there’s the famous instance of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in the 1968 Olympic Games. But generally, athletes have not waded into politics, no doubt in part because of the influence of corporate interests and sponsors. (Michael Jordan, when asked why he wouldn’t endorse a black Democratic candidate for Senate in 1990, famously said, “Republicans buy shoes too.”)
So for many white fans, the racial issues addressed by the protests upend what they see as the innocent, colorless patriotism of football.
But for black fans, feelings of alienation toward the imposed patriotism in NFL games have been stewing for a while. And it may be that black athletes finally decided to respond to the attitudes of their black fans.
In our study, we aggregated 75 opinion polls between 1981 and 2014, and compared the relationship between national pride and football fandom among white and black Americans.
We found that since the early 1980s, national pride has been in decline among American men and women of all races. But among black men, this decline has been especially sharp. At the same time, it’s also been accompanied by a marked increase in their interest in the NFL.
We suspect that this inverse relationship isn’t coincidental.
Which Americans do patriotic displays speak to?
For decades, the league and broadcasting networks have conflated football with patriotism. Massive American flags get spread across the field before the game, celebrities sing highly produced renditions of the national anthem, military jets streak across the skies and teams routinely honor veterans and active service members.
Networks air segments about the players’ lives and team histories that emphasize racial integration and national unity. They also promote the narrative that hard work and following the rules lead to success on the field – the crux of the American Dream.
Indeed, our study did show that enthusiasm for football and national pride are interrelated.
But the nature of this relationship depends on your race.
Only among white Americans did we find a positive association between football fandom and national pride: Football fans were much more likely to express high levels of national pride than white Americans who weren’t football fans. Among African-Americans, on the other hand, there was a negative association. This suggests that when black fans watch their favorite team play, it’s a very different type of experience.
And this was happening long before Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee.
Black identity and American identity
W.E.B Du Bois once observed that for black Americans, a fundamental tension exists between their American identities and their black identities. We now know from other studies that African-Americans tend to see themselves as less “typically American” than other races. Meanwhile, among white Americans there’s a common tendency to link American national identity with whiteness.
It could be that the symbols of American national pride – so visible during football games – give white fans the chance to unite their national pride with their fandom. To them, the fact that African-Americans make up between 65 and 69 percent of all NFL players is simply part of the country’s ethos of “inclusion.”
But for black fans, the overrepresentation of African-American athletes might mean something else. Football broadcasts can create highly visible opportunities to express black prowess, pride and resistance. At the same time, watching wildly successful black players on the football field might sharpen the contrast of racial injustice off the field.
Meanwhile, studies have shown that the more black Americans emphasize their blackness, the less likely they are to have patriotic feelings.
Together, this could create a situation where black fans are prone to reject the popular national narrative that links football to a wider, ethnically blind meritocratic order. To many of them, football isn’t connected to any sort of national identity in a positive way, so it’s easier for black fans to press successful black athletes to protest the status quo and use their platforms to address issues of discrimination and inequality.
In other words, even before black athletes started taking an explicit stand, their presence and success on the field created the conditions to question the dominant ideology of a meritocratic, colorblind society. National debates about inequality, police brutality and incarceration clearly resonate with many players, and they’ve been pushed to respond.
Looking at it this way, these protests were only a matter a time.
LOS ANGELES— Oct. 24th marks the anniversary of the Chinese Massacre of 1871 where a mob of around 500 white rioters entered Los Angeles, Chinatown to attack, rob, and murder Chinese residents of the city. An estimated 20 Chinese immigrants were tortured and then hanged by the racially motivated riot mob. The initial conviction was unlawfully overturned and no one has ever been held accountable for the murders.
The Jade Pendant, a novel by L.P. Leung, is based on these true events and will open in limited theaters Nov. 3rd. The film stars Asian talents such as South Korean star Clara Lee (Some Like it Hot), Taiwanese heartthrob Godfrey Gao (The Mortal Instruments), Russel Wong (Romeo must Die), screen legends Tsai Chin (Now you See Me 2, The Joy Luck Club) and Tzi Ma (Arrival, Pali Road). “The story of the Jade Pendant is a part of American history that has been untold and we are very excited to bring diversity and quality story-telling to audiences in North America,” said Jonathan Lim of Crimson Forest Films.
The Jade Pendant is directed by Hong Kong veteran Po-Chih Leong (The Detonator, Out of Reach) and follows the journey of a young girl, Peony, who flees an arranged marriage in China and finds herself on the shores of America.
The Jade Pendant was produced by Thomas Leong, Scott M. Rosenfelt, LP Leung and Bruce Feirstein for Lotus Entertainment and will open at the 4 Star Theatre in San Francisco, AMC Atlantic Times Square 14 in Los Angeles and AMC Empire 25 in New York City on Nov. 3rd.
For more information please visit http://bit.ly/2yL0HHk
About Crimson Forest Films
Crimson Forest Films is a theatrical and home entertainment distribution label that specializes in bringing top content in film & television to around the world. For more information about Crimson Forest Films please visit www.crimsonforestfilms.com
“What’s your zombie apocalypse survival plan?”
The question invites the liveliest discussions of the semester. I teach a course on social movements in fiction and film at West Virginia University, where I also conduct research on race and gender politics in the United States.
George Romero’s first film, “Night of the Living Dead,” is on the syllabus. The film was groundbreaking in its use of horror as political critique. Half a century later, Romero’s films are still in conversation with racial politics in the United States, and Romero’s recent death calls for reflection on his legacy as a filmmaker.
Romero shot “Night of the Living Dead” in 1967, when Americans’ attention was focused on powerful televised images of race riots in cities like Newark and Detroit, and on the Vietnam War, the likes of which were new to broadcast news. Romero reimagined scores of bleeding faces, twisted in rage or vacant from trauma, as the zombie hoard. He filtered public anger and anxieties through the hoard, reflecting what many viewed as liberals’ rage and disappointment over a lack of real social change and others saw as conservatives’ fear over disruptions in race relations and traditional family structures. This is the utility of the zombie as a political metaphor – it’s flexible; there is room enough for all our fears.
In “Night of the Living Dead,” an unlikely cross-section of people are cornered in a farmhouse by a zombie hoard. They struggle with each other and against the zombies to survive the night. At the end of the film, black protagonist Ben Huss is the sole survivor. He emerges from the basement at daybreak, only to be mistaken for a zombie and shot by an all-white militia. The militiamen congratulate each other and remark that Huss is “another one for the fire.” They never realize their terrible error. Perhaps they are inclined to see Huss as a threat to begin with, because he is black.
At the start of Romero’s next film, “Dawn of the Dead,” in which another unlikely bunch faces off against zombies in a shopping mall, police surround a public housing building. One officer remarks on the unfairness of putting blacks and Hispanics in these “big-ass fancy hotels” and proceeds to shoot residents indiscriminately, not distinguishing between the living and the undead.
The officers are shooting to restore the “natural order” in which the dead stay dead. But their actions also restore the prevailing social order and the institutions that create and reinforce racial inequality.
In my class, I connect these scenes of dehumanization to contemporary racial politics, using them as a springboard for conversations about racially motivated police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. These discussions focus on the zombie as a dehumanized creature.
In returning from the dead, zombies lose their human essence – their agency, critical reasoning capacities, empathy and language. As Cohen writes, “Zombies are a collective, a swarm. They do not own individualizing stories. They do not have personalities. They eat. They kill. They shamble. They suffer and they cause suffering. They are dirty, stinking, and poorly dressed. They are indifferent to their own decay.” Zombies retain a human form, but lose their individuality and are dehumanized in their reanimation.
Minority victims of police shootings are often portrayed in the media as dangerous, animalistic and even monstrous – meaning they too are stripped of their basic humanity. Social psychologists argue that perceptions of humanity are a critical part of social cognition – the way we process or think about other people and social settings. When we see people or groups as less than human, predictable consequences arise. Romero’s films tune us in to our own potential for dehumanization.
Dehumanization relaxes our moral restrictions on doing harm to others and ultimately facilitates violence against them. When people see members of a group as an undifferentiated “hoard,” they’re susceptible to the same error as the militiamen in “Night of the Living Dead.” When they couple dehumanization with hatred, resentment or fear, they become like the resentful police officer in “Dawn of the Dead.” Dehumanization of black Americans underpins the violence perpetrated against them in Romero’s films and in America today.
Dehumanization isn’t confined to police violence. New research shows that dehumanization of Muslims and Hispanics underlies support for restrictive immigration policies and a border wall. It also undercuts support for aid to refugees.
In my own research, I show that political candidates are often dehumanized in political discourse and campaign imagery. This work suggests that monsters plague our elections and governance processes more broadly.
Romero will be best remembered for giving the zombie a place in mainstream American culture, but he also gave us a warning about human psychology and critical insights into racial politics in the U.S. For this reason, his work will continue to have a revered place on my syllabus.
The recent exposure of widespread sexual predation in the American media industry, from Harvey Weinstein to Bill O’Reilly, has elicited shock and sparked debate on violence against women in the United States.
Sexual harassment isn’t the exclusive domain of show biz big shots. It remains alarmingly prevalent nationwide, even as other crimes are generally decreasing nationwide.
In the U.S., a 2006 study found that 27 percent of college women reported some form of forced sexual contact – ranging from kissing to anal intercourse – after enrolling in school. This sexual violence is heavily underreported, with just 20 percent of female student victims reporting the crime to law enforcement.
Nor is sexual harassment limited to the United States. The U.N. has called gender-based violence a “global pandemic.” As experts in emergency medicine and legal research at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, we believe it’s important to acknowledge that this issue transcends national borders and class boundaries to touch the lives of roughly 33 percent of all women worldwide.
A world of trouble
According to World Health Organization estimates, one in three women worldwide will experience either physical or sexual violence in her lifetime, many of them before the age of 15.
In fact, for many rural women, their first sexual encounter will be a forced one. Some 17 percent of women in rural Tanzania, 21 percent in Ghana, 24 percent in Peru, 30 percent in Bangladesh and 40 percent in South Africa report that their first sexual experience was nonconsensual.
Intimate partner violence is also pervasive globally. In one World Health Organization study, 22 to 25 percent of women surveyed in cities in England, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Zimbabwe reported that a boyfriend or husband had committed some form of sexual violence against them. Globally, up to 55 percent of women murdered are killed by their partners.
Violence against women takes many forms, ranging from psychological abuse to the kind of sexual predation, sexual assault and rape allegedly committed by Harvey Weinstein. Honor killings, physical attacks, female infanticide, genital cutting, trafficking, forced marriages and sexual harassment at work and school are also considered gender-based violence.
Rates range from country to country – from 15 percent in Japan to 71 percent in Ethiopia – but violence is, in effect, a ubiquitous female experience.
Sexual violence is committed at particularly high rates in crisis settings like war zones, refugee camps and disaster zones.
In these places, even humanitarian workers are not immune. Dyan Mazurana and her colleagues at Tufts University found that many female development-aid staffers in places such as South Sudan, Afghanistan and Haiti had experienced disturbing rates of sexual assault, often perpetrated by their own colleagues.
Explaining sexual violence
For example, sexual violence occurs more frequently in cultures where violence is widely accepted and where beliefs about family honor, sexual purity and male sexual entitlement are strongly held.
Even in many countries that rank well on gender equality, including in the United States, weak legal sanctions against perpetrators of sexual violence can encourage and effectively condone such behavior.
So can cultural acceptance. Weinstein’s sexual predatory behavior was longstanding and well-known within the film industry, yet he was allowed to continue his abuse with impunity – until women began speaking up.
Likewise, Fox News renewed Bill O’Reilly’s contract even after he and the company had made at least six multi-million-dollar settlements with women who filed sexual harassment claims against him. Awareness of a problem is one thing; taking action is quite another.
Men with lower educational levels, or who have been exposed to maltreatment or family violence as children, are more likely to commit sexual violence themselves.
That’s because violence begets violence, a relationship that’s abundantly clear in the kinds of conflict zones where we work. Mass rape has long been used as a weapon of war, and has been well-documented during conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia and South Sudan.
Among the most salient cases are the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides. According to the U.N.‘s High Commissioner for Refugees, up to 500,000 Rwandan women were systematically raped in 1994 as part of an ethnic cleansing strategy, while tens of thousands of Bosnian women and girls were systematically raped between 1992 and 1995.
Wherever and however it happens, violence against women and girls poses a major public health problem for women and their communities.
Some 42 percent of women who experience intimate partner violence reported an injury
– including bruises, abrasions, cuts, punctures, broken bones and injuries to the ears and eyes – as a consequence of that abuse. Women who suffer violence are also 1.5 times more likely to have sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea, twice as likely to experience depression and drinking problems and twice as likely to have an abortion.
Violence against women is also closely associated with suicide and self-harm.
If there’s any silver lining to the Weinstein and O’Reilly scandals, it’s that in coming out against these high-profile men, dozens of women have helped to highlight not just the prevalence of sexual violence in the United States but also the societal norms that silence women and allow abusers to go unchecked.
Humanitarian organizations from the World Health Organization to the U.N. to the U.S. Agency for International Development have recognized that gender-based violence is not just a women’s issue. Addressing it requires working with men and boys, too, to counter the cultures of toxic masculinity that encourage or tolerate sexual violence.
After all, women’s rights are human rights, so sexual violence is everyone’s problem to solve.
The fact is, societies with high rates of sexual violence are also more likely to be violent and unstable. Research shows that the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated.
Valerie Dobiesz, Emergency Physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Director of External Programs STRATUS Center for Medical Simulation, Core Faculty Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Harvard University and Julia Brooks, Researcher in international law and humanitarian response, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), Harvard University
In 2014, Time magazine declared American culture had reached a “transgender tipping point,” with transgender people achieving unprecedented media visibility.
However, in light of recent policy shifts – such as the White House’s rollback of federal guidelines that supported transgender students and Trump’s July 26 Twitter pronouncement that the U.S. military will no longer allow transgender service members – some have questioned whether this visibility has actually meant greater acceptance of trans people.
Studies have shown that entertainment has the power to shape attitudes on health and social issues, from organ donation to the death penalty. But little research has explored the impact of portrayals of transgender people.
For this reason, we wanted to see how transgender TV characters might influence the attitudes of viewers. Specifically, we tested whether political ideology plays a role in how audiences respond to these potentially polarizing depictions.
Transgender media visibility
Time’s “transgender tipping point” from a few years ago was attributed to fictional trans characters in shows like “Transparent” and “Orange Is the New Black” and news coverage of controversial policy issues, such as discrimination lawsuits about school bathrooms. In April 2015, nearly 17 million people watched Caitlyn Jenner come out as transgender on “20/20.”
It was in this context that the USA Network drama “Royal Pains” included a storyline about a fictional transgender teen named Anna who experiences complications while transitioning from male to female. Although Anna’s subplot lasted only 11 minutes, it grappled with numerous issues: the medical profession’s historical treatment of transgender individuals as mentally ill, parental rights regarding adolescent transitions and the risks of hormone replacement therapy.
We first learned of the upcoming “Royal Pains” storyline in early 2015, when the show’s writers contacted Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S), a USC Annenberg-affiliated program that gives entertainment industry professionals accurate and timely information for storylines on health, safety and national security. (Erica is a researcher at HH&S.)
HH&S facilitated conversations between the writers and an expert in the medical treatment of transgender youth. The resulting June 23, 2015 episode, “The Prince of Nucleotides,” received a 2016 GLAAD Media Award, with transgender activist Nicole Maines making her acting debut as Anna.
Before we could study the impact of Anna’s storyline, we wanted to make sure that the audience was mixed in its views on transgender rights – in other words, that the show wouldn’t simply be preaching to the choir.
Since the 2016 U.S. election, countless stories have explored the “media bubbles” in which Americans live. This trend toward fragmentation permeates news, social media and entertainment. TV shows with broad audience appeal tend to address hot-button social issues relatively infrequently and superficially. Regular viewers of boundary-pushing series, on the other hand, may already be left-leaning.
Research by GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) indicates that transgender characters have appeared primarily on streaming platforms and premium cable channels, while broadcast network shows – which have larger audiences – tend to feature transgender characters only in brief storylines, if at all.
This means viewers disinclined to watch a show like “Transparent,” which features several trans characters, might still encounter such characters in minor storylines in mainstream programs.
“Royal Pains” (2009-2016) was about as mainstream as TV gets today. The show had no real history of addressing LGBTQ issues, so Anna’s episode was unlikely to attract a particularly trans-supportive audience. For us, this made it the ideal show to study transgender portrayals and how they might influence viewers across the ideological spectrum.
Do minor subplots make a difference?
Because HH&S had consulted on the storyline, the members of USA Network’s social media team were open to helping us with our study. They posted links to our survey on the show’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts following the episode. We supplemented this sample by recruiting “Royal Pains” viewers from market research panels. Only those who had seen the episode or one of the two prior episodes were eligible. Of the 488 viewers in our study, 391 had seen Anna’s episode.
Because there were several different shows at the time featuring transgender characters, we asked viewers which of these they had seen. We also measured their exposure to transgender issues in the news, including the unfolding Caitlyn Jenner story.
Finally, we examined several important variables that are known to impact viewers. These include identification with main characters, a sense of being drawn into the world of the story (what media scholars call “transportation”) and the emotions evoked by the storyline.
We found that “Royal Pains” viewers who saw Anna’s story had more supportive attitudes toward transgender people and policies, and we found a cumulative effect of exposure to transgender entertainment narratives. The more portrayals viewers saw, the more supportive their attitudes. Neither exposure to such issues in the news nor Caitlyn Jenner’s story had any effect on attitudes. In other words, the fictional stories we examined were more influential than events in the news.
Consistent with previous research, in our data, political conservatism strongly predicted negative attitudes toward transgender people and lower support for policies that benefit transgender people. However, exposure to two or more transgender storylines cut the strength of this link in half. That is, politically conservative viewers who saw multiple shows featuring transgender characters had more positive attitudes toward trans people than those who saw just one.
Political ideology also shaped viewers’ responses to the “Royal Pains” narrative. Those who were politically liberal were more likely to feel hope or identify with Anna, whereas those who were politically conservative were more likely to react with disgust.
Beyond the bubble
Hollywood is not a panacea for healing our nation’s deep partisan and ideological divisions. To influence attitudes on a broad scale, entertainment storylines must first reach audiences outside cloistered media bubbles.
However, our research suggests nuanced portrayals of transgender individuals – particularly in mainstream forms of entertainment – can break down ideological barriers in a way that news stories may not. Cumulative exposure across multiple shows had the greatest impact on attitudes, but even a relatively brief storyline had a powerful effect too. While politically conservative viewers were more likely to react with disgust, such reactions were tempered by seeing trans characters on a variety of shows.
At a recent GLAAD-sponsored panel, trans actress and activist Laverne Cox noted:
“We’ve got to tell these stories better because lives are on the line. Trans people are being murdered, are being denied health care, access to bathrooms and employment and housing because of all of these…misconceptions that people have about who we really are.”
As the future of thousands of active duty service members hangs in the balance, it’s more imperative than ever to understand how the public responds to media representations of transgender people.
Erica L. Rosenthal, Senior Research Associate, Hollywood, Health & Society, University of Southern California and Traci Gillig, PhD Candidate in Communication, University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism