Transgender Portrayals in Entertainment

Transgender people have achieved unprecedented media visibility in recent years, but does this translate into greater acceptance? New research by USC Annenberg and HH&S sheds light on this question.
Dr. Hank Lawson (Mark Feuerstein) visits with Anna (Nicole Maines) in the Royal Pains episode “The Prince of Nucleotides.” (USA Network)

Entertainment stories can have a powerful impact on people’s knowledge, attitudes and behavior. In light of the increased media visibility of transgender people, how do these portrayals affect us? What role does political ideology play in how audiences respond to transgender characters and storylines?

Along with researchers from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, we examined the influence of a transgender storyline from the USA Network series Royal Pains on viewers’ attitudes toward transgender people and policies. HH&S provided information for the storyline, which aired in June 2015. Led by USC Annenberg doctoral candidate Traci K. Gillig, this study is the first to examine the cumulative impact of exposure to transgender portrayals. 

Key Findings

  • Royal Pains viewers who saw the storyline had more positive attitudes toward transgender people and related policies.
  • The more shows with transgender characters viewers saw, the more positive their attitudes toward transgender people and policies.
  • Neither exposure to transgender stories in the news nor the Caitlyn Jenner story affected attitudes.
  • Exposure to two or more transgender storylines reduced the influence of political ideology on attitudes toward transgender people by half.
  • Political ideology influenced responses to the Royal Pains storyline, such as identification with the transgender character and feelings of hope and disgust.

The research was published in the peer-reviewed journal Sex Roles. The study’s co-authors are HH&S Senior Research Associate Erica L. Rosenthal, USC Annenberg professor Sheila T. Murphy and HH&S Director Kate Langrall Folb.

More on our research and evaluation activities is available here.