As we know, stereotypes can have some serious consequences, and prime-time television may be promoting the stereotypes of certain groups. The could lead you to wonder what sorts of impacts counter-stereotypical characters have on their viewers.
In an effort to portray a more diversified view of the American people, some shows have presented casts and characters whos personality and role are not that of the common stereotype of that persons particular gender, racial or sexual orientation group. Most shows stick to portraying their characters in a stereotypical manner, however, there are some exceptions.
The Cosby Show is one of the most commonly referenced sit-coms for portraying an African American family in a counter-stereotypic light. ABC rejected airing the show because they felt the American audience would not respond to an African American upper-middle class family. Once NBC aired the show, it's popularity suggested to everyone that a program does not have to reflect stereotypes to be successful. Another more recent program, Ellen, choose to portray a homosexual character that was previously assumed to be heterosexual. This stirred up some controversy which suggests that even in the politically correct atmosphere of the 1990s, there is still some resistance to the visibility of certain minority groups and their portrayal on prime-time television.
Unfortunately there is little data available
on the impact of these counter-stereotypical programs on viewers. Yet what we do
know suggests that using counter-stereotypical characters on television can be a
contributing factor to positive social change (Durkin, 211). In a study that
looked at childrens responses to both traditional and non-traditional sex-role
portrayals in television characters, it was shown that both traditional male characters
and non-traditional female characters were favored. As a result of the women's
liberation movement, acceptable female gender roles have expanded to encompase more
counter-stereotypical roles. This seems to have resulted in a wider acceptance of
female characters who are presented in a non-traditional way. On the other hand,
males are not as accepted when portrayed in non-stereotypical roles.
Another finding was that children were much more responsive to shows that reflected the diversity of their world rather than a more restrictive, stereotypic show (Durkin, 216). Children see many different types of people in everyday life that do not fit into the category of a certain stereotype. Their preference in viewing shows that are more based in reality informs us that they see counter-stereotypes in everyday life and enjoy the realistic characters in non-traditional programs.
One of the underlying reasons for studying counter-stereotypes is in the hope that they may encourage change in viewers attitudes toward certain minority groups that have traditionally been portrayed in a very negative and stereotypic manner. One social psychological theory behind this is the contact hypothesis which assumes that the more exposure a person has to different groups, the more accepting they will be of these groups (Tesser, 502). Following acceptance, the person may then be less likely to buy into negative stereotypes that are presented of the group. Since television viewing is so popular in our culture, indirectly counter-stereotypes on television could increase the contact viewers have with alternative ways of thinking about those that are different from themselves.
In conclusion, counter-stereotypes on television will ideally increase our awareness that those around us do not fit into all-encompassing categories. Through contact with these images, theoretically we will increase our understanding of other groups. Minority groups, in particular, have a history of being portrayed in very stereotypic ways which often include negative attributes. The little research that has been conducted on counter-stereotypes in television shows us that these programs are well liked and can possiblly lead to a positive change in viewers' attitude. More research needs to be done in order to determine more specific effects counter-stereotypes have on television viewers.
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This tutorial was produced for Psy 324, Advanced Social Psychology, Spring
2000 at Miami University. All graphics are from the public domain, used with
permission, or were created by the authors. Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA).
Last revised: Thursday, April 18, 2002 at 15:17:20. This document has been accessed 20,004 times since 1 May 2000. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman