Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Captain Jack Harkness, Brendan Ayanbadejo, and Pop Culture's Effects on the Law
By now, the Prawfs community is familiar with Brendan Ayanbadejo, who, as Howard posted a few days ago, is a player on the Baltimore Ravens who supports the freedom to marry for all and was the subject of a baffling open letter from a hate-filled Maryland House of Delegates member who didn't think football players should be weighing on matters of public concern. There have been some interesting comments about this mini-controversy -- the letter's distasteful subtext that athletes are supposed to be mindless, the NFL's progress in the normalization of homosexuality, the curious hateful past of the Delegate -- but I am reminded of two studies about the relationship between popular culture and social progress in politics and law.
What is the relationship between minority representation in popular culture and social mores of toleration for or inclusion of that given minority in society?
The issue is hard to quantify with any rigor. Any cross-national study of gay characters in European television versus American television cannot always account for the background context (the smaller role of religion in Western European life, the power of social democracy in Europe, the entrenchment of conservatism in America, local politics in the American federal system, and so on) and the isn't enough data to adequately assess the effect of gay characters on American audiences over time. In the United States, "gayness" was too often portrayed as either evil (Claude Rains, who played Prince John opposite Errol Flynn's Robin Hood in 1938 was told to act "feminine, swishy, and feckless," an odious allusion to the perceived evil of effeminate men) or as a caricature (gay characters were often depressed, lacked self esteem, victims, and "others" in every sense of the word). Reactions to those characters would skew the results.
So, one sociologist did a study about Captain Jack Harkness, the poly-amorous swashbuckling character played by the openly gay John Barrowman on Britain's long running (and AWESOME!) television show, Doctor Who. He and his team of graduate students asked thousands of television watchers of all ages, races, and educational backgrounds to react to the injection of a similar character in their favorite TV show (cartoons for children were excluded). There were generational differences -- older audiences skewed negative -- and educational differences -- audiences with lower levels of education also skewed negative. These results made sense. But, then they picked specific characters in beloved television shows -- from Alan Alda in M*A*S*H* to Bobby Ewing in Dallas to Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld -- and asked how viewers would react if, over time, these characters came out. Each demographic that skewed negative in the original question was significant less negative. Sure, they thought it might be weird if Bobby Ewing came out as gay, but viewers' reactions would have been decidedly less negative: few would stop watching the show and, assuming the coming out process was well-written (which has to be true of any television story line to retain viewers), it would not make those beloved characters any less beloved.
That was the key finding. Audiences will love the good guys no matter what. We just need more good gay guys (and gals) on television.
The second study asked: Is there a connection between visible progay allies announcing their positions on a given gay rights issues or openly gay individuals in popular culture coming out and popular opinion on that given issue? In other words, does Brendan Ayanbadejo's vocal support for marriage equality or Anderson Cooper's public (though late) coming out correspond with a bump in public support for the freedom to marry.
This, too, is hard to quantify, especially since one coming out begets another and one endorsement begets another until a tipping point is reached. Looking at this question out of context also ignores the prescience or lateness of the public "coming out" and other social forces that are pushing the underlying debate. Here, narrative, or qualitative, sociology helps. When asked to explain the reasons for a given respondant's changed position on the freedom to marry, many cite President Obama's support or their personal friendships or interactions with gay people. But, invariably, names like Anderson Cooper and Ellen Degeneres get mentioned. Qualitatively, these coming out events -- whether they be allies or members of the community -- are part of the story of shifting opinions on marriage freedom for gay Americans. Quantitatively, each incident does not correlate with an immediate bump in public opinion (in fact, sometimes, it correlates with a negative reaction, as in the case of Ellen's coming out). But, studies do suggest that each coming out incident is a building block that aggregates into a contributing event. Think of the Fibonacci sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34... One incident builds on another, which builds on another, which contributes to five more, which makes it easier for ten other people to come out in support, and so on.
More study needs to be done in this area, but currently, the evidence suggests that the Maryland delegate is right to worry about Brendan Ayanbadejo. Soon, hate-filled reactionaries will be extinct and Brendan's vocal support for marriage equality will be a significant role in that progress.
Posted by Ari Ezra Waldman on September 11, 2012 at 02:11 PM | Permalink
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Interesting stuff. A thought: Your post suggests that public support is raised by the impersonal--a famous person they've never met comes out or speaks out in support of gay rights. But the famous person is usually driven by the personal, individual, intimate experience with GLBT people that forms his thoughts and prompts him to take a pro-gay rights position and speak in support of it. Ayanbadejo lived as a child in a dorm of GLBT people at a college where his father worked; Chris Kluwe's brother-in-law is gay; Michael Irvin's late brother was gay.
Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 11, 2012 2:46:46 PM
Absolutely, Howard! Superb point. There's no doubt you're right. Just shows there are multiple ways to look at the data, and entirely different angles, too. I'm still looking for a particularly rigorous studies on the effects of different personal experiences on gay rights positions. Many are ethnographic, which is fine, but not as rigorous as I would hope.
Posted by: Ari Waldman | Sep 11, 2012 3:09:46 PM
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