Media Exposure and Viewers' Attitudes toward Homosexuality: Evidence for Mainstreaming or Resonance?

Article excerpt

Attitudes towards homosexuality have been shown to vary along different demographic dimensions such as gender or political orientation (e.g., Herek, 2002; Strand, 1998), but little is known about how these attitudes form. As with other sexual topics, attitudes towards homosexuality are not inborn, but are socialized. Multiple agents contribute to this socialization process, including parents, peers, and religious institutions (e.g., Ballard & Morris, 1998). Prominent among them are likely to be the media, which youth frequently cite as a top source of sexual information (e.g., Brown, Halpern, & L'Engle, 2005; Ward, 2003). Indeed, it is argued that media portrayals may be especially influential in this domain because the controversial nature of the topic may silence discussion from some parents and peers, and because first-hand experience may be limited (Gross, 1991). Media portrayals may be a primary source of information for the 40% of American adults who claim not to know a gay person personally (Pew Research Center, 2003).

Based on cultivation theory (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002), it is reasonable to assume that exposure to media representations of homosexuality may help cultivate viewers' own attitudes about homosexuality. What might viewers learn about homosexuality from the media? Does frequent media exposure make them more accepting, or less so? Although studies show that media sources play a prominent role as sex educators (for review, see Ward, 2003), few have assessed media contributions to viewers' attitudes toward homosexuality. This gap is addressed by examining whether multiple forms of media use correlate with viewers' attitudes toward homosexuality, and by examining which factors moderate these connections, focusing on the roles of social position (i.e., race and gender) and viewers' religious involvement. Finally, the overall patterns of associations are investigated, examining whether they are consistent with either the mainstreaming or resonance mechanisms of cultivation theory.

Media Representations of Homosexuality

Although early analyses of television's sexual content reported minimal to zero references to homosexuality across the episodes coded (e.g., Greenberg & Busselle, 1996), more recent analyses indicate that these trends are slowly changing. In an analysis of prime-time network programming for fall of 2001, Raley and Lucas (2006) report that gay male and lesbian characters were represented in 7.5% of the dramas and comedies on the schedule. A recent study of programming from 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 found that sexual content associated with sexual minorities occurred in 15% of programs overall (Fisher, Hill, Grube, & Gruber, 2007). Most of these portrayals were in movies or in sitcoms.

Qualitative analyses of the nature of this content note that although recent portrayals rarely show gay and lesbian characters as mentally ill (Hart, 2000), most representations continue to perpetuate stereotypes about homosexuality. If represented at all, gays and lesbians tend to be promiscuous, infected with HIV, or have unsatisfying sexual and romantic relationships (Hart, 2000; Herman, 2005). Even successful sitcoms that present gay and lesbian characters as the leads, such as Ellen and Will & Grace, may reinforce stereotypes by portraying these characters as lacking stable relationships, as being preoccupied with their sexuality (or not sexual at all), and by perpetuating the perception of gay and lesbian people as laughable, one-dimensional figures (Cooper, 2003; Fouts & Inch, 2005; Herman, 2005).

Such characterizations may not be limited to electronic media. Limited research on homosexual content in popular print media also suggests a similar marginalization and perpetuation of stereotypes. For example, in a content analysis of articles and advice columns from the women's magazines New Woman and Essence, Gadsen (2002) found that over the span of 10 years, only 6% of New Woman and 5% of Essence magazine issues addressed homosexuality explicitly, generally focusing on male homosexual activity, the nefarious nature of husbands and male lovers who have sexual liaisons with other men, and the physical and emotional health risks these men pose to women. …