The Influence of TV Shows on Cultures
Liberal commentator Jonathan Chait has an article in New York Magazine about the history of conservative complaints against Hollywood, how the right has essentially given up the fight, and how they were actually right in identifying the effect that this pop-culture medium has upon the attitudes and behaviors of a society. It’s a long and interesting article and is well worth the full read. Here’s one section in particular that caught my eye.
First, a summary of the issue:
The funny thing is that, in the years since Hollywood lost its place of prominence in right-wing demonology, we now have a far more precise sense of its power. The fear that popular culture could exert some invisible pull upon the minds of its audience may have haunted its critics, but the industry’s defenders could just as plausibly deny that moving pictures exerted social influence at all. At the height of the nineties Kulturkampf, film lobbyist Jack Valenti breezily waved off Hollywood’s critics by insisting, “I haven’t found anybody who has said that movies cause anybody to do anything.” But new research—research that conservatives have failed to pay much attention to—badly undermines that line of defense.
Chait turns to Brazil for an example:
Several years ago, a trio of researchers working for the Inter-American Development Bank set out to help solve a sociological mystery. Brazil had, over the course of four decades, experienced one of the largest drops in average family size in the world, from 6.3 children per woman in 1960 to 2.3 children in 2000. What made the drop so curious is that, unlike the Draconian one-child policy in China, the Brazilian government had in place no policy to limit family size. (It was actually illegal at some point to advertise contraceptives in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.) What could explain such a steep drop? The researchers zeroed in on one factor: television.
Television spread through Brazil in the mid-sixties. But it didn’t arrive everywhere at once in the sprawling country. Brazil’s main station, Globo, expanded slowly and unevenly. The researchers found that areas that gained access to Globo saw larger drops in fertility than those that didn’t (controlling, of course, for other factors that could affect fertility). It was not any kind of news or educational programming that caused this fertility drop but exposure to the massively popular soap operas, or novelas, that most Brazilians watch every night. The paper also found that areas with exposure to television were dramatically more likely to give their children names shared by novela characters.
Novelas almost always center around four or five families, each of which is usually small, so as to limit the number of characters the audience must track. Nearly three quarters of the main female characters of childbearing age in the prime-time novelas had no children, and a fifth had one child. Exposure to this glamorized and unusual (especially by Brazilian standards) family arrangement “led to significantly lower fertility”—an effect equal in impact to adding two years of schooling.
Something similar can be seen in India:
In a 2009 study, economists Robert Jensen and Emily Oster detected a similar pattern in India. A decade ago, cable television started to expand rapidly into the Indian countryside, where deeply patriarchal views had long prevailed. But not all villages got cable television at once, and its random spread created another natural experiment. This one yielded extraordinary results. Not only did women in villages with cable television begin bearing fewer children, as in Brazil, but they were also more able to leave their home without their husbands’ permission and more likely to disapprove of husbands abusing their wives, and the traditional preference for male children declined. The changes happened rapidly, and the magnitude was “quite large”—the gap in gender attitudes separating villages introduced to cable television from urban areas shrunk by between 45 and 70 percent. Television, with its more progressive social model, had changed everything.
Then Chait brings it back to the U.S.:
Television and movies in the United States could never have the same kind of revolutionary impact they wield in cloistered Third World villages. But the human brain is the human brain. In the United States, with our already expansive cultural frontiers, we can’t as easily measure the effect of popular culture. (We all got access to Glee at the same time.) Yet we can at least glimpse tiny corners of popular culture’s impact. A 2011 paper found that when An Inconvenient Truth appeared in a town—here, again, an uneven pattern allowed for experimentation—purchases of carbon offsets rose by half. The effect disappeared over time, as you’d expect from a single film that wasn’t followed up.
A trio of communications professors found that watching Will & Grace made audiences more receptive to gay rights, and especially viewers who had little contact in real life with gays and lesbians. And that one show was merely a component of a concerted effort by Hollywood—dating back to Soap in the late seventies, which featured Billy Crystal’s groundbreaking portrayal of a sympathetic gay character, through Modern Family—to prod audiences to accept homosexuality. Likewise, the political persona of Barack Obama attained such rapid acceptance and popularity in part because he represented the real-world version of an archetype that, after a long early period of servile black stereotypes, has appeared in film and television for years: a sober, intelligent African-American as president, or in some other position of power.
You can read the whole thing here.