The unexpectedly positive side effect of watching political dramas with female leads

Posted by
Moya Crockett
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Kerry Washington in Scandal

New research reveals that political dramas with female lead characters offer much more than just light entertainment.

The high-stakes, fast-moving, glamorous and grubby world of politics has long served as the inspiration for brilliant TV dramas. From Scandal to House of Cards, The Bodyguard to The Good Wife, The West Wing to Madam Secretary, there are scores of TV shows that tell the stories of politicians – some Machiavellian, some idealistic, and others somewhere in between – and their attempts to maintain power, suppress controversies and handle national crises.

While watching political dramas might make us feel more smugly intellectual than zoning out in front of The Great British Bake Off for the millionth time, one would assume that they’re ultimately just another form of light entertainment. But according to new research, binge-watching political TV shows can actually make a real difference to our lives. Not only are they exciting and addictive, they can also make us feel more engaged and interested in real-world politics – especially if they feature a female lead character.

In a study newly published in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, researchers at Purdue University and the University of Alabama surveyed over 200 fans of the TV shows Scandal, The Good Wife and Madam Secretary. They found that viewers who felt most connected to the storyline and characters of these shows also became more interested and active in politics in their own lives. 

Julianna Margulies and Christine Baranski in The Good Wife

“A lot of times, people think of entertainment television as being just that: purely entertainment,” says Jennifer Hoewe, an assistant professor in Purdue University’s Brian Lamb School of Communication.

“But there’s research, including this study, to show it can be more than that; we can get more out of entertainment media than just something fun and relaxing.”

Scandal, The Good Wife and Madam President were chosen for the study because they offer a reasonably accurate depiction of women in political leadership, the researchers said. They are also a relative exception in mainstream television, in that the female leads are not reduced to their sexuality or their beauty and do not hold gender-stereotypical occupations.

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Women made up 70% of the study’s participants, and the findings suggest that showing women characters in positions of power on TV can be beneficial to female viewers, Hoewe said. “This study is showing that when we have lead female characters, we can feel like we’re part of the show, we enjoy the characters, and that can actually lead to positive political outcomes.”

Participants in the study were tested on whether they experienced two emotions that are common when engaging with narrative fiction: feeling emotionally invested in a story (what researchers call “transportation”), and feeling connected to characters (termed “parasocial relationships”).

On a one-to-seven scale, they were then asked to rate how the shows affected them emotionally, how much they related to the characters and how interested and active they were in politics.

Rahnuma Panthaky, Bellamy Young and Kerry Washington in Scandal

Viewers who felt emotionally invested in the stories of Scandal, The Good Wife and Madam President and felt connected to the shows’ characters also said that they paid more attention to politics and were more involved in political activities – such as attending public meetings, rallies or speeches, circulating petitions or contacting public officials or political parties.

“The more you watched, the more you felt engaged with the narrative, then the more you felt like those characters were relatable to you,” Hoewe said.

“Once those pieces were in place, that led to political interest, efficacy and downstream political participation, but only with the transportation and parasocial components in there.”

Hoewe’s next goal is to investigate whether political TV dramas with male leads have the same effect on viewers’ participation in politics.

“Although not in the majority, we’re seeing more shows featuring women in fictional roles in a greater number of contexts,” she said.

“Media depictions of political leadership can illustrate to people generally, not just women, that there is opportunity for people of all genders and colours to participate in politics.”

Images: Getty Images


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Moya Crockett

Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.

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