Drama vs. Comedy: Stereotype Activation Across Genres

The effect of dramatic television has repeatedly been associated with changes in attitude and beliefs. Programs like soap operas, crime and emergency dramas, and even the local news can cause individuals to report an inflated rate of extramarital affairs (Livingstone 1990), murder rates (Shrum 1996), and other social phenomena represented on television. These realistic portrayals are easily integrated into the scripts of our lives and the expectations that we have for the real world. However, the effect of comedic programming is not as apparent. For many, comedy is a joke, a light-hearted commentary; but this laughter results from an awareness of stereotypes and social phenomena, often as represented by television (televised reality). The question remains, can comedy activate stereotypes as significantly as dramatic programming, despite its tongue-in-cheek approach?

Social cognition is defined as the cognitive processes involved in social interaction. In our every day experiences, we learn different aspects about our environment that become interwoven to crate a functioning model of how the world operates; knowledge learned via television can have a marked effect on these processes especially if they are integrated as ‘real.’ Television offers new evidence for an individual’s perspective on the world. It affects the representation of our social knowledge and concepts as well as the manner by which we process that information. Television broadcasts millions of social scripts every day into the home, both realistic and fantastical, for integration into our social schemas, but these different genres may have a very different effect on the viewer. Comedy is often disregarded as lowbrow or self-reflexive, thereby neglecting its actual impact on the way we perceive reality. This study investigates the difference between Dramatic and Comedic media portrayals in their ability to activate stereotypes in the viewer.
How is Television Processed?

Television provides endless hours of documented social interactions, real and scripts, and this plethora of evidences is consumed and processed with relatively little effort. There are two major theories of television and social cognition: Reception Theory and Reader-Response Criticism (Livingstone 1990). Both theories address social scripts, or the heuristic by which we are able to understand and predict upcoming social interactions. They are mental structures that we use to simplify our knowledge about the world around us. By altering our social scripts, we change our expectations of the world and our subsequent interactions with others. Furthermore, television has the potential to depress systematic processing, thereby making the mind more receptive to incoming data (Tversky & Kahneman 1982, 72, 73).

Reception Theory postulates that television content dictates our construction of reality and establishes the scripts by which we interpret the world, teaching us what to expect from various situations and assisting in our behavioral choices. This theory is essential to the current criticisms relating television consumption with an increase in sexual and violent behaviors in teenagers. It is important to note that television may construct some scripts, specifically scripts for which we have little real experiences. Teens, who have little experience in relationships and sexual interactions, may turn to television to answer embarrassing questions. However, this theory has greater merit when considering how television enhances, reinforces, and tweaks scripts potentially learned in reality. Television exposes the viewer to more stories, and more story lines, all of which may be integrated into preexisting scripts and affect preexisting processing weights.

This is the basis of Cultivation Theory, which states there is a long-term effect of watching television that is quite different from the individual messages that come across in each program or episode. It states that the overall message disseminated from television “maintains stabilizes and reinforces, but does not subvert, conventional values about beliefs and behaviors” (Gerbner 1973). According to Gerbner, “Heavy viewers are likely to see the world according to the social reality constructed by television than are light viewers” (Gerbner 1973); this includes discrepancies in reporting the percentage of groups by age, gender, race, and instances of murder and divorce, among others. Television can create common knowledge that can be stored as social scripts and this televised reality can have a drastic effect on the way viewers/consumers/citizens interact with themselves and others. In reception theory, television provides the schema.

Shrum (1996) showed that heavy viewers gave higher estimates to cultivation questions regarding crime, marital discord, and occupational prevalence. Furthermore, they responded faster to these cultivation questions than light viewers, denoting more accessible exemplars through which to draw judgments and reiterating the role of television as a content provider. Heavy soap opera viewers are more likely to respond that the rate of extramarital affairs is higher than reality, people are untrustworthy, and report a higher incidence of crime. According to Gerbner, violent television does not promote violence, but rather endorses a violent world, thus leading viewers to believe that violence is simply a large part of culture; this phenomenon can be extrapolated to sexual and marital relationships.

These expectations gain greater interpersonal significance when subjects like gender and race are analyzed. Television has the power to create and reinforce stereotypes by combining concepts of social knowledge and information processing. It also has the ability to debunk these stereotypes, but the business of television prevents major social upheaval. Gerbner began his analyses in the early seventies, when television, and culture, discriminated against women and minorities. At the time, men dominated the small screen and women comprised fewer than 30% of primetime characters (Gerbner 1973) despite an even split in the actual population. Often these characters were relegated to the domestic sphere, thus drastically affecting the expectations of girls growing up in this environment. Davidson (1979) utilized high, low and neutral gender-stereotyped cartoons to demonstrated this baseline self-stereotyping; young girls who watched low gender-stereotyped cartoons provided lower sex role stereotype scores than those who viewed high stereotyped cartoons and neutral cartoons. Once again, it is difficult to detach real experiences from televised ones to determine their influence on the girls; however, the ability to counteract the preexisting stereotypes through cartoons demonstrates the power of television to affect our expectations.

The role of race stereotyping on television provides yet another complex set of circumstances. Only recently have minorities appeared in equivalent numbers to their presence in the population, but they still suffer from issues of misrepresentation (as compared to non-representation). Blacks comprise approximately 15-16% of television characters, as compared to the national composition of 13%, but most are presented as rap stars, athletes, or criminals. In fact, Blacks have become an essential component of these categories, thus making it impossible to consider one without the other. “Stereotypical television portrays of social groups do not simply activate a single trait construct in memory; rather they activate a broader, abstract mental representation or schema of those groups” (Ford 1997). Television reinforces this synonymous association between these groups and Blacks in American sentiment.

Gilliam and Iyengar (2000) skillfully tested the role of news scripts and their association with racially motivated expectations in television news by altering or eliminating the race of the suspect. The news script is a familiar one, the anchor announces the crime, video footage features the location of and interviews with witnesses, and then the anchor announces the identity (and apprehension) of the suspect. When subjects were asked to recall details about the suspect, they were more accurate in the “Black Suspect” condition (70%) compared to the “White Suspect” condition (64%, p<.05). Even more astonishingly, in the “No Suspect” condition, 44% of subjects recalled seeing a Black suspect, as compared to 19% who recalled a White suspect, and only 37% who answered correctly. These results demonstrate that the news script is not simply “a mere journalistic device… it is a powerful filter for observing daily events” (Gilliam & Iyengar 2000). We have been trained to associate ethnicity with criminal behavior such that there is an underlying assumption of race when watching the news.

Reader-Response Criticism states that television is interpreted according to preexisting scripts developed by daily interactions and gives greater credit to the active viewer. According to this theory, the interpretation of the text differs based on the individual and often depends on their relationship with the storyline. Stuart Hall presents three different types of viewers for whom one story may be interpreted in several ways (Hall 1980). Dominant viewers consume programming as it is intended; this relationship is usually defined by a similarity and understanding of the characters and storylines on a personal level. Negotiated viewers, while sympathetic to the character motives and storylines, are not as easily drawn into the narrative; this distance can be attributed to differences in race, class and gender, but the viewer is aware of how the program should be watched, and often appreciates it on some level. Finally, Oppositional viewers do not associate with the characters or storylines at all due to a drastic discrepancy between their lives and the lives presented onscreen. Internalization of programming content depends on one’s relationship with the televised message. This theory depends on active, top-down processing of television narratives and demands that the viewer bring a series of scripts to the television and interprets the content accordingly, instead of simply consuming information. In Reader Response Criticism, the television provides content to be interpreted by preexisting schemas; it “can only affect behavior through the mediating role of cognition” (Livingstone 1990) and takes less of a role in constructing scripts.

Many of the aforementioned studies can be reinterpreted through this mediating lens to explain their results. Livingstone’s discover that heavier soap opera viewers report higher instances of marital discord may be caused by preexisting theories on life, thus attracting them to soap operas. Davidson’s analysis of gender stereotyping in young girls directly addresses the issue of preexisting biases in his ‘neutral cartoon’ condition. This argument can be teased apart by investigating thee power that news media and political advertising possess in changing the beliefs of viewers. Studies regarding race priming in news and politics provide a deeper explanation for interaction between programming and impressions of reality.

“Exposure to crime should also activate race and should subsequently activate other race-relevant issues, such as welfare” (Valentino 2002). This spreading activation is dependent upon the existence of links between “race-activated” categories and utilized to great extent by political strategists. Studies conducted by Valentino (1999, 2002) and Domke (2001) demonstrate that priming in advertisements and news programming can affect viewers’ political attitudes. The subtle placement of a minority suspect in local news coverage decreased support for Clinton (as compared to Dole) and made salient the president’s concern for Whites in White subjects (Valentino 1999). Furthermore, a wide variety of racial cues were found to activate implicit stereotypes and racial attitudes (Valentino 2002), which can prompt individuals to become more “ideologically distinct in their political evaluation” (Domke 2001). It is important to note that counter-stereotypic cues can dampen racial priming indicating that the combination of visual and narrative pairing triggers this effect (Valentino 2002).
Drama vs. Comedy

The aforementioned processing theories may be intricately linked with the effects of dramatic and comedic programming. Several studies have investigated the effect of dramatic programming on concepts of the world. Livingstone’s in depth look into audience reception and the social psychology of soap operas first began to document the effect of heavy viewing on concepts of the self and others and proposed connections between social cognition and television consumption (1990). Subsequent studies by Busselle (2001) highlighted the effect of perceived television realism in crime and hospital dramas on exemplar accessibility after social judgment. He found that realism moderated the cultivation effects caused by the programs. Livingstone claimed that the power of soap operas (and by extension crime and emergency dramas) resided in their format; similar to life, soap operas have “no dominant, linear, closed message, no orderly authoritative meaning” (Livingstone 1990). This parallel, televised reality can be incorporated into a viewer’s memory with the same pace and power of actual lived experiences. However, the study of comedy is not as clear. Humor arises from knowing, utilizing, and mocking reality. It is both intricately linked to reality, drawing attention to social phenomena, and distanced from reality, by presenting a different, hopefully humorous perspective. By utilizing and mocking reality, the comedian ultimately reinforces stereotypes under the premise of humor. Comedians are respected for “pushing the envelope” and bringing humor to sensitive subjects including racism. But the effect of culturally inappropriate racial slurs in a comedic setting is still largely unknown. “Humor activates a ‘playful judgment set’ in which ones usual attitudes towards socially unacceptable actions or sentiments are temporarily suspended” (Ford 2002), but does comedy activate implicit stereotypes in the same manner that drama does? Or does the non-conscious understand irony? The prevalence of race-based comedy demands an analysis of these effects, independent of the excuse given by comedians: to draw attention to the humor of racism, and not to perpetuate it. However, in doing so, it activates and reinforces preexisting stereotypes, thus reiterating Gerbner’s comment regarding the primary function of television, which is to “maintain, stabilize and reinforce – not subvert – conventional values, beliefs and behaviors” (Gerbner 1973).

Ford tested the effect of stereotypical comedy on participants’ subsequent guilt ratings of an alleged offender. He found that subjects who viewed a series of stereotypical comedy sketches rated a Black offender (Tyrone) as guiltier than a White offender (Todd) (p<.07); there was also a significant difference between subjects in the neutral condition and the stereotypical condition, thus demonstrating that stereotypical comedy can still activate negative stereotypes in subjects and translate into very real judgmental effects. It is worthy to note that Ford used comedic routines that employed violent stereotypes, thus potentially confounding the association (i.e. perhaps violence was activated in the subjects, not just an association between Blacks and stereotypes). Although the potential of non-violent stereotypes to spread and activate violent-stereotypes is beyond the scope of this research, and will be addressed in the discussion section. The difference between comedy and drama may also involve issues of realism and mood. We have already discussed the effect of realism on schema formation and responses to social phenomena. In addition, the differences in emotion elicited by the video clip may interact with other measures to predict changes in stereotype activation. Positive moods can diminish effortful processing thereby allowing the individual to freely consume potentially stereotypical material without high thought, thereby easily affecting subsequent schemas and judgments.


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Valentino, NA., Hutchings, VL., White, IK. (2002). Cues that Matter; How Political Ads prime racial attitudes during campaigns. American Political Science Review. 96(1): 75-90.


About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
This entry was posted in Advanced Work in Media Studies, Media Effects, Research and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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