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People mocked Vice President Joe Biden mercilessly (by people we mean Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart) for saying that Will & Grace helped create the massive change in how America views gays and lesbians. But Jonathan Gottschall, the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, agrees. He writes in Psychology Today that research shows that regular contact with LGBT friends or family members is a better predictor of gay-friendly attitudes than gender, level of education, age, and even political or religious affiliation -- "and the same seems to be true for the illusory relationships we form with fiction characters."
Gottschall says viewers relate to TV characters (like Modern Family's gay couple, Cam and Mitchell) as though they are our real-life friends. "When we are absorbed in fiction, we form judgments about the characters exactly as we do with real people, and extend those judgments to the generalizations we make about groups. When straight viewers watch likeable gay characters on shows like Will and Grace, Modern Family, Glee, and Six Feet Under they come to root for them, to empathize with them -- and this seems to shape their attitudes toward homosexuality in the real-world. Studies indicate that watching television with gay friendly themes lessens viewer prejudice, with stronger effects for more prejudiced viewers."
The case is the same for race as well (meaning white fans of Everybody Hates Chris and The Cosby Show are actually more tolerant of people of color), leading the author to argue that fictional characters "may have improved the lot of American minorities as much as direct political action has."
According to Psychology Today, fiction in all its forms leaves viewers defenseless and, say psychologists Melanie Green and Tim Brock, "radically alters the way information is processed." Gottschall says, "New research doesn't just suggest that fictitious gays blazed the trail that led to Barack Obama's historic endorsement of gay marriage. It suggests that but for 'fictitious blacks' -- from Kunta Kinte to the powerful African American commander-in-chief on the television show 24 -- we might not have had a President Obama in the first place."
Sadly, Gottschall admits this intense impression by our fictitious "friends" goes both ways: The racist Birth of a Nation inspired KKK members while "Ayn Rand novels like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have spread an ethic of hard-core individualism through American culture, inspired the Tea Party, influenced the Federal Reserve (Alan Greenspan was a Rand disciple), and made the rise of politicians like Ron and Rand Paul possible."