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Feature

A photo of Will and Grace

The series "Will & Grace" airs its final episode on Thursday. U research shows it had an historical impact on the way viewers perceive gay men and helped lower prejudice.

U research shows Will

Series finale Thursday night

By Patty Mattern

May 17, 2006

"There is no question in my mind that 'Will & Grace' has played an important role in changing attitudes about gay men," says Edward Schiappa, professor and chair of the communication studies department and the Paul W. Frenzel Chair of Liberal Arts at the University. "There are at least two empirical studies that have been done that support this. We did the first several years ago, and it will be published later this year in the Journal of Homosexuality. We found that the more folks watched 'Will & Grace,' the less prejudice they reported toward gay men."

The "Will & Grace" series finale is Thursday, May 18.

The studies Schiappa cites were conducted with U researchers Dean Hewes, also professor of communication studies, and Peter Gregg, instructor and doctoral graduate communication studies department.

Schiappa, Gregg, and Hewes surveyed 245 college students and found a significant correlation between positive experiences of the series 'Will & Grace' and lower levels of anti-gay prejudice.

"The more viewers watched and enjoyed Will and supporting character Jack, the lower their level of prejudice," Schiappa says. Most notably, such correlations were "strongest among those with the least amount of prior direct personal contact with gay men--a finding that strongly suggests the TV series influences viewers' attitudes."

"The most important finding was this: The fewer gay friends or co-workers [study participants] reported, the stronger the relationship between viewing frequency and lower prejudice," Schiappa says. "In fact, there was no significant relationship between viewing and prejudice for those who already had a lot of gay contacts."

"The more viewers watched and enjoyed Will and supporting character Jack, the lower their level of prejudice," Schiappa says. Most notably, such correlations were "strongest among those with the least amount of prior direct personal contact with gay men--a finding that strongly suggests the TV series influences viewers' attitudes."

The researchers have created a theory called the Parasocial Contact Hypothesis, Schiappa says.

"Our Parasocial Contact Hypothesis contends that positive experiences with minority characters can reduce prejudice in a manner similar to direct contact with people," says Schiappa.

Fifty years of research and 700 studies have already supported what is known as the Contact Hypothesis, which holds that direct interpersonal contact, under certain circumstances, between majority and minority groups can contribute to lower prejudice. For example, white people who have contact with black people on equal terms are less likely to be prejudiced than those without such contact. Mass communication researchers have also proven that most viewers treat televised characters as real, and "parasocial" interaction is mentally processed similarly to direct interaction, Schiappa says.

"Through the medium of television, viewers actually develop a relationship with the characters, and this parasocial relationship leads to lessened prejudice," he says. Will and Jack are two very different gay men, so your understanding of the category of "gay men" is going to be more complex--or differentiated--the more you watch the show. As Gordon Allport, father of the Contact Hypothesis, says: A differentiated category is the opposite of a stereotype.

Schiappa reports he knows of another study "in the publication pipeline" that replicates the findings of the 'Will & Grace' study. "That study also proves that 'Will & Grace' reduces prejudice, even though the authors' theory for explaining that change is a bit different. They noted that viewers who like Grace and identify with her will, in turn, feel more positively about the gay characters. Being a 'friend of a friend' is another way that prejudice can be reduced."