Study: Immigrant-centered shows lead to ‘inclusive attitudes’ about immigrants

Nico Santos as Mateo Liwanag and Nichole Bloom as Cheyenne Lee in NBC’s “Superstore.” | Photo by Evans Vestal Ward/NBC

THE buzzword in entertainment is diversity, and has been for the last half-decade.

The great fight for more ethnic and gender minority representation reached mainstream status in 2016 but when it coalesced with the election of President Donald Trump, diversity became much more than a matter of “feeling seen” by the characters of minority backgrounds.

Trump’s greatest political white whale — the fight against illegal and legal immigration practices — has sparked copious discourse over immigrants’ rights, the inhumane treatment at the border and whether or not immigrants hurt or harm American jobs, culture and public safety.

Films and television portraying immigrants took a new role after Trump’s election, offering varying perspectives on the immigration debate; existing film and TV characters who are immigrants took the fore and new characters and storylines exemplified the emotionally, socially and politically complex experience of the immigrant.

A new study released on Wednesday, Sept. 23 from USC’s Norman Lear Center For the Study of Entertainment, Media & Society and the immigrant advocacy group Define American found that television shows, in particular, with immigrant characters are changing viewers’ opinions and inspiring real-life action.

The report — titled “Change the Narrative, Change the World” — illuminates both the problems with the way immigrants are presently portrayed as well as the potential of fully fleshed-out immigrant characters to change attitudes and perspectives about immigration rights and policy as a whole.

The study analyzed the depictions of 129 immigrant characters across 97 episodes of 59 different scripted narrative TV programs that aired from August 2018 to July 2019.

Among the findings, researchers also conducted a survey to gauge the impact of three prominent storylines from that block of time — those shows included the CBS drama “Madam Secretary,” the Netflix drama “Orange Is the New Black,” and the NBC sitcom “Superstore.”

As previously reported in the Asian Journal, “Superstore” co-stars Filipino American actor Nico Santos who plays Mateo Liwanag, an employee of the titular super store who is a Filipino undocumented immigrant.

This survey — which included a diverse array of 940 participants — found that there was a high emotional impact among viewers; according to the researchers, viewers “most often felt empathetic, angry, sad, or disgusted while watching.” Negative emotions sparked a desire to take “low investment” action in support of the inclusion of immigrants into the culture like posting on social media or taking the time to learn more about immigration.

Conservative and religious viewers reported feeling “manipulated” and were more likely to have “less inclusive immigration attitudes, knowledge about immigration and immigration behaviors.”

But the researchers pointed out that although negative emotions could catalyze attitude shifts, stories that evoke more positive emotions are more likely to motivate viewers to take “high-investment immigration actions,” like donating to charities that support immigrants.

The survey went on to conclude that viewers who watched “Superstore” felt “a sense of friendship” in regards to Santos’ character Mateo, who is portrayed on the show as ambitious and sassy yet sweet and hospitable. Additionally, after being exposed to Mateo’s storyline, participants were “more likely to support an increase in immigrants coming to the U.S., particularly those who had little or no real-life contact with immigrants.”

But the study also pointed out the pitfalls of existing portrayals of immigrants in the United States. For example, there is still an overrepresentation of Middle Eastern immigrants and an underrepresentation of Asian immigrants.

There is also a need to transcend stereotypes by finding fresh, more nuanced portrayals of the U.S.-Mexico border issues and avoiding perpetuating the notion of immigrants, particularly brown immigrants, as criminals.

Moreover, there is still a need to make visible immigrants from even deeper cultural intersections like those with disabilities and transgender immigrants.

Filmmaker Isabel Sandoval — the writer, director and star of the romantic drama “Lingua Franca” that centers an immigrant Filipina who is also trans — tweeted on Wednesday, Sept. 23 a link to the study with a simple caption: “That’s why I made LINGUA FRANCA, now on [Netflix].”

USC and Define American researchers also provided recommendations for storytellers to improve their portrayals of the vast immigrant community: tell more authentic stories by hiring more writers and consultants from the immigrant community; write characters and storylines with nuance to avoid perpetuating stereotypes; evoke positive emotions to drive change; and consider the audience and how they may be impacted by these stories.

“By harnessing the power of entertainment, we can engage audience members, empower them to take action on immigration-related issues and inspire a cultural redefinition of what it means to be an American,” the researchers wrote.

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