California Forum

Sorry, liberals. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ won’t change Trumpworld’s minds

Activists dressed as characters from "The Handmaid's Tale" gather in the Texas Capitol Rotunda as they protest SB 8, a bill that would require health care facilities, including hospitals and abortion clinics, to bury or cremate any fetal remains whether from abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth, and they would be banned from donating aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers, on May 23 in Austin.
Activists dressed as characters from "The Handmaid's Tale" gather in the Texas Capitol Rotunda as they protest SB 8, a bill that would require health care facilities, including hospitals and abortion clinics, to bury or cremate any fetal remains whether from abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth, and they would be banned from donating aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers, on May 23 in Austin. AP

Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” ends its first season on Wednesday, after weeks of think pieces on its capacity to raise consciousness across the partisan divide.

Many on the left seek a way to persuade President Donald Trump’s voters. Within my own liberal Southern California filter-bubble, “Handmaid” is frequently touted as the answer.

“If anyone wants to know ‘why we fight’ just have them watch this series,” went one typical Facebook comment. “Arguing with Trump voters logically gets us nowhere but showing them an emotional piece like this can have an impact.”

But can it? I study the potential for entertainment to shape attitudes on health and social issues. Research suggests emotional arguments are often more effective than logical ones, and entertainment narratives can influence more than obvious attempts to persuade.

Entertainment is powerful both because of its massive reach (yes, even in 2017) and its ability to transport viewers into another world. I would like to be similarly optimistic about “Handmaid.”

But I can’t.

First, the series is preaching primarily to the choir. We tend to seek out information that fits our pre-existing beliefs. Traditionally, the most popular TV shows have had broad, bipartisan appeal.

As the TV universe has fragmented, however, “niche-fication” has produced viewing bubbles that mirror voting patterns. Compared to the mass-market “Wonder Woman,” which brought in more than $100 million in its opening weekend, “Handmaid” is a niche product. It is currently only available to Hulu’s 12 million subscribers, of which 84 percent are between age 18 and 49.

We did an analysis of 2.5 million U.S. Facebook users who have shown interest in the show, and found that 80 percent are female and 54 percent are liberal or very liberal (compared with 23 percent conservative or very conservative).

Beyond seeking out “friendly” content, we tend to interpret media messages through the lens of our existing worldview. This often increases polarization, and makes it especially difficult to shift attitudes on value-laden issues. Messages perceived as having an agenda can inspire a feeling of being coerced, and end up being rejected.

As a result, conservatives who tune into “Handmaid” have come away with unexpected interpretations. One right-leaning columnist viewed the repressive regime of Gilead not as an extension of Christian fundamentalism, but of secular liberal elite control over Hollywood, academia, and the tech industry.

Hollywood still has the power to shape American culture, but the impact of any story depends on the size and scope of its audience and its ability to overcome ideological differences. “Handmaid” (along with more mainstream fare such as “Wonder Woman”) will no doubt remain a cultural touchstone for liberals, energizing and galvanizing those who already are alarmed by the current political atmosphere.

Here in California, however, where dissent is perhaps under the least threat from the Trump administration, fans who want to translate “Handmaid” mania into political progress shouldn’t rely on its entertainment value. More effective, perhaps, would be to truly heed Atwood’s message: Fight back, while you still can.

Erica L. Rosenthal, Ph.D., is a senior research associate at the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center, where she studies the influence of entertainment on society. Follow them @LearCenter or @HollywdHealth.

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