The Real Difference Between 'Republican' TV and 'Democratic' Shows? How They Portray Identity
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
You don't move to a new town, take a new job, or make a new friend to stay the same. But you don't want to lose your soul, either. The human psyche lives between those two contradictory drives: be constant and be flexible. That's mirrored in the aesthetics of our stories, where plots fall on a spectrum from, say, Mad Men (where identity is flexible, and characters change in response to their profession, which is always what it is) to Modern Family (where identity is constant, and life's demands change for the characters, who are always what they are). If you generally prefer stories in which the hero has a true self (main challenge: finding a place in the world), you may be deeply and temperamentally different from someone who leans toward the other kind of story—the one where self changes under pressure (main challenge: making a place in the world). For instance, according to a study released last week, "true self" television appeals more to Republicans, while "flexible self" shows lure Democrats.
Those aren't the categories used by the researchers at Experian Simmons (the firm's John Fetto thinks Democrats just like "shows about damaged people," as he told Hollywood Reporter). But I think different instincts about identity are the real divide between the top Republican-favored programs (which included "Modern Family," "V," and "Lie to Me") and those with more Democratic fans ("Mad Men," "30 Rock," "The Good Wife"). To see "Democrat" protagonists as "damaged," you have to imagine that they have some unchanging essence that they failed to protect. But Liz Lemon's story isn't about her resisting "the suits"; it's about how she changes in response to them.
A couple of caveats: No show is purely one type or the other, because all stories mix the two sensibilities. And plenty of Democrats like shows on the Republican list. The difference, though, is that Republicans like those shows more, and they shun the ones that appeal most to the Democrats.
Still, that's a real contrast, which may mean that Experian Simmons' findings should be added to the burgeoning list of studies that are finding links between temperament and political ideology.
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