The statement by the National Council of Churches Singapore (NCCS) on the live-action adaptation of the 1991 Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast,  requires closer scrutiny for its apparent misrepresentation of what Professor Edward Schiappa had said, and the context in which he said it.

The NCCS’ statement was issued to “pastors and church leaders” following news that Disney has included a gay character in its latest stage adaption of the popular Disney cartoon.

The NCCS statement was titled: “The Gay Agenda In Disney’s Beauty And The Beast”.

“Some Christian leaders here are deeply concerned about the LGBT representation in this new Disney movie,” the statement said. “They see this as an attempt to influence young children and socialise them at an early age into thinking that the homosexual lifestyle is normal.”

It urged “pastors and church leaders to alert members of their congregation about the homosexual content in Disney’s remake of Beauty and the Beast.”

The NCCS then cites Professor Edward Schiappa of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to back up its claims that  “studies have shown that watching LGBT characters in popular entertainment may not only result in greater acceptance of these groups but also the lifestyles they have adopted.”

The NCCS said [emphasis added]:

“According to Edward Shiappa [sic], a professor of comparative media studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ‘There is no doubt that kids seeing the positive gay characters could have a significant effect that would contribute to such children’s learning about the world and who is in it.'”

Now, how religious organisations wish to instruct their flock is entirely up to them.

In this case, however, members of the public need to point out the misrepresentation in the NCCS’ statement, in particular in its quote attributed to Professor Schiappa.

Prof Schiappa

First, the NCCS misspelt Professor Schiappa’s name.

Second, the NCCS has left out – whether by purpose or by mistake – the words “positively portrayed gay characters” in its quote of the Professor, as pointed out by website Mothership, and instead changed the words to “positive gay characters”.

What Professor Schiappa said, according to The Washington Post, where the NCCS seemed to have lifted from, was:

“There is no doubt that kids seeing positively portrayed gay characters could have a significant effect that would contribute to such children’s learning about the world and who is in it.”

It is to be noted that Professor Schiappa said nothing about “the gay lifestyle”.

And as Mothership explained, there is an important difference between “positive gay characters” and “positively portrayed gay characters”.

Semantics may be one thing, a complete misrepresentation of what Professor Schiappa had said, on the other hand, is quite another.

The NCCS’ citation of what Professor Schiappa had said gives a misleading suggestion or inference – that his work served as a warning that children could be unduly or negatively influenced by such representation of gay characters in the media.

This is especially so if you consider that the NCCS’ quote of Professor Schiappa’s remarks is immediately preceded by NCCS’ insidious claim that “studies have shown that watching LGBT characters in popular entertainment may not only result in greater acceptance of these groups but also the lifestyles they have adopted.”

Not only is that a misrepresentation of what the professor had said (which we will come to shortly), it must be stressed that Professor Schiappa’s work hardly even mentioned the word “lifestyle” or “gay lifestyle”, for that matter.

While the quote is apparently lifted off The Washington Post report, it is useful here to refer to the professor’s research itself, and this takes us back to 2005, and to a paper titled, “The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis”.

Prejudice

The paper was the work of Professor Schiappa, Peter B. Gregg, & Dean E. Hewes. Its aim was to study whether “under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members.”

It builds on previous other studies which found “that prejudice can be reduced as one learns more about a category of people.”

Specifically, Schiappa’s paper asked two questions:

  1. Can parasocial contact by majority group members with minority group members lead to a decrease in prejudice?
  2. Are the effects of parasocial contact moderated by previous interpersonal contact with minority group members?

“Prejudicial attitudes toward a category of people, such as ‘Arabs’ or ‘gay men’, may be based on a negative experience, a mass mediated stereotype, or socialization from family, friends, or other sources,” the paper said.

“We contend that parasocial contact can provide the sort of experience that can reduce prejudice, particularly if a majority group member has limited opportunity for interpersonal contact with minority group members.”

The paper said a person can develop affective ties with persons known only through mediated communication, and “whether one reappraises one’s beliefs about one’s ingroup or not, the resulting parasocial relationships could encourage a change in prejudicial attitudes about the outgroups to which minority characters belong.”

In other words, a person can change his [negative, prejudicial] attitude towards a person from a minority group (such as gay persons) if they come into personal contact with them, or through positive representation in the media.

“When direct contact is minimal, television can play an influential role in viewers’ attitudes about minority group members, and such influence may increase or decrease prejudice,” the paper said.

Attitude change from one Disney adaption?

Can one Disney movie or one live-action adaption of a story change a person’s attitude toward gay people?

“Because avoidance of members of specific groups is a form of negative social behavior that is consistent with negative attitudes, positive contact can create a sense of dissonance that can lead to attitude change,” the paper said.

However, it added:

“The contact must be sustained and non-superficial in order to create a dissonant condition in which negative beliefs come into conflict with new beliefs resulting from positive experiences.”

The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis

And here is the important caveat to the study, as the paper itself concluded at the end of its presentation: “it should be stressed that it is unlikely that there is a single aspect of parasocial contact that can be identified as causally related to attitude change.”

“As our review of the literature on the Contact Hypothesis indicated, dissonance and attitude change results from a combination of factors, including new information about a minority group and a sense of trust, respect, or attraction with representatives of a minority group.”

So, NCCS’ fear that one Disney adaption can caused potential havoc in the lives of children is entirely overblown.

Problems with NCCS’ statement

What are we to make of all this? Well, several things:

First, the NCCS’ statement is misleading, in particular with relation to the context of what Professor Schiappa and his colleagues studied and found.

Second, Professor Schiappa himself has stated, in other media interviews, that it is a good thing if people were influenced by the media’s presentation and representation of gay people into abandoning their prejudice against gay people. In fact, the NCCS itself has, in past statements, urged its members not to perpetuate discrimination of gay people.

Third, the NCCS’ statement has edited Professor Schiappa’s remarks to paint a different view of what the professor had in fact said.

Fourth, there is only one mention of the word “lifestyle” (as in “gay lifestyle”) in Professor Schiappa’s paper. And the word was used to describe what was represented in a television series, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in 2003. The paper said nothing about how this “gay lifestyle” would be perpetuated by contact with gay people.

Agenda?

Lastly, it is strange for the NCCS to now cite the study by Professor Schiappa and his colleagues, to back its own claims, when the church had dismissed precisely such studies in the past.

In a statement in 2003 on the same topic of homosexuality, for example, the NCCS said.

“In public debate about homosexuality scientific data have sometimes been used to support certain claims. To the layperson, science has been unsuspectingly regarded as an objective discipline and conclusions based on its findings have been assumed as irrefutable and authoritative. But that is an assumption we do not accept …”

Why is it now citing studies to support its claims?

Clearly, the NCCS cannot have its cake and eat it, especially when it misrepresents what others have said.

Also, the NCCS accused the adaption of having a “gay agenda”. What is the NCCS’ own agenda in misquoting and misrepresenting what Professor Schiappa had actually said, and mis-contextualising, if you will, what he studied and found?

And if you’re wondering what the whole controversy is all about, well have a look at the scene in question.

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