Contentious Entertainment: The Role of Character and Narrative Features in Shaping Audience Response to Abortion Storylines

John J. Brooks*, Nathan Walter, Erica L. Rosenthal, Kate Langrall Folb

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


In the United States, a growing number of television shows have introduced storylines involving abortion and reproductive health which have the potential to inform and educate viewers. In light of this increase in both the number and diversity of representations, there remain questions regarding their impact on audience attitudes toward this contentious issue. Using a 3 (character disposition) x 2 (consent status) experiment (N = 520), this study examines the influence of a storyline from the television show 13 Reasons Why. By manipulating both the context of the sexual encounter (a narrative feature) and the main character’s affective disposition (a character feature), the study sought to better understand the role such contextual features play in shaping the audience’s response, both directly as well as through their influences on identification. The findings indicate a need for caution in presenting controversial issues on screen: a worrying asymmetry emerged, where negative contextual features promoted less favorable attitudes while positive features had no observable effect. Consequently, abortion depictions could potentially contribute to anti-abortion sentiments if the focal characters are not presented sympathetically and favorably. Thus, enhancing the appeal of these representations should be of paramount importance for conscientious storytellers and practitioners.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)232-240
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Health Communication
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Communication
  • Library and Information Sciences


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