Kevin Spacey and Kerry Washington Are Laughing At Us All
How Television is Ruining American Politics
By Molly O’Connor
If you’re reading this, chances are you don’t know life without television. The days of Nickelodeon and Disney are some of your fondest childhood memories; nights watching Netflix in your bed are your present addiction. It is a widely accepted fact that TV shows and other media texts are avenues for producers and writers to comment on and even challenge social and cultural norms. For example, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is well known for its “fictional” accounts of very real crimes. But the relationship goes both ways. That is, while television shows comment on culture, they also have a hand in creating culture. So, the question becomes, are these television shows accurately reflecting reality? My answer: probably not.
I find this question to be especially salient when considering the proliferation of political dramas in the past few years, most notably, ABC’s Scandal and the Netflix original series House of Cards. These shows present a dramatized version American politics and government. Despite their overwhelming fictional nature, they still have the potential to sway public opinion in a very real way.
Scandal, written by prime time powerhouse Shonda Rhimes, follows the life of D.C. fixer Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington. At Pope & Associates, Olivia and her team of lawyers solve the problems of the Capitol’s finest, including senators, wealthy lobbyists, and the president himself. The show is full of subplots that play on typical stereotypes about the American government and the people who work in it. Huck, Olivia’s computer genius, is an ex-B613 agent (a secret government agency created to protect the homeland at any cost) whose debilitating addiction to torturing and killing people constantly plagues his relationships. Olivia herself is embroiled in a love affair with the president. Needless to say, the show makes for great entertainment and enjoys greater success as its time on air continues.
House of Cards is released in full seasons on the popular streaming website Netflix. The show, created by Beau Willimon, follows the lives of Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, and his wife, played by Robin Wright, in their quest to take over the Washington establishment. Underwood, a congressman and Democrat from South Carolina, is married to Claire, who runs a charity that provides clean water to countries in need. They enjoy all the trappings of wealth; their home is beautifully decorated, their attire is impeccable, and of course they attend every important Washington event. When Underwood is passed over for the Secretary of State nomination his shark-like nature kicks in and he sets on out on a warpath for revenge. The show is a tale of cold calculation and ruthless pragmatism.
In spite of their fictional nature, TV shows still function as complex representations and commentaries on the world they portray.
The television industry expanded as demand for high quality entertainment increased. TV shows provide a momentary escape from the dullness of our everyday lives; they transport us into the imaginary worlds of the characters and stories. This escape is addictive — we love the glamour, the drama, and the suspense. As our addiction gets worse it becomes more debilitating. Think about the process of binge watching a show — you sit in one spot for hours on end, not moving, not talking, and not thinking. As viewers we become fully consumed in the world of the show. This level of entertainment so consumes us that we often forget that what we are watching is fiction. In spite of their fictional nature, TV shows still function as complex representations and commentaries on the world they portray.
Many media productions are meant to be read as texts; they communicate messages and focus on specific themes. In this vein, television shows function not just as entertainment, but also as social commentaries and cultural explorations. However, the ways in which TV impacts our social world often go unnoticed. First, each viewer interprets the themes and messages of a media text from a unique position. This positionality means that the message the producer intended to communicate may not be the message each viewer receives. In fact, in most cases the producers message gets lost in the viewers individual frame of reference. Furthermore, discourse about TV has become a major way to construct meaning within a larger social setting. It is easy to talk to someone about a TV show that you both watch, but we may not realize that we are constructing meaning and assigning value to these shows during these conversations.
When entertainment television is viewed as a reflection of objective reality, problems arise.
These functions of television do not operate in distinctly separate spheres. In fact, they are inextricably linked. Although television is entertaining like never before, it is not necessarily a true reflection of reality, and its social commentary may not be well-founded. When entertainment television is viewed as a reflection of objective reality, problems arise. Shows like House of Cards and Scandal are changing perceptions of American government because people believe that the situations in these shows are an accurate reflection of politics. Viewers increasingly believe that Francis Underwood is an accurate portrayal of American politicians because they mistakenly believe that shows are based entirely on reality. In truth, most political TV shows take a fraction of reality, dramatize it, fictionalize it, and then use it to get more viewers.
House of Cards plays into American cynicism about government and politics. The show is incredibly dark. First, the setting and aesthetic qualities of the production are overwhelmingly gray. This automatically puts the viewer in a distanced and cold state. Moreover, the characters are all villains. It is difficult to identify with the cast personally or emotionally due to their cold, calculating, ruthless natures. Francis is even willing to cheat on his wife to get ahead. Yet she too views this as necessary and thus acceptable, further perverting her, and viewers’, sense of morality. It helps propagate the idea that all politicians are power thirsty animals who are self-motivated and incapable of empathy. Willimon plays into the corrupt, bribe-accepting, extortionist politician trope. There is no denying that some politicians are like this, but the problem with House of Cards is that it leads viewers to believe that all politicians are like this. This then feeds into real disillusionment with the government and real reluctance to participate in politics. When is the last time we read a story about a congressman shoving a journalist in front of a subway train? Never. But more people are beginning to believe that it could happen, because politicians will do anything for more power. That’s what Frank Underwood would do.
On the surface, Scandal presents a more optimistic view of political activity in America. But when we look at the subplots, and the shows progression, the picture is just as dark. Rhimes explores political amorality at a more personal level, which makes it more acceptable. Everyone has their weaknesses; everyone makes mistakes, which is excusable and even understandable to viewers. Furthermore, the shows dramatic aspects are about real issues that politicians have dealt with before. Olivia’s affair with the president seems reasonable to viewers because we all know what Clinton did. But we cannot overlook the show’s more unrealistic aspects. Although they may be unreasonable, they speak to a type of corruption and manipulation that Americans increasingly believe politicians are capable of. What’s more, people believe that politicians regularly carry out this type of blackmail to get what they want.
This is not to say that all viewers are so naive that TV shows can change their beliefs and actions. However, there are several factors that work against even the savviest viewer. First, it is proven that as the representational quality of media texts increases, so does the perception that they tell the truth. If a movie or a TV show is well produced, viewers are less likely to doubt its messages. So shows like Scandal and House of Cards, which have production budgets in the millions, are more likely to be accepted as accurate representations of reality. Viewer knowledgeability also affects interpretation of media texts. For example, a White House aide may be able to discern fact from fiction more easily than someone not employed in politics when watching Scandal. This does not make one better than the other, it simply means that they have different referential tools which allow them to interpret the show differently.
The truth is, these shows are political dramas. They are created to entertain, not to inform the American people about the real corruption in our government. If every politician were Francis Underwood, or if every vice president extorted the president, we would not have a functioning government. There is no doubt that these shows represent a portion of reality, but to take them as full and fair reflections of reality is a mistake that has the potential to alter American political culture irrevocably.