by Mehrzad Pashutanizadeh
“Tonight, I give you the truth. And the truth is this: The American Dream has failed you.”
Yes, dark words for even darker times. Frank Underwood, for three seasons now, has captivated the imagination of millions of viewers on the hit Netflix original House of Cards with an entertaining yet clearly over-dramatized representation of American politics. While we should be fortunate that shaky ethical figures to his extent are for the most part only works of fiction, the underlying realities that are intended to only be symbolic bring up a startling and saddening truth; the stagnant state of our political and economic environment has pushed television and film to become the outlets of the voice of reason.
For a long period of time the purpose of television and radio was to absolve the mind from the real world with outlandish displays of caricature that was intended to push our imaginations and open our minds to possibilities of the unknown. Radio broadcasts verbally depicted the martian invasions in Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds”, television and film was dominated by the slapstick humor of Tom and Jerry and the Three Stooges, and print had a large focus on the comics that would bring families together in laughter. And yet today, not much further along in the grand scheme of time, our media more than ever reflects our want for the normal, the sane, the realistic. Rather than only point to a change of artistic style that has accompanied our social evolution over the years (something that is absolutely a piece of the pie), one must look closer at how shows, such as House of Cards, satisfy what we long for.
Frank Underwood, however Machiavellian in nature, is a politician who dares to be bold, blunt, and effective. Taking charge of situations and pushing towards action out of political gridlock, Underwood is able to cross party lines and find bipartisan agreement in the quagmire of the United States Congress and White House. Idealism is not a setback for action, and instead his core political beliefs are what push him to be able to even contradict himself at times such that the ends do in fact justify the means. Sound familiar? Most likely not. It is in our increasingly hostile political environment today that these attributes of true leadership are lost in the detriments of political fundamentalism.
House of Cards unfortunately is not a revolutionary example of media indulging in this new type of realist fiction, and politics is not the only subject matter of allegory. As for over two decades issues such as the staggering rise in corporate-worker tensions, racial unease, and income inequality have culminated into films that have had these topics forced upon them, such that they may connect to the social conflicts we acknowledge as slowly leading to our demise. We all can empathize with antagonists in Office Space or American Beauty who see quitting their job as the only way to escape the hellish imprisonment the system has placed them in, or the defiance against the suppression of the lower class such as that in Elysium.
Our political and economic establishment has been unable to address the issues that we the people are begging to be resolved. And until such is done we will return to film and television like a drug, to play out fantasies where power is put back into those who can help turn the tides away from social and economic collapse.
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