Doctor? Please help me! I've watched House of Cards and I think I'm sick! I have ...cynicism!

Alexandra Manoliu

PhD candidate in the Political Science Department at the University of Montreal.

The success of House of Cards (and other political TV series) in recent years hasn’t passed unnoticed. Alexandra Manoliu from the University of Montreal takes a closer look at the importance of these series for their audiences and suggests that they are perceived as more than a mere form of entertainment which can show us how House of Cards is, for many, a model of politics; a dirty and scandalous world that transforms naïve viewers into real-life cynics.

We are now, more than ever living in a “culture of cynicism” that started decades ago. “Classical” factors of cynicism vary from changes in the media that lead to changes in the nature of politics, to politicians and the effects of campaigns, to changes in the social and economic status of the population.

One of the most popular factors to blame in the last years for the cynicism of the population was the media, accused of creating and spreading a “video malaise”, a disease that especially affects the politically un-informed. I share the fear of Matthew Flinders that “the media distorts the public’s view of politics in a way that can only generate cynicism, fear and despair”.

House of Cards, the series that transformed many into addicted fans is after all a product of the media. Whilst political researchers concentrate all their efforts into proving that the media creates cynicism they focus on print and broadcast media. For the broadcast media, they look at political debates and recent years have shown an increase in the interest for entertainment shows like Saturday Night Live and the Oprah Winfrey Show. So, while everyone’s attention is distracted with major forms of media, is House of Cards, partly responsible for the cynicism of those who watch it?

There might be two possible effects triggered in those watching House of Cards. First is the creation of cynicism: people who are not cynical start watching it – because they heard of it, because it is a trend, because friends told them to, because there is simply too much fuss about it. With every episode, with every monologue of Frank Underwood about manipulation and corruption, they slowly start doubting real politics, judging real politicians as selfish individuals who are capable of everything to win, until reaching a cynical point of no return. The second effect is reinforcement; it involves people who are already cynical for their own reasons (negative experiences with elected politicians, un-kept promises etc.), who will watch House of Cards, because at an unconscious level, their cynicism is constantly fed with negative scenes – which reassure them that being cynical is the correct response to politics.

What does House of Cards (and other political TV series for that matter) have that is special which makes them worth considering as a new potential variable in Cappella and Jamieson’s “spiral of cynicism”? They share a very important feature with movies and soap operas that is even more obvious in the case of political TV series: the line between fiction and reality is very thin. It is very easy for their audience to take characters and events from House of Cards and compare them with real-life politicians and events – no matter how much Obama is trying to convince us that life in Washington is far more boring than is portrayed in House of Cards.

Why is House of Cards a soap opera and at the same time not a soap opera? Because the characters are fictional, but not that fictional (we see a President, a Secretary, Chief of Staff – real positions held at the White House), the action follows the same pattern, taking place in the real city of Washington, in a real country. For some reason, those behind House of Cards didn’t feel the need to create a fake universe, to invent a country, non-traceable on the map, with a fictional political regime and invented politicians. So, it is easier for people to identify with the fictional president, feel the national pride, and understand the values that are broken if what is seen on the screen is the perfect image of political reality with only slight alterations.

People start comparing Frank Underwood with Barack Obama; see the White House and the people working for it through the eyes of the characters. It is about transporting characters and events from their fictional world into reality. For many, House of Cards might be seen as the entry-ticket into political life; one of their few ways of interacting with, and knowing something about, politics.

In the end, does House of Cards make us cynics? Do we need to start looking for symptoms of cynicism if we have seen the previous seasons? What are the signs of this disease? We cannot pinpoint these exactly, but maybe we should be aware of the fact that our system of judgement has changed: we see the villain as a hero and against all our principles of morality and decency we can’t get enough of him. We want honest, trustworthy politicians to hold the power in reality, but in the privacy of our homes we admire Frank Underwood-the devious, Machiavellian character, who steps on corpses to succeed, whose hands are always stained with dirty politics…


This article first appeared on The Crick Centre Blog:

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