Sunday, February 9, 2014

"Mirror, Mirror": Primetime Television, Pop Culture, and the Implications of the Anti-Hero

“We’re gladiators in suits" Olivia Pope said of her hard-hitting team of investigative “fixers” on the new television sensation, Scandal, and suddenly, the world wanted to be one as well. An immediate hit, the show tops off what has been an incredible year for television, a section of pop culture that had been all but written off after what seemed the hundredth version of The Real Housewives. Other contenders for most salacious drama include House of Cards, which competes with Scandal for the prize of most political corruption per episode, and Madmen, the gilded representation of Madison Avenue Ad Men of the 50’s and 60’s. Even over-the-top, Goth teen suspense dramas like Pretty Little Liars or Ravenswood captured the American imagination like never before, developing cult followings of young adults lusting after Ezra Fitz.

The face of television has officially changed, providing the world once again with mesmeric theatrics, shocking plot twists, and some of the best actors in the business, all of which leave viewers dying for more.

There is, however, a more sinister side to this movement. Along with back-corner romance, intrigue and suspense, and gorgeous fashion, these shows offer a rather pointed picture of the world today, each one characterized by overtly public representations of corruption. Pretty Little Liars confirms every parent’s worst fear as teenagers are caught in webs of deception, violence, and sex; Scandal and House of Cards act out the political corruption and subversion of the democratic system that is any voter’s worst fear; Madmen paints a rather bleak picture of women in the business world.

While these shows seem to have little in common other than their massive followings, upon closer inspection they are all characterized by bad people doing bad things. No longer is love between prince charming and the geeky girl the plot that sells, but rather deception, suspense, and corruption work to capture the collective imagination of culture today.

Considering the plots of some of these shows that dramatize deception in the White House, or blatant gender violence and homophobia in the workplace, one cannot help but wonder how these writers can get away with the work they produce on primetime television. Why are viewers so willing to accept the fictional quality of these shows without considering their real-world implications? Why is society not more unnerved by their content? Some might argue that television has become a public manifestation of inner fantasies of danger and intrigue, a representation of the materialist mindset that values outer glamour over inner integrity, or simply stands as proof of a desensitized, cold-hearted world.   

Or, is it something else? Is it possible that America enjoys these shows precisely because they spearhead the cultural problems of today by subverting inequality in a way that the average person cannot?

Through their fictional narratives, each show points directly at a corrupted government system, a racist society, and a gender stratified world in a way that is impossible to ignore. Olivia Pope is a badass not because of her relationship with the President of the United States (though that is inevitably part of the reason viewers tune in each week), but because she has the guts to walk into the White House and take control of a broken system. Peggy Olson of Madmen may be the subject of much gendered prejudice, but she makes it in an all-male world in a way that many women are still trying to accomplish in this day and age. Pretty Little Liars undercuts the belief that youth remain sheltered and innocent throughout childhood, and also exposes younger viewers to unproblematized representations of non-normative sexuality.

These characters become inspirational, breaking down cultural barriers that seem insurmountable, and I believe it is for this reason that we idolize them.

The genius of television today is the same one that has been the defense of popular culture through the ages; it is the one that justified the extravagant melodramas of the 90’s, the sustained obsession with reality TV and The Real Housewives in whatever form they come, and  now the scripted perfection of primetime.  Television creates an aesthetic façade that reveals through its fiction the not-so-subtle truths of the world today. As a genre never taken too seriously, television shows open up a space for writers and actors to say whatever they want without repercussions, and therefore to inspire viewers to push similar boundaries in their own lives. One can only hope that incredible popularity of each of these shows is indicative of a greater awareness of the large social inequalities that still characterize the world today.

So bring on the next seasons of Scandal and House of Cards. I’ll be ready with my critical eye and my oh-so-fabulous, Olivia Pope wine glass.

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