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

Guest Blogger Bio: Rachel Glasser is a first year Master’s student of English and Gender Studies at Wake Forest University. Her research interests include Gender and Gothic Studies, as well as Feminist analyses of pop culture. You can read more of her work at keepinitglassy.blogspot.com, or follow on twitter, @keepinitglassy, for regular updates. This post first appeared on her blog on February 9th, 2014.

“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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21 comments for ““Mirror, Mirror”: Primetime Television, Pop Culture, and the Implications of the Anti-Hero

  1. Donna L
    April 9, 2014 at 9:57 pm

    Thank you for this. Just curious: was calling Mad MenMadmen” a deliberate choice? The implications of both are interesting, but I’m not sure they’re identical.

  2. pheenobarbidoll
    April 9, 2014 at 10:06 pm

    Not my genre so I have no clue about any of these shows.

    • pheenobarbidoll
      April 9, 2014 at 10:07 pm

      Hit enter too quickly- but I enjoyed the posting. :)

  3. Gareth Wilson
    April 10, 2014 at 1:01 am

    It’s always bothered me that gladiators were slaves, fighting pointless battles for entertainment. So it’s not the metaphor you’d expect two black people to use.

    • Matt
      April 10, 2014 at 2:00 am

      Gladiators are a relic of the distant past. There hasn’t been anyone left to be offended on their behalf in over 1000 years. Given how hard it is even for dedicated social justice types to take more than 2 or 3 oppressions seriously at the same time, one hardly expects a TV writer to care about the inappropriateness of whitewashing gladiators into gritty justice honorpersons fighting on figurative “fields of battle” in their cliche metaphors.

      • Gareth Wilson
        April 10, 2014 at 4:37 pm

        It’s not the offensiveness to gladiators so much as the appropriateness of the metaphor. Even setting the slavery aside, gladiators were just entertainers. But the Scandal characters think they’re doing something important.

  4. April 10, 2014 at 5:14 am

    Veep > House of Cards

  5. DouglasG
    April 10, 2014 at 8:03 am

    The British House of Cards was quite good enough for me.

    • April 10, 2014 at 9:27 am

      As someone who loved the original UK House of Cards for what is was in the context of the politics of the late 90s, it behooves me to note that you could well be letting yourself miss out on a notably canny adaptation which has very knowingly updated itself to the US politics of today.

      • DouglasG
        April 10, 2014 at 10:37 pm

        Very possibly. I’ll admit that I’ve gotten my back up somewhat after having seen various articles lauding the US version to the sky without even acknowledging that there was ever another version. It would have been interesting to see a comparison of the two and a discussion of how the adaptation came together.

        (I find a particular enjoyment in BBC imports in tracking and connecting performers from one series to another. When the original HoC crossed the Atlantic, I remember regretting that Diane Fletcher had already appeared in one of David Suchet’s Poirot adaptations, as her Elizabeth Urquhart was so impressive that she struck me as the ideal choice to cast as Ariadne Oliver.)

  6. April 10, 2014 at 10:48 am

    These are cynical times. This is what I see reflected in television. It has been said that this country lost its innocence after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. We may have lost more of it after Watergate.

    I’m fond of the 1931 German film M, which is a dark critique of the Wiemar Republic government pre-Hitler. A particularly active child serial killer cannot be caught by clueless police. The organized crime elements who run rampant in this time find him themselves, because the killer is bad for business.

    • Donna L
      April 11, 2014 at 5:03 pm

      the 1931 German film M, which is a dark critique of the Weimar Republic government pre-Hitler

      I think M’s critique wasn’t limited to the Weimar government. Anyway, it’s certainly a great movie, always one of my favorites, just as I’ve always liked Lang in general. (When I first saw M, when I was in my mid-teens, I found it so fascinating, apart from everything else, to think about the fact that when it was made, my mother was 8 years old and living in the same city where M was filmed and takes place. I had similar thoughts the first time I saw Cabaret!)

      • April 22, 2014 at 8:47 pm

        Actually Lang had been approached by members of the nascent Nazi movement who were concerned that by his original title ‘Murderer Among Us,’ and only managed to talk them out of roughing him up by explaining that the film was about child-murderer Kurtens (sp?)

      • April 22, 2014 at 10:29 pm

        Just fact checked myself and my memory was not entirely correct, but close….

        According to wiki:
        When Lang confronted the head of Stakken studio to find out why he was being denied access to the studio, the studio head informed Lang that he was a member of the Nazi party and that the party suspected that the film was meant to depict the Nazis.[14] This assumption was based entirely on the film’s original title and the Nazi party relented when informed of the film’s plot.

  7. LC
    April 10, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    “No longer is love between prince charming and the geeky girl the plot that sells”, as if that premise was in anyway more liberating or progressive than lustful encounters and taking the reins of life or countries. Not saying that these are better, but they are in fact, on with the times and the course of society. Who needs ” prince charming” anymore? Not even Disney princesses.

  8. Marksman2000
    April 11, 2014 at 12:06 am

    all of which leave viewers dying for more.

    No. No. Not really.

    I haven’t owned or watched a television in 15 years.

  9. April 11, 2014 at 12:24 pm

    As the Mad Men at SC & Partners seem to be imploding all around her, Peggys star is rising. Last seen sitting behind Don Drapers vacant desk one wonders who’s wearing the polyester pant suit now? But clearly it wasn’t all work for Peggy aka Vixen by Night.
    This season will be 1969 and the burgeoning womans movement and sexual revolution was about to get into full swing.
    It didn’t take long before company’s began creating products and marketing strategies that exploited the idea of the liberated “new woman” and advertisers pandered to the liberated lady. Who better than a smart cookie like Peggy to handle the accounts of the hottest new products marketed to the liberated girl in 1969. For a peek at what lies ahead for Peggyhttp://wp.me/p2qifI-29E

  10. Anniecat45
    April 11, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    These shows are fictional depictions of all of these fields and the writers want to create dramas that will pull in viewers. They don’t give a damn about whether or not the fields or industries are depicted accurately — and yet many viewers take them as real depictions because they validate our emotional biases.

    30-odd years ago I loved watching TV and movies about the legal system. Then I trained as a paralegal and got a job in the legal system and I could not bear to watch them any more because the factual and procedural errors were so gross, compared to how things actually worked, that they invalidated the drama for me. The lawyers in my firms who can still watch these things laugh out loud at the huge errors made in any show about the legal system, and I’m sure people in other professions would have similar reactions to the ways their work is depicted.

    This matters because the viewers soak up these views of politics (or legal work, or medicine, or whatever a show depicts) and oftentimes carry them out into the world and expect those institutions to work the same way they do (or don’t) in TV-land. Example: most police officers go through their entire cop careers without ever drawing their weapons. You’d never know that from TV shows about cops, because not drawing your weapon offers no drama. Litigants in courts don’t know what to expect — and lawyers and paralegals spend a lot of time talking them down in their expectations — because of this.

    What if these programs are just as far off in their portraits of politics?

    • ldouglas
      April 12, 2014 at 12:01 am

      Yes. While I actually still do love The West Wing and House of Cards, they can be a challenge for the reasons you mentioned.

      You know what’s extremely accurate (in terms of getting the details right, that is)? Veep.

  11. Theaz
    April 12, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    I think this oversimplifies, a little, what the viewer’s relationship with the central characters in (some) of these shows is? The fact that their complicated choices are depicted doesn’t mean they’re endorsed, and doesn’t mean the show ‘thinks’ they’re heroic, preferable, or likeable. There’s a much more complicated interaction between the depiction and the viewpoint. I suspect we’re supposed to hate ourselves, a little, for getting caught up in Frank’s slime, for instance. And Pretty Little Liars only complicates our view of teen life, innocence and sexuality if you ignore 20 years of teen television which it replicates pretty consistently…

  12. claude
    April 15, 2014 at 11:56 pm

    I think that actually we enjoy these shows not because the audience wishes to make any particular statement about equality but because we have more and more exposure to the corruption and malintent that seems to dominate every meaningful facet of life. We are, as a culture, paranoid about the abuse of power, whether it is corporate, political, or just plain fame. Yet this fear is not useful in daily life- people have different ideas about what is ‘actually’ wrong and most people don’t feel able to actually reduce corruption in the government, the corporations, the NSA, the media, pick your favorite. TV can tap into that fear and anger in order to relate to its audience. Shows about antiheros are popular because they allow us to convert our uncomfortable feelings about the world into enjoyment and entertainment- for a moment our impotence and mistrust are a pleasure and not an enormous psychological burden.

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