If anyone out there is still watching House of Cards, you’re probably no doubt aware that season three will feature a political showdown of some sorts with a character who is an obvious stand-in for Vladimir Putin. You can get a couple brief glimpses of Putin’s doppelganger in the season’s trailer.
Kevin Spacey apparently has some kind of personal hard-on for Russian politics, as he actually managed to feature two members of Pussy Riot on the show. Yet even they said the show’s producers don’t get Russian politics.
To be honest, I actually started watching the show from the beginning because I wanted to see how this whole not-Putin thing would play out in the third season. I did not make it very far. Probably the only thing that got me to watch the first season halfway through was the character arc of Peter Russo; I found him to be the only remotely sympathetic protagonist in the sense that he sees the error of his ways and begins making an effort to turn his life around. As for Frank, well, he’s an asshole and a complete idiot. I’m not the first to point out the boundless stupidity of a US congressman deliberately initiating an extramarital affair with a highly ambitious and tenacious political reporter. Eventually it became clear to my wife and I that we had only been watching the show when we had literally nothing else to watch, and keep in mind that on one occasion, “something else” was a documentary about the St. Nazaire raid. The last episode we watched was the one whose ending strongly implied that the producers’ understanding of oral sex was probably about as good as their understanding of Russian politics.
Getting back to the topic of how pop culture shapes people’s perceptions of Russia(Of course that’s what this post is about!), I came to realize that even if I managed to get through seasons one and two of House of Cards, the season three episodes dealing with Russia would be utterly cringeworthy. What’s my rationale for that prediction? Well anyone who has spent significant amount of time in Russia has surely cringed at typical pop culture treatments of Russia such as those we see in the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series. Yet I think that if we’re honest, idiotic portrayals of Russia in video games or action thriller films are not terribly problematic. Most consumers of such media are on some level aware that they aren’t going gain any insight into Russia from a James Bond film.
House of Cards, on the other hand, is a series that purports to be realistic and intelligent. I suspect the producers’ aim is for the show to seem politically savvy to those who aren’t. Just as Law & Order spit out legal jargon and House M.D. bludgeoned viewers with medical terminology, House of Cards uses jargon and sometimes mundane activities to give us the impression that somebody really did their homework. Seeing as how they got Pussy Riot to play Russian dissidents and they seemed to have purposely model their Russian president on Putin, there is no doubt that the same audience who is impressed by the political jargon will similarly assume that the producers also did their homework on Russia.
Numerous episodes of the Cracked Podcast have dealt with the topic of pop culture having profound effects on the way we perceive reality. Obviously not all pop culture has the same effect, but even low-brow entertainment can shape our perceptions. Over-the-top action films continue to influence people’s understanding of the real world in profound ways; I still see characters in movies cocking the hammer on automatic pistols, for example. Of course the pop culture that really influences our perception of the real world tends to be the dramas, the biopics supposedly based on real events, and the supposedly “intelligent” thrillers. These are the ones with less gun play or gratuitous sex, and villains who tend to be big corporations or corrupt politicians. Seeing as how real dramatic action tends to be very rare and extremely confusing, we assume that the toned down, jargon-filled thriller must be far more realistic. That may often be a very mistaken assumption. Although Law & Order didn’t have its lawyers carrying on affairs in their offices and its detectives rarely had to fire their service weapons, there’s little reason to believe that it was an accurate portrayal of law enforcement and legal procedure.
Thus when it comes to Russia, I pose the following question- Which portrayal is more likely to shape people’s perceptions about Russia?
1. An action film where the villain is an evil ex-Russian army intelligence colonel who brings his henchmen into a peaceful community and starts an imperialist war under the guise of a “local” rebellion?
2. A drama where an American diplomat must mentally wrangle with his Russian counterpart over a gay American tourist couple who were imprisoned during their visit to Moscow and are set to be executed for homosexuality.
The first film being an action thriller, few people are likely to take its message seriously, despite the fact that its plot is in fact quite realistic. By contrast, the second film is likely to be taken as a realistic, politically savvy, “ripped-from-the-headlines” scenario, particularly if George Clooney is cast as the protagonist. Yet the second film’s plot, of course, is utter nonsense.
The second example is what one acquaintance referred to as an “awareness film,” and for lack of a better term I have decided to appropriate it in this case. Awareness films are these films which usually seem to come from good intentions. They try to use real-world issues as the basis of their plots. On one hand the producers might be cynically attempting to cash in on something that seems like a hot-button issue at the time, but on the other, some might actually believe that these films actually to raise awareness and that they can have a positive effect as a result.
Films like The Constant Gardener, Syriana, and Michael Clayton are a few examples which come to mind. The problem is, that aside from often being incredibly boring and pretentious, these films not only distort or oversimplify the issues they are presenting, but they also do so under the implicit guise of realism. In other words, if we have an action film where Sam Worthington goes after an evil oil corporation with two Kalashnikovs and thousands of rounds of ammunition, audiences are unlikely to leave the cinema feeling that they were somehow informed or educated on the politics of fossil fuel production. But substitute Worthington for Clooney, and make him a lawyer in the oil company’s legal department who discovers a secret plan to back a civil war in a made-up African nation so as to secure access to their untapped fields and- BAM! Instant “intelligent” thriller that fuels political conversations at dinner parties. “Like, yeah, it’s all about oil really. That’s all the corporations care about, and the corporations run the government. And what about like, Iran and that Vladimir Putin guy? The next president is going to have like, a way to deal with them too!” This kind of political “awareness” may be great at getting young political science majors into bed, but it doesn’t really help build the kind of understanding necessary to actually do something about the problems we see in these films.
Obviously when it comes to traditional portrayals of Russians, as we tend to see in action films and video games, there are definitely problematic issues. As I said before, such entertainment does influence our perceptions, if only more subtly. In general, however, I think the worst kind of stereotypes and incorrect ideas tend to come from, and are reinforced by, media which attempts to portray itself as being realistic and based on actual events.
The tragedy is that it is certainly possible to learn enough about Russian politics so as to make a realistic, entertaining, and indeed educational TV drama or film about the subject. Done right, such a political drama could be adapted in a way so as to make it very appealing to an international audience. The show could be both a destroyer of stereotypes and misconceptions and a major earner at the same time. Would I share notes about this truly realistic, Russian political drama? Well, only with Peter Pomerantsev, perhaps. Gotta get paid!