In Our Fictional Worlds, a Guide to Reality

When I bring up House
of Cards—
the Netflix show that you should all be watching and that I will not spoil for you in this column—in conversation, I tend
to get one of two reactions: total bemusement at my obsession, or a look of
passionate understanding that we, as fellow watchers of the show, share a vast and somewhat disturbing landscape
of emotional experiences as a result. However, I have one
friend who, every time I mention the show, goes off on a tirade about how he
thinks all the characters are horrible people, how watching the show makes him feel terrible, and how nobody should watch House of Cards. Now that I’ve heard
this spiel a few times, it’s become mildly entertaining at best, but I have grudgingly let this criticism inspire a
little personal exploration into why I like the show so much.

Basically, I watch House
of Cards
because it allows me to indulge the part of myself that wants to be a
horrible person. I know I’m never going to actually be able to manipulate
people or edge my way into power the way these characters do, and that’s why
it’s so fulfilling to temporarily immerse myself in their experiences. 

On the
opposite end of the spectrum, I also watch Scandal. Maybe I’m just a sucker for the absurd sexy-politics
aesthetic that pervades shows set in Washington, D.C., but when I watch Scandal, I get to romanticize the side
of me that has a hero complex, the one that gets to be a
gladiator in a suit and deliver overwrought, righteous speeches out loud on
a daily basis instead of just in my head. One show lets me go full-on
Gryffindor and the other is totally Slytherin, if you will.

Particularly with anything available on Netflix, with its
sneaky little auto-play function, it’s easy to immerse ourselves in days,
weeks, even months of a fictional world and all the complexities that only a serial
form of media like television can develop. We get to experience so many people—good,
bad, wise, foolish, and everything in between—that when we come up for air and
head back into our nonfictional lives, we can let all those confusing hero and
villain complexes slide away. A rich, rounded set of experiences
of self-exploration through television stands to benefit anyone trying to chart
the course of their character, and I think that for most of us, figuring out
who we’re going to be is a huge part of what we do here in college.

It’s also important to try on versions of ourselves in real
life, to see what works with our actual skill sets and moral impulses and what doesn’t. I don’t think a show should become a substitute for tackling the
realities of day-to-day life. That’s still important, even though it may be boring or frustrating on
days when you’re not up to being the audacious, witty show-runner that you think
you can be. 

But the nice thing about fiction is that it gives us space
to identify with people who will never quite exist in real life, characters who
can be vibrant, terrifying, empowering visions that don’t demand from us the
ugly accountability to everyday life and laws that our real-life choices do.
So, this spring break, go find a television show with a protagonist whom you
secretly wish you could be, even just for a moment. Immerse yourself; explore
the strange, hidden corners of your personality that you wouldn’t be able to
excavate on your own. You’ll be a better person for it.

Julia Austenfeld PO ’15 is a music major from Fribourg, Switzerland and Raleigh, NC.

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