Welcome back! If you are reading this, then I thoroughly convinced you in my last post that media criticism is important, and you want to learn more. In this post, we are going to delve a bit deeper into the world of media criticism.
In the time since my last post, I’ve learned a few new ways to criticize and analyze media texts. There is structuralism, semiotics, genre criticism and narrative criticism. All of them offer unique ways to find the meanings and messages embedded in all media
In this post, I will do a narrative analysis of the first season of the Netflix series House of Cards. But before I do that, I will explain some things to in order to better analyze the show.
A narrative analysis is a systematic study of texts and how they are structured into a cause-effect event with a beginning, middle and end. Basically, we are studying how stories are structured and how the events are meaningful.
There are three ways to approach a narrative analysis; Aristotelian, visualist and structuralist. The Aristotelian approach is used to understand the elements of genres by using the plot, characters, setting, etc. The visualist approach examines the narrative using the camera as the narrator, seeking to understand the roles of visual effects.
The structuralist approach, the one I’ll be focusing on for this post, uses semiotic structuralism to understand the plot. This approach uses signifiers and signified (signs and their meanings) to better understand the story as a whole.
There are two structuralist theorists whose work I will be using to analyze House of Cards. First is the French-Bulgarian Philosopher Tzvetan Todorov. Todorov examined plot through its internal equilibrium. He theorized that all stories have a 5-part equilibrium model. Equilibrium begins the story, followed by a disruption, recognition, repair and finally reinstatement of equilibrium. Note that sometimes the equilibrium at the end is usually not the same equilibrium that was present at the beginning.
There are some spoilers from here on out from the first season of House of Cards. The equilibrium that starts off this story is the victory of President Garrett Walker. Congressman Francis Underwood is credited with helping the president win and also looks forward to a seat on the President’s cabinet, as Secretary of State.
Then comes the disruption. President Walker’s Chief of Staff, Linda Vasquez informs Underwood that he will not be getting the seat, and that the president wants him to remain in his position.
The recognition comes when, in his furious state, Underwood comes up with a plan to exact revenge on all those who did him
The repair is Underwood enacting his plan for revenge. He starts a relationship with a small-time reporter in order to leak negative stories about his opponents to the press. He convinces another Senator, Peter Russo, to sober up and enter the race for Governor in his home state of Pennsylvania, only to bring Russo to rock bottom using a prostitute. Underwood then stages Russo’s suicide after he is arrested for a DUI. He does all of this in order to convince the Vice-President, a representative Pennsylvania, to step down and run for Governor in Russo’s place.
The reinstatement of equilibrium comes in the end, after Underwood’s plan has been carried out successfully and he is offered the nomination for the Vice-President of the United States of America, which he accepts.
Another structualist theorist whose work I will use is the Russian literary critic Vladimir Propp. Propp examined folk tales by narrative function and created a list of 31 narrative functions and eight character roles that can applied to any story. Since we’ve
already looked at the plot, let’s us Propp’s work to examine the characters.
First is the hero, which is of course the main character Francis Underwood. He seeks to get revenge on all those who have done him wrong after his equilibrium is disrupted, after being passed up for Secretary of State. He is motivated by a lack of power.
Although there are many villains in the show (villains in the sense that they want to stop or expose Francis) I would argue that Peter Russo is the main villain. Russo starts off as another pawn in Underwood’s plan, but he then threatens to expose Underwood and derail his plan. Underwood kills him before he gets a chance.
According to Propp, the role of the princess and her father are often indistinguishable. I would argue that those roles are portrayed by Zoe Barnes, the reporter. She is yet another pawn in Underwood’s plan, but she uses him in order to advance in her own career. She rewards the hero with a sexual relationship, which carries on until the end of the season.
So what role does his wife, Claire Underwood have? I would argue for the anti-hero. Although they are married and she says she is loyal, she betrays him twice. Once she ensures that a bill that Underwood needed passed fails and she then runs away to be with another man. But by the end of the season, she again pledges loyalty to her husband.
The role of the helper is portrayed by Doug Stamper, Underwood’s chief of staff. He is 100 percent loyal to Underwood and his plan and he usually does the dirty work.
The dispatcher is portrayed inadvertently by the President’s Chief-of-Staff Linda Vasquez. She begins Underwood’s plan for revenge after she informs him that he won’t be getting the job he was promised.
Finally the role of the donor is played by billionaire Raymond Tusk. He is the final barrier between Underwood and the Vice-President nomination. After much convincing, he gives Underwood the nomination.
Seems like a lot right? Why is this all necessary?
Because we stories in our everyday lives. We use stories to try and make sense of our lives, and whether or not they are as simple as dinner last night or as complex as a quest for Vice-President, analyzing stories and their components helps us better understand what is being presented to us.
In other words, these criticisms help us in our quest to be media literate.
I hope you’ll join me next time.