"The best thing about human beings is that they stack so neatly": Spectatorship and Platform Performativity from the White House to House of Cards

Curator's Note

Although the FU2016 campaign ad which aired on CNN during the Republican primary debate last December was an advertisement for House of Cards’s fourth season, its content is indistinguishable from “real” campaign ads (it includes a triumphant soundtrack; happy, patriotic people from all walks of life; stock footage of cornfields). The show's union of political, theatrical, and distribution platforms is made manifest in real life through #FU2016, which provides the audience with an opportunity to investigate, understand, and critique these platforms’ functions in the context of both the current presidential election and politics generally.

We know from Underwood’s iconic fourth-wall breaks throughout the series that he is rarely, if ever, forthcoming to others about his plans and desires. Underwood’s campaign platform is distilled down to catchy one-liners and laden with ulterior motives. FU2016 demonstrates this with several campaign ads which boast titles like “Taking the Wheel,” “Pushing America Forward,” and “The Leader We Deserve,” and which allude to Underwood’s nefarious actions in past seasons. Underwood’s slogans — “Whatever It Takes” and “Anything for America” — also speak to his constant deception: they read as typical vague promises (and in this sense bear a resemblance to our current candidates’ slogans), but also read as confessions that “candidate Underwood” is a character whose platform and personality can be adapted as much as necessary in order to win (a claim regularly made about our real candidates). The FU2016 campaign itself is equally guilty of this adaptability: it departed from its native digital distribution platform (Netflix) to advertise on other platforms (broadcast networks, subway stations, billboards, real campaign offices) — that is, it literally adjusted its platform to win viewers.

The FU2016 campaign therefore operates as a metafictional device that alerts the audience to the deception taking place. When Underwood takes the stage (a physical, theatrical platform) and delivers his promises (a political platform), he “performs” the version of himself most likely to succeed with this or that audience. Our “real” candidates engage in an identical fiction. By adopting real political campaign strategies to advertise a work of fiction about politics, the #FU2016 campaign demonstrates that the versions of “platform” involved in discourse about House of Cards (political, theatrical, distribution) can also be understood in the context of the real election cycle. We observe that the 2016 presidential campaign, like House of Cards, is a work of fiction and performance.


The FU 2016 campaign immediately reminded me of the Andy Kaufman documentary I’m From Hollywood. Everyone knows that professional wrestling is fake, but what happens when a comedian enters the ring? Is Kaufman simply making fun of wrestling and its fans or is he taking the sport to its highest level? Then, what does it mean to make a documentary about Kaufman’s wrestling career? In the process Kaufman is making fun of professional wrestling, it’s fans, and the South, but he is also thumbing his nose at smug outsiders who laugh with him because most of the people being made fun of (particularly the wrestling community) are fully in on the joke. In writing this I am realizing that Kevin Spacey is not the Andy Kaufman in this scenario, Trump is. John Oliver plays with this idea in his Trump / The Kid Who Ran for President comparison.

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