Politics’ place in entertainment


American Horror Story

The latest installment of American Horror Story, subtitled Cult, has created quite the stir in the entertainment industry. Beneath the guise of clowns and murder lies an even greater scare: the reality of the American political climate.

From protesting to racism to President Donald Trump himself, all topical issues are fair game in this Ryan Murphy-created thriller. The manner in which such topics are addressed range from subtle allusions to overt statements.

As a result, one is left to wonder whether or not the show has overstepped its bounds as entertainment. Is it possible for a television show- or the entirety of the entertainment industry, for that matter- to be too political?

One must first consider what exactly the role of politics should be in entertainment.

“Its role should be to inform,” said Erin Gardner, a Journalism student at Ohio University’s Scripps College. “When it is informative and fun, it can be an easy and enjoyable way for the general public to understand what is going on in the news.” She points out that news outlets such as C-Span can be confusing for the average person, often using elevated diction that most would not understand, so it can be beneficial for television shows to cover politics.

Gardner went on to warn that while entertainment can certainly add levity to many issues by parodying them, exploiting politics for the sake of comedy can also be harmful, such as Saturday Night Live. “It is known for being liberal and can focus too much on politics when it just does not need to. People get offended by attacks against their beliefs.”


An ominous figure wears a Donald Trump mask in American Horror Story: Cult’s opening credit sequence.

Phil Bengel, Elder’s own government and history teacher, shared similar insight to Gardner. “It shouldn’t force personal opinion. Celebrities can be influential, and [entertainment] should focus on more important issues such as philanthropy instead of the Democrat-Republican split.”

Bengal also believes that it is necessary for sitcom characters to be steadfast in their beliefs, political or otherwise, because that makes them more relatable to the viewer. If a character were on the fence about his or her beliefs, the message would not be nearly as clear, nor the comedy as rich. When done correctly, satire can provide brilliant commentary that both entertains and questions its audience, an element commonly recognized in the early seasons of The Simpsons.

The Simpsons excels at discussing political content in an entertaining manner because of the way in which it utilizes its characters. Lisa Simpson, the daughter of the titular family, represents the heart and soul of the liberal movement. A vegetarian and humanitarian, she never shies away from standing up for what she believes in. Mr. Burns, the billionaire owner of the town power plant, represents conservative big business and is often considered the central antagonist of the series.

More often than not, however, political issues are carelessly tossed into a show’s narrative for the sake of impressing the writer’s personal views upon the audience. In these situations, politics only serve to promote further division in an already divided country. Rather than contemplation, anger and argument will ensue.

One prime example would be Grey’s Anatomy. Known not only for its abundance of sex and death, the show tends to lean towards the left as a result of its creator, Shonda Rhimes, serving as a board member for Planned Parenthood. Thus, it comes as no surprise when lead doctors have abortions, preach about the necessity of gun control, and confront coworkers about white privilege.

Why, then, does Grey’s often receive more backlash than The Simspsons when each is just as guilty as the other for covering politics? The answer can be traced back to an insight made by Gardner: “When looking at a character’s background, you need to differentiate between character values and creators trying to impart their own beliefs. Take Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, for example. We know politics are important to her and she wants to be a positive proponent of change. Politics make sense to her story.”

Hillary Clinton also makes an appearance in the series.

The Simpsons, like Parks and Rec, succeeds at holding true to its characters and their stories. When politics are discussed, they are discussed for a reason. The characters act in ways expected of them. Yes, they may be the result of the writers’ bias, but they get the audience thinking and, most importantly, laughing.

Grey’s, however, tends to betray its characters. They will act in unexpected ways and discuss hitherto unheard of values that are apparently central to their belief systems, all for the sake of covering a political topic important to the writers, not to the storyline.

In short, politics can and in some cases should be touched upon in works of entertainment, but an issue arises once the political statement being made feels forced or preachy. The commentary does not necessarily have to be neutral, but it should hold true to the current storyline and the characters involved. After all, the role of entertainment is, above all, to entertain.

Given all this information, is American Horror Story: Cult too political? Thus far, I would say no. The show manages to discuss relevant topics, portray the follies of both liberal and conservative stereotypes, and avoid attacks against belief systems. The show has made it clear that it is not in President Trump’s corner, but unlike many other shows, it leaves personal attacks against him and his supporters out of the story. As long as AHS can continue to revolve the story around its characters, touching upon politics as they become relevant, the show can be considered a prime example of how to write a successful commentary on American politics.

In closing, however, it must be noted that neither AHS nor any other television show should be one’s primary source of information. As Mr. Bengal said, “I think it’s important you are not getting political ideas from celebrities. Formulate ideas not because a celebrity said so, but because you have done your own research.”

Researching reliable news outlets is worth the effort. Entertainment can provide a fun platform from which one can expand his or her knowledge of an issue that is social, political, or otherwise, but even the most successful satires fail to cover the complexity of an issue. Television is not infallible, nor is it expected to be, so be your own person, form your own opinions, and enjoy the show.