Rhetoric’s Role on the Small Screen

I’ll admit it; I’m a little bit obsessed with the show Scandal. I love a good drama, and the Washington-based political thriller always delivers shocking twists and tons of intrigue. But as I was catching up on the latest season, a question occurred to me: how is Olivia Pope so successful given her poor rhetorical choices? After all, she works in crisis management, a field in which rhetoric is tantamount. Great communication and presentation skills are key. But Olivia spends more time agonizing over her affair with the president than she does skillfully negotiating. As a matter of fact, when she does act in a professional setting, she is hardly a model rhetor. On the contrary, she orders people around without discussing or rationalizing her decision making process; she usually refuses to compromise in negotiation settings; she expects people to know what she’s thinking without any explanation. In short, Olivia Pope’s rhetorical tactics just wouldn’t cut it in the real world. So why is this the model that Hollywood gives us of effective rhetoric?
It seems that the entertainment would rather deliver perfectly polished drama than powerful speech. For whatever reason, great rhetoric just isn’t sexy. So even though Olivia Pope is a successful professional woman, she is primarily depicted as a love interest or sex symbol. And it isn’t just Scandal. Most popular television shows don’t showcase great and powerful rhetoric. That’s a problem. If our models of speaking skills are so heavily romanticized, where does that leave rhetoric? It relegates rhetorical choices to the back seat; speech is suddenly less important than vicious cat fights, passionate romance, and unrealistic intrigues.

That’s not to say that great rhetoric is non-existent on the small screen. Shows like The Good Wife and House of Cards make rhetoric exciting, fascinating, and, well, sexy. But this is the exception, not the rule. On the whole, over-the-top dramatics and romance win out over great rhetoric. But surely it’s possible to have both. I love a good scandal as much as the next person, but I also want good, effective, powerful dialogue and speech. I’m not saying that we should take all of the drama and romance out of television, because we shouldn’t; that’s what makes it exciting. But all that drama should be grounded in solid and effective rhetoric. Because words matter, even the people saying them are fictional characters.

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