When Christmas Dinner Gets Uncomfortably Political, These Cues From “House of Cards” and Other Shows Can Help You Out

This year’s most popular movies and TV series can be a tool to work your way out of a particularly bad conversation.
Family christmas dinner by shutterstock

Photo by Shutterstock.

While all the airtime from Halloween to New Years might as well be one big commercial for mega-corporations, in the here and now there are plenty of ways to reclaim the holiday season. At the end of the day, the holidays are time off from work (thanks, unions) and to re-focus, at least for a day, away from computers and onto our relationships with real, live humans: eat, drink, and be merry IRL (In Real Life).

Remind Uncle Tony that there’s also cause for hope in people working for progressive change on the ground.

Like any extended amount of time spent with family, though, the holidays are complicated. There have been a lot of intense stories in the news these past few months—from the mid-term elections to grand jury decisions not to indict police officers Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo—that are bound to come up between helpings of food. The question for many going into this gift-giving season is how to engage with these moments productively, hearing loved ones’ perspectives while, ideally, guiding the conversation forward.

Thankfully, pop culture provides us with some intergenerational reference points that you can use as on-ramps to a fruitful exchange when Uncle Tony, for instance, decides to entertain the room with a monologue about ISIL halfway into his sixth glass of boxed wine. This year’s most popular movies and TV series can be a tool to work your way out of a particularly bad conversation, as with Tony or the fictional (and admittedly hyperbolic) relatives presented below. In general, though, the best way to proceed might be to breathe, listen, and talk from personal experience about your views after evaluating where your family members’ deeply held values lie, rather than their talking points.

Should you exhaust all other options, here is an entirely uncomprehensive guide to this holiday’s most blood boiling moments, brought to you by some of your finest guilty pleasures: [In case you haven’t watched/read the cultural touchstones below, moderate spoilers could be ahead.]

Drunk uncle at Christmas by Shutterstock

Drunk Uncle Tony pontificating that "America has gone to shit." Photo by Shutterstock.

1. The midterm elections: House of Cards

At noon, already-drunk Uncle Tony may start talking about how “the country’s going to shit,” bemoaning both parties as corrupt and full of scumbags and liars. Kindly assure him that he’s not far off. The American political system operates something like the one in House of Cards: greedy, conniving politicians—the vast majority of them—engage in shameless self-promotion to further their own careers, but don’t look half as good doing it as Frank and Claire Underwood do.

State senate races can get mighty tense, but they tend not to be as amoral as those featured in House of Cards.

All that said, remind Tony that there’s also cause for hope in people working for progressive change on the ground. Even in this past election cycle, campaigners have managed to elect better candidates and back elected officials far enough into a corner that they’ve been forced to do the right thing (without pushing anyone into a train). Need proof? Read up on recent victories in Denton, Texas, and Richmond, California, and on ballot measures like paid sick days and minimum wage hikes across the country. Even for more conservative relatives, you may find some common ground for excitement in New York’s recent ban on fracking and Obama’s support of net neutrality—or commiserate together over Wall Street and the GOP’s tag-team effort to slash pension benefits under CRomnibus.

Although saving Congress and the White House might seem a Sisyphean task in 2014, state and local elections might offer Tony a little more solace. State senate races and local school board elections can get mighty tense, but the players involved tend not to be quite as amoral as the hardened, Machiavellian whips and vice presidents featured in House of Cards.

Woman eating Christmas dinner alone by Shutterstock

Aunt Joan, who disapproves of food stamps. Photo by Shutterstock.

2. Income inequality: The Hunger Games

If Aunt Joan starts complaining about the evils of food stamps and “free riders,” divert the conversation by asking a series of questions about whether she has enjoyed the Hunger Games movie series, the first two of which are practically tailor-made to start a conversation about income inequality. Katniss Everdeen, the series’ protagonist, is from a district that mines coal to power the Capitol’s all-night ragers while its own citizens starve.

Ask: “Who do you like better? Katniss or President Snow?”; “Does it seem fair for the Capitol to kill teenagers?”; “Team Peeta or Team Gale?” Slowly drift back toward entitlement programs, wading cautiously into topics such as money in politics, the corporate tax rate, the Great Recession, and subprime lending. Should things get heated between you and Joan, remember that the real enemies are on Wall Street—not in your living room.

The series’ latest installment, Mockingjay—Part 1, finds Katniss as the reluctant figurehead of a movement to upend capital control over fledgling rebel state District 13. The focus on movements is another great take-away from the Hunger Games series that you can pass around with the Christmas ham: It’s going to take a big and serious movement to confront the 1 percent and build political and economic systems that work for everyone. If all else fails, propose a post-wrapping paper clean-up outing to go see Mockingjay—Part 1, still out in many theaters nationwide. You’ll get to sit in beautiful silence for nearly two hours, and hopefully have the grounds for a more productive conversation afterwards. If you want to get really deep, just start with the first installment on Netflix.

3. LGBTQ Rights: X-Men

Even if your family hasn’t seen Days of Future Past, the most recent X-Men film adaptation, they’re probably familiar with the comic's basic premise: Mutants are humans born with genetic mutations that give them special powers. Humans target and criminalize mutants, stigmatizing them in ways similar to how trans and gender queer folks (and those whose sexuality is anything but straight) have been unjustly punished for their identities.

The moral of the story is the same: We win together, and we lose together.

In X-Men, mutants are the way they are, and it’s not just fine—it’s awesome. There are also lots of different kinds of mutants, and they’re all awesome in different ways. Unlike mutants, though, people aren’t born with a gender or sexuality; to quote Orange Is the New Black’s Piper Chapman, everyone “[falls] somewhere on a spectrum” that’s constantly developing over time. That also means that some mutants are targeted more severely than others, based on the nature of their powers. Embarking on a conversation with a relative who raises an eyebrow at even a passing reference to The L Word, you might ask how she feels about the war on mutants: Do they deserve to be targeted? Why or why not?

In Days of Future Past, targeting visible mutants leads to not only all mutants being targeted but life becoming worse for everyone on earth, what with Bolivar Trask’s giant mutant-killing Sentinel robots walking around. Although giant predatory robots are an obvious blow to everyone’s quality of life, talking about our very nonfictional world’s own Sentinels (prisons, regressive legislation, discriminatory policing) could be a good starting place. In Days of Future Past, mutants join forces with human allies and defeat the robots by traveling back in time; predictably, life gets better for everyone. Even without the benefit of time travel, the moral of the story is the same: We win together, and we lose together.

Christmas frat boy

Your cousin's new frat-boy boyfriend may not have the most intelligent or aware things to say about Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter. Photo by Shutterstock.

4. #BlackLivesMatter: Orange Is the New Black

In light of the events of the past several weeks, it’s almost certain that someone is going to start a dinner table conversation about the lack of indictments for police officers and/or the ensuing protests in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, and around the country. This section is written largely for white people to talk with their families because I’m not about to tell people of color how to handle conversations about race.

Explaining the intricacies of the prison-industrial complex may not be the best place to start.

It also deserves mention that as valuable and timely as these dinner table conversations within white communities are, they’re no substitute for actually responding to calls for solidarity with those organizing on the ground. Donate to groups working towards racial justice and protesters’ bail funds. Show up to protests when called to do so and mobilize your friends to do the same, especially if you’ve got access to resources, extensive networks, and specialized skills. For more suggestions on what you can do in the case of Ferguson in particular, check out this website.

This holiday season, explaining the intricacies of the prison-industrial complex and systemic racism may not be the best place to start with your cousin’s new meathead boyfriend. In this case, you can turn to Netflix for help. Ask Scott, who just finished telling a cringe-worthy story about his frat’s latest racially insensitive theme party, to recall that time in the second season of Orange Is the New Black when Piper is released temporarily from prison to visit her dying grandmother. Why was she chastised by other inmates? Because, like the majority of characters in the show and the country’s real-life prison population, temporary release—and any extension of compassion from the criminal justice system—is like a unicorn at a Nirvana reunion tour.

Point out the similarities between Piper and officer Darren Wilson; namely, that they are both white. How are they treated similarly and given exceptions that people of color in their worlds are not afforded? Similar comparisons can be made across the criminal justice system, from prisons to the legal system to extra-judicial killings.

Tread carefully here. These discussions can turn ugly fast because racism is an ugly thing. By no means will a sly OITNB reference turn Scott into an anti-racist hero, but, combined with some real empathy, it may get him thinking.

As Janee Woods noted in “12 things white people can do now because Ferguson,” white people taking the time to talk to white friends and family about the killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and countless others is important year-round: “Moments of crisis do not need to be the catalyst because taking action against systemic racism is always appropriate because systemic racism permeates nearly every institution and community in this country.”

In general, Woods’ piece is a great primer for anyone hoping to start these conversations, ones that ideally won’t end once the tree’s taken down.

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