I watched the first season of House of Cards but almost certainly won’t watch the second season. I love revenge movies, TV shows, books, and I enjoyed House of Cards through most of the season. By the last few episodes, however, it had violated my rules for revenge dramas:
Rule 1: The action taken in revenge must be proportionate to the original harm. So if someone steals your car, you don’t burn down their house. Unless, of course, having your car stolen means you couldn’t get your dying child to the hospital on time and the child’s death leads to your spouse’s suicide and your spouse’s suicide leads to your other child becoming a drug addict. In that case, load up on kerosene and matches and go to it.
Rule 2: There must not be a lot of collateral damage; furthermore, any collateral damage that does occur must be as mild as possible and must be unavoidable, that is, there cannot be another way to accomplish the revenge. In other words, you can burn down the someone’s house in the above example but you can’t do it while his or her family is inside. Or while the children’s beloved pet is inside.
House of Cards breaks both these rules plus the “these are just icky people” factor hadn’t gotten pretty bad by the end. (Which I suppose is a Rule 3: The person seeking revenge must be likable enough so I don’t think he deserved whatever horrible thing happened to him originally.) What drove me crazy while I was watching it, though, was the use of “Congressman” as a title for the main character.
Francis Underwood is a member of the United States House of Representatives. In the show, however, he is not addressed as “Representative Underwood” but as “Congressman Underwood”. I know this is a general trend: members of the Senate are usually referred to as “Senator” and members of the House of Representatives are increasingly often referred to as “Congressman”. I read something a year or two ago - perhaps longer - that decried this as evidence that Senators didn’t want to think of themselves as on the same level as their House colleagues and that Representatives didn’t want to think of themselves as mere “representers” but as powerful, independent agents. True or not, I don’t know.
What I do know is that John McCain is a “Congressman” just like Paul Ryan is a “Congressman”. So are Jeff Sessions, Mike Rogers, Adam Schiff, and, well, hmm... Nancy Pelosi is not a Congressman; neither is Kelly Ayotte. They are Congresswomen. And this is what I find particularly annoying about the use of “Congressman” instead of “Representative”.
We’ve spent the last forty or fifty years arguing over whether and how to rid the English language of words that assume the norm is male (or male is the norm, depending on how you look at it). We’ve created such hideousness as “chairperson”; we’ve tried to convince ourselves that using “they”, “them”, and “their” when referring to one single person is not a marker for ignorance and lack of education; we flirted with (although never embraced) “s/he”. And now we are tossing a nice, gender neutral word like “Representative” overboard in order to use a gender-laden (and less accurate) word like “Congressman”.
I don’t like pretentious but what I really hate is dumb.
Gender-Neutral Language Tips - A how-to guide with a light and grammatical touch. I particularly enjoyed this comment in the author’s section on the use of “s/he”:
(In recent years, I have noticed this tendency being mocked by people who use “s/h/it”instead of “she/he/it”.)