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Is America Still the Home of the Brave?

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Tracing a national tradition from the American revolutionaries and Amelia Earhart to graffiti artists and venture capitalists

On January 14, 2015, the world waited with bated breath as Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson came over the rim of a notoriously steep section of the rock known as El Capitan, the largest single block of granite in the world. Over the course of 19 days, the pair had climbed the Dawn Wall, the most difficult part of the famous rock formation at Yosemite National Park, with just their hands and feet; rope and harnesses were used only to break deadly falls. Caldwell and Jorgeson became the first people to “free climb” the Dawn Wall, a feat many thought could never be accomplished.

The pair had trained for more than five years and encountered serious injuries on previous attempts. In recognition of their arduous and potentially fatal quest, one of them even called this climb his Moby-Dick, after that white whale that taunted—and destroyed—Captain Ahab. When Caldwell and Jorgeson made it to the top with their bloodied, bandaged, and superglued fingers, it was such a quintessential moment of American optimism that even President Obama sent his congratulations, tweeting, “You remind us that anything is possible.”

Could anyone other than Americans have scaled this incredibly difficult granite face with so scant a safety net? Of course—but it was Americans who made the seemingly impossible climb. And many of the world’s elite rock climbers—including the one considered the world’s best, Alex Honnold—are Americans. In advance of the “What It Means to Be American” event “Are Americans Risk-Takers?” we asked scholars and people who dabble in risk for a living: What is it about American culture that encourages risk-taking?

A young mindset for a young country — Joyce Appleby

Risk-taking appeals to the young; it’s only as we grow older that we’re cautioned by the downsides. One of the remarkable aspects of the American Revolution is the freedom won by young people. Both girls and boys escaped the drudgery of farming by becoming schoolteachers, an occupation greatly expanded after the Revolution. Similarly, the union of the states made it possible for boys to become peddlers, carrying goods from the Northern states to Southern plantations. These experiences made youth a time for experimenting in new careers.

Crucial for risk-takers in the early national period was the fact that old colonial wealth withdrew from speculative economic ventures, leaving many opportunities open to ordinary men and women. Old wealth stayed in the city and benefited from the rise in the prices of urban real estate. Early manufacturing centered in rural areas because of the available water power, and a new enterprise could begin with sweat equity and borrowed seed money from family and friends.

The opening up of the lands in the national domain west of the Appalachian Mountains also enticed many—mostly young people—to pull up stakes and move west where they might acquire land and the respect land ownership bestowed. First comers had an unusual chance to capitalize on their labor, clearing land and selling it to those in the second wave of westward adventurers.

Unlike European societies, American society freed its youth to create their own careers. Giving the natural risk-takers such a free scope led soon to embedding an admiration for risk-taking in American culture. It has continued to prevail as a distinctive feature of the culture of the United States.

Joyce Appleby is professor emeritus of history at UCLA who has studied England, France, and America in the 17th and 18th centuries, focusing on how economic developments changed people’s perceptions of politics, society, and human nature. Her recent publications are The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (2010) and Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination (2013).

You can’t pass up an opportunity — Sket-One

Living in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave gives us a kind of “I can do that” attitude. No wonder we’re the birthplace of Nike’s “Just do it” campaign. Immigrants have brought their hopes and dreams here for a long time.

Growing up a graffiti artist in America isn’t all that free, and you have to be at least a little brave. To hone your skills, you mostly have to make art illegally—most people don’t have large blank walls sitting that they’re allowed to practice on. I remember being a kid and writing all my plans on pieces of paper—what colors to use, how to execute the sketch of the work I planned to do that night. And then I’d have to sneak out and hike to abandoned places like train yards or bridges. I could’ve been caught, electrocuted, or hit by a train or car. I could’ve been fined, had my artwork removed, or gone to jail. But I did it because I couldn’t find any other outlet to express myself. I wanted to create, and be seen creating.

If I imagine embarking on the same journey in a different country, I’m not sure it would’ve been worth the risk. Friends, for example, have told me about punishment for graffiti in Singapore—from huge fines to caning. If I were hit with a punishment of this caliber, I wouldn’t have continued or received any support for my artistic endeavors. Instead, I have a career doing what I love, and a comfortable home for my family.

Sket-One, also known as Andrew Yasgar, is a painter, illustrator, and designer who began as a graffiti artist in the 1980s. His studio is in Long Beach, California.

The ‘self-made man’ is an entrenched story, but a fable to many — Zulema Valdez

With 13 percent of the working-age population, the United States boasts the highest rate of entrepreneurship across 25 industrialized economies. Robert Fairlie, an economist at the Kauffman Foundation, noted that in 2013, the U.S. economy added 476,000 new business owners each month.

These numbers are consistent with the strongly held belief by most Americans that the United States is the land of opportunity, where anyone with a good idea, a positive attitude, and a willingness to work hard can own a business and succeed. This ideology is expressed by a higher percentage of Americans when compared to people in other nations. In a 2013 report published by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, fully 47 percent of Americans agreed that good opportunities for new businesses exist, and 56 percent “believed they had the capabilities to launch a business.”

Yet the economic reality for most American entrepreneurs is that most businesses fail. Regardless of personal drive, hard work, and risking it all, successful businesses are generally owned by older, white, middle-class men, who, yes, possess a propensity toward risk.

The idea of America as the land of opportunity—which we can even call the American Creed—sparks risk-taking among a large and diverse population willing to take a leap of faith and start a business. What the ideology fails to reveal, however, is that the U.S. remains a highly stratified society where successful entrepreneurs are rarely “self-made.” The Horatio Alger “rags-to-riches” fable is just that, a fable that exists to reinforce the possibility of the American dream. The reality, however, is that risk-taking, while perhaps a necessary ingredient for entrepreneurship, is not sufficient in the absence of human capital (education and work experience), social capital (business networks), and financial capital (personal savings, wealth, access to credit or loans). Ultimately, these factors trump risk-taking, or perhaps diminish the “risk” entirely.

Zulema Valdez is associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced and the author of The New Entrepreneurs: How Race, Class, and Gender Shape American Enterprise.

Challenging authority and taking chances is in America’s DNA — Susan Wels

From the beginning, independence and self-determination have been essential elements of the American character. As a culture, we tend to challenge authority and take risks to pursue our own convictions and interests.

That history helps shape who we are, and the scope of our expectations. Amelia Earhart—the first woman and second person to fly solo across the Atlantic—is one example. She grew up in a family of risk-takers. Her grandfather, Alfred Otis, moved to Kansas in 1855 to help escaping slaves—hiding them in trunks and covering them with grain in the back of wagons. He raised his daughter, Amy Otis, to embrace risk, travel, and adventure. She raised her daughter, Amelia Earhart, to have boundless potential. She began Amelia’s baby book with a quote from Ruskin: “Shakespeare has no heroes; he has only heroines.” And Amelia was determined to push every limit and break every boundary. Risk was never a hurdle—it was an attraction.

When I was researching my book on Amelia Earhart, I came across an essay she wrote called “Thrill” that was never published. “When I undertake a task,” she confided in the piece, “over all protest, in spite of all adversity, I sometimes thrill, not with the task, but with the realization that I am doing what I want to do.”

Amelia Earhart was an extraordinary risk-taker. But her insistence on self-determination was quintessentially American, and it was worth everything—even the risk of death on her final, record-setting flight around the world.

Susan Wels is the author of Amelia Earhart: The Thrill of It.

American life is so predictable we can make ‘educated’ guesses — Alfonso Morales

Deciding whether to take a risk involves thinking about a number of variables—the consequences of a bad decision, figuring out your choices, and understanding how much effort you are willing to exert to gather knowledge about a business opportunity or to continue your education, for example.

The relative predictability and stability of American life helps Americans take risks. While corruption scandals do erupt from time to time, the local, state, and federal governments do function, as a general rule. Supermarket shelves are always well stocked unless there is some kind of super storm. Traffic is always bad at 5 p.m. on a weekday. Largely this is the same in “Western” societies where the rule of law provides predictability, but the U.S. combines an ease of entry with an institutional transparency that encourages new immigrants (and others) to funnel their energy into entrepreneurship.

Our society is stable enough that we can imagine the circumstances that have enabled another person to succeed and then take our own risk to do what he or she has done. Our society is also diverse enough that an interest in business found in one generation might get replicated in a very different way in the next generation. For instance, each adult and child in a family I knew at Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market had his or her own business: The adults sold clothing and recorded music; the children had their own line of toy cars, Rubik’s Cubes, and other novelties. They made choices built on previous experiences, and these experiences and incomes led to new, risky choices. Those risks were moderated by investing in the children’s education. (All four children earned post-secondary degrees, including a Ph.D. and a law degree.) This balancing act is not easy, nor are people always successful, but in the U.S. people can see themselves navigating risky situations successfully, even if it means exerting the effort for years before succeeding or even if their efforts might not bear fruit for a generation.

In short, when we take risks, we make “educated” guesses about what we’re going to do.

Alfonso Morales is an associate professor in the department of urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He co-edited the books Street Entrepreneurs and An American Story: Mexican American Entrepreneurship and Wealth Creation.

Our cultural idols are people who are willing to take enormous risk — Peter Sims

I’m not one for pandering the notion of “American exceptionalism” as politicians do. But after working as a venture capital investor in the United States, then in Europe, I realized one day—while riding on a train through the English countryside—that when it came to risk-taking, there really isn’t anything like the culture of entrepreneurship in America.

In England, you’re considered an entrepreneur if you buy a small company and try to grow it. In Germany, most of the economy is driven by the Mittelstand, large, privately held companies that grow 5 to 10 percent a year. In France, Italy, and Spain, government regulations and high capital costs hamper start-ups.

Yet in many parts of America, especially the valleys and universities, almost everyone is an entrepreneur, willing to tinker, toil, and enthuse about ideas late into the night, perfectly aware that failure is probable, even likely. Our cultural idols are the people who are willing to take enormous personal risk and toil through troughs of defeat. They emerge somehow as stronger human beings, perhaps wildly wealthy, or at the very least wiser and more original versions of themselves.

Some call that the American dream. And the challenge in America today is to ensure that entrepreneurial capitalism doesn’t take a back seat to a kind of crony capitalism that excessively enriches executives while cutting back innovation budgets. We don’t want the kind of capitalism that depends on a cozy relationship with government, where contributions flow from corporate pockets to Washington and back, deteriorating our faith in both government and the functioning of our market institutions. In my opinion, the danger in America today is that we forget the courageous, risk-taking, entrepreneurial spirit that got us here, and replace it with a corruption of the ideals that built our country.

Peter Sims is co-founder of The Silicon Guild and founder of The BLK SHP (“black sheep”) Foundation. His latest book is Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, which grew out of a long collaboration with faculty at Stanford University’s Institute of Design, as well as his previous work in venture capital.

This article was written for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

Leave Shorts-Wearing Men Alone!

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Brian Moylan is a writer and pop culture junkie.

What if a man said that women should not be wearing miniskirts unless they’re models?

There are always going to be old cranks going through life saying, “It was better in my day.” It’s sad, however, when that crank is Fran Lebowitz, the New York City wit known for her insightful barbs, her unique sartorial sense, and her urbane sophistication. It’s also unfortunate that her latest cause célèbre is one that comes around every spring and is as tired and small minded as the clichéd shouting at the kids to get off the lawn.

Yes, Lebowitz is the latest to tell men that they shouldn’t be wearing shorts.

In an interview with Elle magazine, Lebowitz says, “Men never wore shorts when I was young. There are few things I would rather see less, to tell you the truth. I’d just as soon see someone coming toward me with a hand grenade. This is one of the worst changes, by far. It’s disgusting.”

As someone who wears shorts every day from May until September – yes, even to work – I would have to disagree.

Lebowitz isn’t the only one griping. Last summer, Alan Tyers took to The Telegraph to complain about men wearing shorts, even with suits. In 2011, fashion designer Tom Ford issued his five fashion rules in AnOther magazine, and one was, “A man should never wear shorts in the city.”

Lebowitz biggest complaint seems to be that she thinks these men look silly. “It’s repulsive. They look ridiculous, like children, and I can’t take them seriously,” she says. I have a few problems with this argument. First of all, no one is condoning all shorts, just like no one can condone all sandals or all raincoats. A main wearing a pair of tailored, knee-length shorts with business attire (or, heck, even a polo shirt) is completely acceptable. I’m not going to argue for those baggy khaki cargo shorts that are a scourge to fashion. But there are definitely pairs of shorts out there that are as fashionable and acceptable as a pair of pants. If Lebowitz doesn’t like an extra bit of skin, that’s her problem.

Why shouldn’t men wear shorts? First of all, it is hot in the summer, especially on the New York City subway, one of the places where Lebowitz complains about men wearing shorts. Why shouldn’t men get to be as comfortable as women in the heat?

Every day in the summer I wear a suit with shorts, a look J Crew got some heat for introducing last summer. The main reason I like this is because I ride a bicycle around New York, and it’s a lot easier with no fabric below the knees. Lebowitz herself says that she liked New York back when George Plimpton used to ride his bike around wearing a suit. I do the same thing, just with my ankles in the breeze. You would think that Lebowitz, a woman who has been wearing men’s suits since the ‘70s, would prize such eccentricity. No, instead she’s slagging them off and becoming as conservative as everyone who grumbled behind her back 40 years ago.

Lebowitz’s other problem is that she doesn’t like the caliber of men who are wearing shorts. “It’s like any other sort of revealing clothing, in that the people you’d most like to see them on aren’t wearing them,” she says. “And if they are, it’s probably their job to wear them. My fashion advice, particularly to men wearing shorts: Ask yourself, ‘Could I make a living modeling these shorts?’ If the answer is no, then change your clothes. Put on a pair of pants.”

Now, I hate to give any ammunition to the awful and juvenile men’s rights activists who lurk in the darker parts of Reddit, but could you imagine what would happen to a man saying these same things about a woman? What if a man said that women should not be wearing miniskirts unless they’re models? What if he said that they should cover up? What if said that they were disgusting for showing so much skin? He would be pilloried and buried under all the ample outrage that the Internet can muster. And rightfully so. There’s a reason that Michelle Obama was celebrated for baring her head in Saudi Arabia, a country that makes its women cover up.

In the summer, women can wear skirts and shorts and be comfortable in the sweltering weather. They can even wear such attire to work if it’s tasteful and well-tailored. Shouldn’t men be offered the same relief? Shouldn’t we be able to catch a little bit of a draft on our lower extremities? There are more and more options for menswear these days (mostly because it’s the fastest-growing segment of the garment industry), and something other than pants for the warmer months should be just as accepted in the subway cars and boardrooms of the country as women wearing garments that show off their calves.

Sure, there is a time and a place for everything, and no one should show up rocking a pair of brotastic Chubbies to the White House or a pair of ‘70s basketball nuthuggers to a job interview, but a man in a pair of tasteful shorts can be just as fashionable and dressed up as a dandy in a three-piece suit. Just look how good fashion icon Nick Wooster looks wearing shorts with blazers. Oddly enough, one of his fashion essentials is Metropolitan Life by none other than Fran Lebowitz. I’m sure he’ll be sorry to learn what a crank she has become.

In this interview, Lebowitz shows that she’s biased against progress and change by hewing to a conservatism that not only shames men and their bodies, but also shows just how behind the times she truly has become. That’s the long and short of it.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

Why Everything I Own Fits in One Bag

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One-bag living has simplified my life in a way that very few other things have

About 2-3 years ago, I decided I wanted to start to declutter my life gradually. I went from one backpack and a carry-on bag to just one backpack. I count the following things as my belongings at this point:

  • 6 T-shirts
  • 2 sweaters, 2 hoodies
  • 1 coat
  • 2 pairs of dress-pant sweat-pants
  • 6 pairs of socks and boxer shorts
  • 1 backpack
  • An iPhone, a Kindle, 1 notepad and a MacBook Air (+ keyboard and mouse)
  • Gym shoes and gym shorts
  • Various toiletries like toothbrush, contact lenses, etc.

When I say “things that I count,” it does actually mean that I’m somewhat cheating. I did only live with the above things until I moved into an apartment earlier in 2014.

Since then I bought some kitchen utensils as well as a mattress, bed, a couch, some lamps and a desk. I do plan on getting rid of these things in early May again, so I’m putting them on a separate “temporary” list in the meantime.

Declutter your life, declutter your mind

If you have ever cleared your desk one morning before working, you’ll know the feeling of tranquility and peace this can give you. I found that that is exactly what happens when I got rid of most things I owned, apart from the crucial essentials.

Here is a list of the amazing benefits I observed from getting rid of stuff:

  • No decision-making about what to wear in the morning, more decision making about stuff that actually matters
  • I can pack for trips in 5 minutes
  • I go clothes shopping about once a year (more on that below) and don’t waste any more time on it
  • There are less things to think about and there is more simplicity in my life
  • I don’t spend a lot of money on stuff
  • I indulge the “Is this all you have?” questions at borders after a long-haul flight

In order to see things clearly in life, and observe reality as it truly happens, owning less stuff is a super valuable step. Of course, I’d never claim to be at a place where I can truly do that—see things as they are, without attachment or judgement—but I have an intuition that owning less things sets me on the right track towards that.

Replacement shopping

There are of course moments when you have to go shopping and buy new things. I managed to do this while keeping to a minimalist lifestyle with one simple rule:

Anytime I buy something new, I need to throw out the equivalent of what I’m already owning.

So if I buy new shoes, I throw out my old pair of shoes. If I buy a new coat, sweater or T-shirt, the old sweater, coat or T-shirt are thrown out or given away. Between my co-founder Joel and myself this lead us to call it “replacement shopping” or “clothes replacement day.”

Over the last few years, I also went up in quality gradually every time a new clothes replacement day came around. Recently, I invested in a MissionWorkshop backpack ($380), ordered a pair of custom tailored jeans from Gebrueder Stitch ($535) and bought a coat from Burberry ($2200).

The prices for these things may sound expensive at first, but I plan on owning and using them for several years to come, which makes this well worth the cost broken down over that period of time. I’ve also made an effort to prioritize function over form—although at a very high level of quality, luckily often both are included. Dustin Curtis had some great thoughts on this with his post “The Best.”

Getting started with one bag living

The thought for many to get started with one bag living is a scary one. Luckily Greg McKeown wrote a terrific book titled “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” where he outlines a very handy technique:

“Set aside some time where you go through your stuff and decide what you want to keep and what you want to throw away. You’ll end up with a few things that you can throw right out. Then you’ll end up with a few things that you’ll want to keep. Then you’ll end up with a few things you’re unsure of.

Put anything that you want to keep, but haven’t used in a while and anything you are unsure of in a box. Now, see, if after 3 or 6 months, you’ve actually taken out any of the things from that box and used them. If you haven’t, you can calmly through them out without having to worry whether you’ll need them in the future.”

Jessica Dang also wrote a great getting-started guide on one bag living that you can check out.

One-bag living has simplified my life in a way that very few other things have and I can highly recommend giving it a try.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

Listen to the Most American Playlist Ever

"The Doors" original album. Courtesy Elektra.
Elektra/Library of Congress The Doors' self-titled 1967 debut album featured the hit "Light My Fire" as well as the 12-minute Oedipal drama "The End." (Elektra/Library of Congress)

If the Smithsonian is America’s attic, the National Recording Registry is the dusty box of records that America’s parents left up there.

Every year since 2002, the Library of Congress has chosen an eclectic mix of historically significant recordings in a wide range of genres to preserve. This year’s list, announced Wednesday, is no different.

Among the 25 recordings being added this year: the 1928 blues song soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/Black_Snake_Moan.mp3|
startPosition=1|
endPosition=30000|
content=”Black Snake Moan”
by Blind Lemon Jefferson, the original 1949 cast album of the Broadway musical soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/Kiss_Me_Kate-Too_Darn_Hot.mp3|
startPosition=1|
endPosition=26000|
content=”Kiss Me, Kate”
and Joan Baez’s soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/Joan_Baez.mp3|
startPosition=1|
endPosition=33000|
content=self-titled debut
from 1960.

MORE When Joan Baez Made the Cover of TIME

With choices ranging from New Orleans jazz to gospel and country, there’s a little bit of something for everyone on the list. And that’s kind of the point.

Like any government project in a democracy, the National Recording Registry aims to please a broad range of interest groups and avoid controversy.

The best way to approach the list is not to think about the selections, but about the intended audience for each one. Here’s a breakdown of some of the major targets:

The Classic Rock Fan: Rock music still has a broad demographic reach, and nostalgia-prone Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers are sure to read a story about a classic rock band being preserved by the Library of Congress. These picks are so ubiquitous they hardly cry out to be urgent candidates for preservation, but they’re good for publicity. Past examples: Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and Nirvana’s Nevermind.

  • This year’s picks: soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/Doors-light_my_fire.mp3|
    startPosition=1|
    endPosition=29000|
    content=The Doors’ debut album
    , the Righteous Brothers’ soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/Youve_lost_that_lovin.mp3|
    startPosition=1|
    endPosition=38000|
    content=”You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin'”
    and Ben E. King’s soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/Stand_By_Me.mp3|
    startPosition=1|
    endPosition=33000|
    content=”Stand By Me.”

The Rock Critic: To quiet complaints from rock snobs about the previous selection, the list also typically includes a counterpoint that is beloved by music critics but not as radio-friendly. Past examples: Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, Patti Smith’s Horses and Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (double points for that one).

  • This year’s pick: Radiohead’s soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/Radiohead.mp3|
    startPosition=1|
    endPosition=32000|
    content=OK Computer.

Hear More:
soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/2014_National_Recording_Registry_Montage.mp3|
startPosition=1|
endPosition=440000|
content=A seven-minute montage of this year’s picks.

The Senior Citizen: The list-makers approach the world of pop music warily. Unlike rock ‘n’ roll, pop only qualifies for preservation if your grandmother listened to it. Songs that capture the zeitgeist of a bygone historical era are also favored. Past examples: “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Over There,” “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

  • This year’s pick: soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/Accentuate1.mp3|
    startPosition=1|
    endPosition=31000|
    content=”Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”
    by Johnny Mercer.

The Opry Fan: Country music is treated the same way as pop. If Johnny Cash would have listened to it, it’s OK. But modern country is out. One of the few contemporary country picks, Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, was a complete rejection of the slick Nashville sound. Past examples: “Wildwood Flower,” by the Carter Family, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe and “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams.

  • This year’s pick: soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/Sixteen_Tons.mp3|
    startPosition=1|
    endPosition=32000|
    content=”Sixteen Tons”
    by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

The Jazz Aficionado: The list-makers approach jazz music as reverently as a Ken Burns documentary, ticking off another part of the generally agreed upon canon or adding a key early influence each year. Past examples: Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump,” Charlie Parker’s “Ko Ko” and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

  • This year’s picks: soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/My_Funny_Valentine.mp3|
    startPosition=1|
    endPosition=35000|
    content=”My Funny Valentine”
    by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and New Orleans’
    soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/Sweet_Emma.mp3|
    startPosition=1|
    endPosition=35000|
    content=Sweet Emma Barrett
    and her Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

The Hip Hop Dilettante: The list approaches hip hop cautiously. Aside from early landmarks Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” the registry includes only De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and Tupac Shakur’s “Dear Mama,” an idiosyncratic group. Potentially controversial choices like gangsta rap are avoided. This genre is also limited by the requirement recordings be at least 10 years old.

  • This year’s pick: soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/Lauryn_Hill.mp3|
    startPosition=1|
    endPosition=33000|
    content=The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

MORE: Photographs of the 25 Selections This Year

The Vinyl Collector: Another selection will be familiar only to people who are into what rock critic Greil Marcus once called “the old, weird America.” Think of this as hitting shuffle on Bob Dylan’s mental iPod. Past examples: “Honolulu Cake Walk,” a ragtime song played on banjo; “Allons a Lafayette,” the first commercial Cajun music recording; and “Fon der Choope,” one of the first klezmer recordings.

  • This year’s pick: soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/Coleman.mp3|
    startPosition=1|
    endPosition=32000|
    content=”The Boys of the Lough”
    /”The Humours of Ennistymon” by Irish-American fiddler Michael Coleman.

The Politician: The registry wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Congress, so politicians get their due as well. That can be anything from speeches to historic news coverage carefully curated to include bipartisan heroes. Past examples: Lyndon Johnson’s White House recordings, Ronald Reagan’s mid-1970s radio broadcasts and Republican training organization GOPAC’s instructional tapes.

  • This year’s pick: Radio coverage of soundFile=http://pdl-stream.timeinc.net/time/audio/nationalrecordingregistry/FDR_funeral.mp3|
    startPosition=1|
    endPosition=71000|
    content=Franklin Roosevelt’s funeral.

And that’s not all. Each year’s list also typically includes a historical recording from the early days of recorded music, gospel music, a traditional blues song, a comedy album, an old radio play and a Broadway musical. Less frequently, it may also include world music, disco, reggae, classical music, folk revival, spoken word, poetry, a movie soundtrack, an oral history or a historic interview.

Regardless of the number of selections — currently at 425 overall — the list will always feel incomplete. But, the beauty is, there’s always next year.

Read next: Streaming Music Showdown: Spotify vs. Beats

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TIME Culture

What It’s Like to Get Nominated for an Oscar

Producers Helen Estabrook (L) and Couper Samuelson (R) attend the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif. on Feb. 22, 2015.
Frazer Harrison—Getty Images From left: Producers Helen Estabrook and Couper Samuelson attend the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif. on Feb. 22, 2015.

No matter how unlikely the odds of winning, you still hope for your name in the envelope

Answer by Couper Samuelson, Executive Producer of Whiplash, on Quora.

I was an executive producer of Whiplash so technically I wasn’t nominated for an Oscar (only the producers are nominated).

But basically the experience is very strange. First of all, you spend years trying to make the movie. That involves lots of little decisions and lots of little milestones. For instance, in our case: we failed to raise money for the film so we took 17 pages out of the screenplay and shot it as a short. We hoped it would be good. It was. Then we submitted it to Sundance. We hoped it would get in. It did. We hoped it would win an award so that it would be easier to market Damien Chazelle as a director to potential financiers. It did. Then we went back to all the institutional financiers. Only two offers came in.

Then you kill yourself to make the movie and make it well. Then you hope it gets into Sundance. Then you hope that it gets a good slot at Sundance (no film has ever broken out of Sundance while playing late in the week). Then you hope it gets a distributor (in our case we only had two offers for distribution).

The point is– you spend a lot of time making decisions and hoping the decisions are the right ones. Then the movie’s done and there’s nothing else you can do and it just bounces into the world and you don’t know what strange things will happen to it and what ‘narratives’ will attach to it. Unlike big Hollywood tentpoles, specialty films need to be more than just a good movie, they need to have a ‘narrative’ that can propel them through an awards season. Basically a story that will make the very few arbiters of what’s good (Academy voters and urban critics) feel good about voting for the film.

In our case, the narrative that emerged from Sundance was that JK Simmons was a beloved actor who had done a great job in small roles in great films but who never had gotten his own ‘aria’ until now.

So we the filmmakers all sat back and sort of watched that narrative calcify into the conventional wisdom.

The other strange thing that happens in awards season is– well, here you’ve spent years fighting to get a movie made and to make it well. Which is so much work. And then the movie’s done and there’s nothing to do–but you realize that in order to get credit for your work you have to fight for it. Can I get into the WGA awards? Can I get a ticket to Cannes? Can I go to to the head of the studio’s Academy cocktail party? Can I be the one who does the Q&A at the producer’s guild. There are squadrons of publicists will all kinds of competing incentives working on “positioning” one of the film’s participants.

Among producers that is especially true because the definition of producing is so porous and ephemeral. But it’s also true of directors who direct an actor to an acclaimed performance and yet don’t themselves get a directing nomination (“did that actor direct themselves to that performance?!”).

This process of trying to grab credit really kicks into gear in the fall—a full year after we had made the film. That’s when the 6,000 members of the Academy started to watch the movie and this peripheral buzz started to build. We hoped it would crescendo at the right time and enough Oscar voters would express their advocacy of the movie to each other that they would feel “comfortable” voting for the movie. All the critics awards the precede Oscar voting give the voters a kind of permission to vote for a film. Remember that the industry views the Oscars as an annual opportunity to market itself to the world. So for instance a great film like Edge of Tomorrow has already been marketed to the world—the Academy doesn’t feel a need to, even though it’s probably more difficult to make a masterpiece tentpole than it is to make a masterpiece art film.

Whiplash had a small but vocal advocacy among Oscar voters which we hoped would put it at an advantage (the Academy uses a preferential voting system that rewards movies that a fewer people love passionately as opposed to movies that many people mark as a 3rd or 4th choice).

We all felt we had a shot at Best Picture if the Academy nominated 9 or 10 films (there can be up to 10 movies nominated).

It is easy to forget after a year of being congratulated for Whiplash that there is no precedent at all for an Oscar outcome like this. No movie at this budget has ever won 3 Oscars. No movie at this budget level has ever won an Oscar for sound OR for editing, let alone both.

So Oscar night was especially surreal. In the first 90 minutes of the ceremony the movie won three Oscars.

And there’s one thing that anyone who’s ever been nominated for an Oscar will tell you: no matter how unlikely the odds of winning (in Whiplash case, they were pretty close to zero for winning Best Picture), you still think somewhere deep down that maybe your name is going to be called when Sean Penn opens that envelope.

This question originally appeared on Quora: What is it like to get nominated for an Oscar?

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

Comics Like Batgirl Shouldn’t Require a ‘Good Feminist’ Seal of Approval

Batgirl Cover
DC Comics Variant cover for Batgirl #41 by Rafael Albuquerque

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

The answer is to spend less energy on policing and more on creating. More women, fewer litmus tests.

A backlash against a Batgirl comic book cover some perceived as sexually violent has caused the cover to be withdrawn — leading to a backlash against perceived censorship. Sexism in popular culture is a valid concern. But when feminist criticism becomes an outrage machine that chills creative expression, it’s bad for feminism and bad for female representation. Making artists, writers, filmmakers, and even audiences walk on eggshells for fear of committing thoughtcrime against womanhood is no way to encourage quality art or enjoyable entertainment — not to mention the creation of good female characters.

The controversial artwork, by Rafael Albuquerque, showed Joker smearing a bloody grin on Batgirl’s frightened face, his arm draped over her shoulder with a gun in his hand. This was an upcoming variant cover for an issue of the Batgirl comic, part of a series of Joker-themed comic covers for the iconic villain’s 75th anniversary. It was also an homage to The Killing Joke, a 1988 graphic novel in which Batgirl/Barbara Gordon is shot by the Joker (and stripped while unconscious) in a plot to drive her father, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, insane.

An online preview set off an angry reaction and generated a hashtag, #ChangeTheCover. Some objected to the image of Batgirl as a helpless victim; others slammed DC Comics for “glamorizing sexual assault.” (Many fans believe Barbara was raped by Joker in The Killing Joke, though the comic itself makes no reference to rape.) DC Comics and Albuquerque promptly announced that the cover was being pulled at the artist’s request.

While this is not “censorship,” Albuquerque’s choice was clearly made under pressure; his statement leaves no doubt that it was a painful decision. The cancellation has been defended on the grounds that the dark, grotesque cover does not match the upbeat tone of the new Batgirl comic books and is wrong for their target audience. Yet the Joker cover was a variant, not the standard version of the comic book issue; it would not have been foisted on any unwilling readers, only made available to customers who would have wanted it — mainly collectors and Joker fans. They no longer have that option.

Feminist culture critic Noah Berlatsky argues that the controversy reflects the changing, more female audience for comic books. But female fans are not a monolith. Some women have praised the cover, even insisting that it contains an inspirational message of survival and triumph: Comic book readers know the crippled Batgirl returns as Oracle, a hero with genius-level computer skills who is no longer a sidekick but Batman’s equal.

Berlatsky sees the disputed cover as the legacy of an era when women’s place in comic books was to provide “sexualized cannon fodder.” But that’s unfair to the cover, in which Batgirl isn’t particularly sexualized, and to comic books, which even in the pre-feminist past gave characters such as Batgirl, Catwoman, or Wonder Woman some opportunities for heroics and adventures of their own (though, admittedly, often treating them as inferior to male heroes). As for the present, the feminist pop culture website The Mary Sue cites several Joker-themed comic-book covers that feature strong-looking heroines. This is meant to show that the variant Batgirl cover could have been similar; however, one can just as easily conclude that women in comic books are faring quite well and won’t be demeaned by one edgy cover.

Indeed, objections to supposedly sexist cruelty toward female characters can look like a sexist plea for special protection for women — given how often male comic-book characters are subjected to shocking abuse. In The Killing Joke itself, Commissioner Gordon is stripped naked and chained to an amusement-park ride while forced to watch giant images of his wounded daughter. One storyline in which the Joker temporarily gained the power to shape reality had Batman being tortured, killed, and resurrected by his enemy day after day.

While critics of the Batgirl cover have argued that Batman and other male heroes would never be shown so powerless, others have readily found examples of such depictions — including one in which Batman is helpless at the hands of a female villain. Male heroes in peril may be far less likely to look fearful or distressed; but one may ask, as does Canadian entertainment journalist Liana Kerzner, if the answer is to expand the men’s range of allowed emotions rather than limit the range allowed for women.

Ultimately, what’s demeaning to women in fictional portrayals is often a matter of opinion. For instance, Batman soon recovered from a broken back while Batgirl remained a paraplegic for more than 20 years, until a recent relaunch. To some, this is a classic example of how female heroes are disempowered. To others, the fact that the disabled Barbara/Oracle managed to be an active crime-fighter using only her upper body — and her intelligence — made her not only more human but more heroic. Comic book writer Gail Simone, a strong critic of sexism in comic books, has said that she repeatedly fought against restoring Batgirl’s full mobility because of her inspirational value to people with disabilities.

Likewise, a strong and overtly sexual female character could be seen as pandering to the “male gaze” or as promoting female empowerment. Bayonetta, a videogame featuring a deliberately hypersexualized female super-fighter, has been denounced as sexist and exploitative by some feminists including media critic Anita Sarkeesian. On the other hand, feminist blogger Alyssa Rosenberg has published a guest post praising the game and its heroine, who “plows through the patriarchy like a wrecking ball” while having fun and flaunting her sexuality.

The worst message to send creators is that if your female character doesn’t get a Good Feminist seal of approval — if she shows too much weakness or too much sexuality, if she has too many stereotypical female qualities or too many “male” ones, if she suffers a failure or a harrowing ordeal, if she is shown in an overly disturbing situation — your work may be attacked as anti-woman. That’s a prescription for bland characters and dull stories.

Feminist critics make a strong case when they assert that there are still not enough female protagonists or major characters in popular culture and not enough good female-driven stories. The answer is to spend less energy on policing and more on creating. More women, fewer litmus tests.

Read next: The New Recipe for Women Entrepreneurs to Find Success

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Culture

11 Movies Starring Women That Will Rival Summer Blockbusters

Pitch Perfect 2
Universal Pictures

Female fans of Pitch Perfect 2 and Magic Mike XXL will fuel summer movie sales

After moviegoing fell six percent in North America last year, studios are scrambling to promote films that can make it big at the box office this summer. And while traditionally that might mean luring young men who will bring their girlfriends and moms to reliable action franchises—from The Avengers 2 to Furious 7 and Jurassic World—it turns out that this summer’s best bet is probably women.

Unsurprisingly, 52% of the population is eager to see themselves represented onscreen. But such opportunities are scarce: only 12% of the protagonists and 30% of all major characters in the top 100 grossing movies in 2014 were women, according to San Diego State University’s Celluloid Ceiling report.

Perhaps that explains why women flood films with female stars and in doing so have become the demographic that determines summer hits. Last year, the Angelina Jolie movie, Maleficent, ranked among the highest-grossing films at the box office, beating Godzilla, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past. And The Fault in Our Stars, a Shailene Woodley romance based on a young adult novel, beat out a well-reviewed Tom Cruise action film, Edge of Tomorrow. That’s to say nothing of films like The Hunger Games and Gone Girl, which outpaced many summer blockbusters when they premiered in the fall.

Women have continued to rule the box office this spring. As The New York Times points out, Fifty Shades of Grey, Cinderella and Insurgent—all films starring and aimed at women—have outperformed male-oriented films like Jupiter Ascending, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 and Chappie at the box office.

As we enter summer, some of the biggest box office hits, ranking alongside the traditional action movie, will likely be movies that can break from the mold and court women.

MORE: How Hollywood Can Get More Women to See Movies

Hot Pursuit (May 8)

Reese Witherspoon set out to disrupt Hollywood when she created Type A Films, a production company dedicated to empowering female-centric movies. She quickly made her mark during Oscar season with Gone Girl and Wild. This May, she’ll produce and star in the comedy Hot Pursuit with Modern Family‘s Sofia Vergara.

Pitch Perfect 2 (May 15)

As teenage boys are being drawn away from the movie theater by video games and YouTube clips, studios are increasingly relying on groups of young female friends to fuel movie ticket sales. Their best bet this summer will be the all-female a capella film Pitch Perfect 2. The original 2012 movie (and Anna Kendrick’s promotional YouTube video for it) was a surprise hit, and the studio is doubling down on the girl power theme this summer with a super-sized sequel.

Tomorrowland (May 22)

Though George Clooney may be the movie star in Disney’s Tomorrowland, Britt Robertson is the hero, starring as a gifted teenager who discovers a way to transport herself through time and space.

Spy (June 5)

The backlash to the Paul Feig-directed, all-female Ghostbusters suggests that even though both Bridesmaids and The Heat were hits, the director is still being challenged to “prove” that female-centric comedies can score big box office numbers. Feig and Melissa McCarthy will attempt to silence critics (again) with the genre-spoof Spy, co-starring Jude Law, Jason Statham and Rose Byrne.

Inside Out (June 19)

Though Pixar’s first attempt at a female protagonist, Brave, was a critical and box office disappointment (at least by Pixar standards), the animators are trying to redeem themselves with Inside Out. The movie delves into the mind of a young girl, exploring what thoughts and emotions control her day-to-day life.

Terminator: Genisys (July 1)

The closest movie on this list to a traditional action flick, the Terminator franchise differentiates itself thanks to the Sarah Connor character. In this reboot, Sarah Connor already knows how to wield a gun and looks to get as much action as her male counterparts. Another hopeful sign: the film stars Emilia Clarke, who as Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones is no stranger to empowering roles.

MORE: These 8 Actresses Proved Women Can Carry a Summer Blockbuster

Magic Mike XXL (July 1)

If Frozen and The Hunger Games proved the power of the young female moviegoer, the first Magic Mike movie confirmed that women over 18 also have sway in this industry. The film turned the stripper with a heart of gold trope on its head by making that stripper a man. Warner Bros. marketed the first Magic Mike film as a bachelorette party, and the sequel, indiscreetly dubbed XXL, is bound to draw even more women to see Channing Tatum in a G-string.

Trainwreck (July 17)

Amy Schumer has already proven that she can convince men that feminists are funny on her Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer. Now she’s getting a chance on the big screen in a Judd Apatow-directed flick. Like Magic Mike, Trainwreck looks to flip gender norms around with a commitment-phobic woman (Schumer) and the guy who actually calls the next day (and who watches Downton Abbey with his best friend, LeBron James).

MORE: How Amy Schumer Gets Guys to Think Feminists Are Funny

Paper Towns (July 24)

Author John Green has always been attentive to gender dynamics in his young adult novels. That’s especially true of Paper Towns, in which Green has said female characters like Lacey and Margo upend boys’ expectations of them. After the last adaptation of one of Green’s books, The Fault in Our Stars, had a surprise $48 million opening weekend last year, 20th Century Fox is hoping that another film adaptation of Green’s work, Paper Towns, will draw the same young female demographic.

Ricki and the Flash (August 6)

attends SeriousFun Children's Network 2015 New York Gala: An Evening of SeriousFun Celebrating the Legacy of Paul Newman at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on March 2, 2015 in New York City.
Neilson Barnard—2015 Getty ImagesMeryl Streep attends SeriousFun Children’s Network 2015 New York Gala: An Evening of SeriousFun Celebrating the Legacy of Paul Newman at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on March 2, 2015 in New York City.

In an industry where women make up only 11% of writers of the top 250 domestic films, Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) is one of the few successful female screenwriters. Her newest film, Ricki and the Flash, stars Meryl Streep as an aging rock star who abandoned her family for fame. She tries to patch things up when she returns home to help her estranged daughter through a tough time. Though the movie has a summer release date, Streep’s involvement is almost sure to earn it Oscar buzz.

Sicario (Sept. 18)

"Into The Woods" - Gala Screening - Red Carpet Arrivals
Anthony Harvey—Getty ImagesEmily Blunt attends the gala screening of “Into The Woods” at The Curzon Mayfair on January 7, 2015 in London, England

After upstaging Tom Cruise in last year’s The Edge of Tomorrow, Emily Blunt is getting her own thriller. In it, Blunt plays an idealistic FBI agent enlisted by two members of a government task force (Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin) to take down a Mexican cartel. Blunt has shown range taking non-starring roles in action films (Edge, Looper), dramas where she should be overshadowed by Meryl Streep but isn’t (The Devil Wears Prada) and musicals (Into the Woods). Sicario may finally give her the chance to take the starring role she deserves.

TIME Culture

A Museum Honoring Dr. Seuss Is Going to Open in Massachusetts

Author Theodore Geisel ("Dr Seuss") at home
Mark Kauffman—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Author Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, at home in February 1984

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go"

Springfield, Mass., is to be the home of a museum honoring the much-loved children’s author Dr. Seuss.

Visitors to the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, in the author’s hometown, will “explore a series of environments that replicate scenes from Dr. Seuss’s imagination and encounter life-sized three-dimensional characters and places from the books,” say the operators. A re-creation of Seuss’s studio, with his actual furniture and artwork, will also feature.

The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham writer was born Theodor Seuss Geisel in Springfield in 1904. More than 600 million copies of his books have been sold across the globe.

The museum is set to open in phases from mid-2016.

TIME Culture

Watch This Scandal Character Perfectly Describe How the Media Treats Women Differently

"A story about me ain't a story unless they can report on the fact that I am the girlfriend"

Scandal showrunner Shonda Rhimes used last night’s episode of the hit political drama to take a stand on how the media scrutinizes women in Washington, just as Hillary Clinton prepares to announce her long-anticipated bid for the presidency in 2016.

Rhimes’ shows might be best known for their crazy plot twists, but another hallmark of her work is the powerful soliloquy, delivered quickly and emphatically. On last night’s episode of Scandal, White House Press Secretary Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield) contemplated resigning from her post when another woman, played by Lena Dunham, threatened to write a tell-all about the sex lives of several men in D.C., including Abby’s boyfriend, political consultant Leo Bergen (Paul Adelstein). When Leo tells Abby she doesn’t have to worry because he was the one who committed the “disgusting” sexual acts, she fires back that of course the scandal will hurt her too.

The fictional Press Secretary says the media has long had double standards for women in the Capitol: reporters write stories about how she looks and who she is dating just as much as they write about her accomplishments. Read a transcript of the monologue below:

What happens to you happens to me. I’m good at my job, Leo. I am a lion up there. I own that room. I work for it. I give a strong briefing. And they write about that. They cover the news. And there are articles about how well I do at my job.

But they also write about me. If I wear lipstick, I’m dolled up. If I don’t, I’ve let myself go. They wonder if I’m trying to bring dresses back. And they don’t like it that I repeat outfits, even though I’m on a government salary. They discuss my hair color. There are anonymous blogs that say I’m too skinny. They have a running joke that I’m on a hunger strike until I can be liberated by the democrats.

They also write about you. Every article that comes out about me has your name somewhere in it because apparently there’s this rule: In order to mention my name, they also have to report to the world that there’s a man who wants me. My work, my accomplishments, my awards—I stand at the most powerful podium in the world, but a story about me ain’t a story unless they can report on the fact that I am the girlfriend of D.C. fixer Leo Bergen, like it validates me, gives me an identity, a definition. They can’t fathom the concept that my life doesn’t revolve around you.

My life doesn’t revolve anywhere near you. It’s horrifying: property of Leo Bergen. Tell me, when they write articles about you, Leo, how often do they mention me? Do they talk about your clothes? Write about your thighs? There is a difference. There is. So, what happens to you, happens to me, which is why I’m writing a letter of resignation. Are we done?

 

TIME Culture

The Underwoods: A Less Perfect Union

Kevin Spacey (L) and Robin Wright (R) in the first season of Netflix's "House of Cards."
Melinda Sue Gordon/—Sony Pictures Kevin Spacey (L) and Robin Wright (R) in the first season of Netflix's "House of Cards."

In a two-party system, compromise is truly the only way forward

(Note: This contains House of Cards Season 3 spoilers.)

The third season of the award-winning drama ‘House of Cards’ once again delivers an addictive dose of intrigue and brinkmanship, but the latest 13 episodes also dissect the anatomy of a marriage, as Frank and Claire Underwood are battle-tested in new ways that would easily break lesser couples trying to survive the crucible of Washington.

The Underwood union is a central theme of ‘House of Cards,’ and is among its most compelling, as it gives us as viewers a cultural lens through which to explore the show’s broader questions about the acquisition and exercise of power. For Frank and Claire, marriage and politics are tightly intertwined; one does not exist without the other. This seemingly unlikely combination is what makes this couple’s relationship unique, but what also threatens to prove its undoing.

For my part, I engage with the thematic sway of marriage in the show from a personal perspective. The show debuted a month before my own wedding, in February 2013, and being married—even more so than living in Washington, DC constantly surrounded by the trappings of other institutions of power—has definitely informed how I experience the House of Cards. Over the past three seasons, I have gleaned what wisdom I could from the Underwoods and have seen the advantages and the pitfalls of a political approach to marriage.

Read more: Here is the power of American angst

Though they may not seem a likely pair, marriage and politics need some of the same ingredients to work. Some elements—like respect, diplomacy and pragmatism—are more readily acknowledged, while others—like strategy, bargaining and persuasion—we might be less willing to admit are necessary. And connotation matters: compromise and manipulation are two sides of the same coin, viewed from different perspectives.

Frank and Claire Underwood bring new meaning to Otto von Bismarck’s famous definition of politics as “the art of the possible.”

In Claire, Frank has his main advisor, chief strategist, and biggest champion. Her charm is deployed with world leaders and on the campaign trail, she helps him plot political moves from the safety of their home, and she bolsters his confidence in the private moments when he falters.

In Frank, Claire has found adoration, affirmation, and a partner with ambitions she helps him realize, even as she works towards her own goals. His love of his wife is apparent in the spoken and unspoken, he encourages her political aspirations – at times, at his own expense. As a unit, they work their way to the highest office in the land through unconventional (read: unscrupulous) means.

Though diabolical, the Underwoods are also devoted, loving and, in their own way, affectionate. After two seasons, the couple long managed to come off as somehow aspirational, with a twisted take on many of the ideals married couples hold dear.

Frank and Claire have reinforced the notion that marriage is something to be protected through an unbreakable code that must be adhered to at all times and costs. Chief among those previously unbroken rules: The inner circle is sacrosanct, and loyalty is paramount. Now, in the third season, seeing these sacred tenets crumble – especially after their nearly three decades of marriage and its attendant murder and mayhem – is both foreign and jarring.

This sense of loyalty has never included sexual fidelity, which is clearly a vow that has been broken by both Underwoods. But the idea of one’s spouse as their top priority without exception has been demonstrated again and again in this show. They are the keepers of each other’s secrets, and each knows the other better than anyone else. Early on, the couple makes the decision to forgo having children, choosing instead to raise their political fortunes – a difficult and rare decision. And this season, despite his misgivings, Frank appoints Claire as to the high-profile and high stakes position of U.N. ambassador, not because of her expertise, but out of love.

For their kind of closeness, caring too much about others or allowing too much influence from outside of the marriage are liabilities neither Frank nor Claire can afford. And any action at the expense of one’s spouse – as is the case this season, when Frank and Claire’s emotions cause professional and personal damage – is an unforgivable betrayal.

These rules are the foundation for the next tier of laws, important in both matrimony and politics: Control the narrative and stay on message. As important as how people relate to each other is how those on the outside looking in would describe their relationship. In the first two seasons, with their backs against the wall, Frank and Claire turn to each other, not on each other. They strategize solutions, together. And in scene after scene, they are a team, moving in unison – a formidable image, and one that creates the kind of marriage others envy and admire.

But this season, we see daylight breaking through between the Underwoods and corrupting what they’ve built. As president, Frank makes choices at odds with Claire’s thinking. Her unusual absence is notable on the re-election campaign trail. They literally invite someone else – a presidential biographer – to come in and evaluate them. He comes away assessing not Frank’s first term, but their union.

At one point during a heated argument over their competing ambitions and priorities, a disgusted Claire utters, “I can’t believe we’ve become this.”

“Become what?” Frank asks. “Like everyone else,” Claire responds.

What does it mean to be “like everyone else”? Petty. Easily affected. Needy. Not a team.

How did this happen? In part because Frank and Claire violated another political must: believe in yourself at all costs. Fear and doubt are not an option. They are the dark clouds that block otherwise reasoned focus and judgment and expose our vulnerabilities.

Key to keeping these twin liabilities at bay is the final principle: People must feel valued – which is different from feeling like equals – and be acknowledged as an essential part of the team. In Episode Six, the Underwoods apply a dual approach to negotiate the release of hostage Michael Corrigan, who is being held by the Russians for his stance on gay rights. While Frank tries to reason with Russian President Viktor Petrov, Claire attempts to coax Corrigan into a compromise to secure his release and a diplomatic victory for her husband’s administration.

In an exchange she has with Corrigan in his jail cell, we get insight into Claire’s view of marriage:

Michael Corrigan: Isn’t that what marriage is about? Accepting people’s selfishness? You, of all people, should understand –

Claire: You know nothing about marriage…

Michael Corrigan: You think it’s about sacrifice?

Claire: I think it’s about respect.

By the end of the episode, Claire has publicly disrespected Frank by disrupting his televised news conference and derailing his tenuous diplomatic deal with Petrov. Her betrayal of the law of staying on message in favor of her own feelings foreshadows her climatic divergence with Frank at the end of the season, which leaves their impenetrable façade seemingly irrevocably cracked and an audience heartbroken.

Read more: Can a radical center save the United States?

Season Three ends with a marital cliffhanger, leaving Frank and Claire’s future hanging in the balance only months after the couple lovingly renewed their vows in the South Carolina church where they were wed nearly three decades prior. We’re left to wait until next season to discover whether their marriage or Frank’s presidency will survive.

As difficult as it was for me to watch Frank and Claire unravel this season, considering marriage as politics leaves me encouraged. Both ebb and flow in cycles. Spouses, like incumbents, must sometimes work to maintain their positions. And in a two-party system, compromise is truly the only way forward.

Though the Underwoods’ marriage may have looked like matrimony’s version of American exceptionalism, they share the same flaw as all politicians: They’re human.

Errin Whack is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about culture and politics. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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