Netflix’s “House of Cards”: A Good Show Turned Bad by Shitty Female Leads
For those of us with Netflix Instant Streaming subscriptions, there’s an all-too-familiar feeling of tuning in to watch an episode of an available series only to metaphorically black out and awake to watching the season finale.
Netflix has decided to use this binge watching to its advantage by creating what could usher in a new era of “television”: original programming released a full season at a time.
The show is House of Cards, a reboot of a British show released in 1990 with an American twist. With viewers still caught up in the political drama that is election season and the start of a new Congress, Netflix couldn’t have picked a more relevant topic for its debut series.
The smooth, dark style of Director David Fincher (of The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, who is a producer and director of the series) coupled with the Shakespearean elegance of character asides to the audience put House of Cards on par with HBO programming and Hollywood dramas – if movies were 13 hours long, that is.
But House of Cards isn’t just pretty: It’s damn well acted, organized and orchestrated. If the world of House of Cards was a poker game, the table’s high stakes player would be Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey. And like Spacey’s character from the movie 21, Underwood can count cards.
In the pilot’s opening scene, after witnessing a dog hit by a car in his Washington, D.C. neighborhood, Frank breaks the animal’s neck with his bare hands before its owners arrive on the scene. You get the sense Underwood didn’t kill the dog to put it out of its misery so much as he did it to be in control of the situation – a philosophy that spills into his political career as the House majority whip, which provides him with series pull in the White House.
While few have been able to argue against the show’s brilliance, and I can’t speak for its political accuracy, the show does leave much to be desired in one aspect: it’s female characters. House of Cards’ portrayal of women goes beyond the Bechdel Test (meaning a scene where at least two female characters talk to each other about something besides a man). In a three-part feature, we’ll explore three of the show’s leading women and compare the role they play as pawns in a political conspiracy (or conspiracies) and in their relationships to their male counterparts.
Kate Mara, sister of David Fincher-favorite Rooney Mara and American Horror Story: Asylum star, gives a stunning performance as reporter Zoe Barnes. Zoe, while employed by fictional big-time newspaper the Washington Herald, is stuck where many new journalists find themselves early in their careers: on the fluffy feature and local government beats. The Herald is an old school paper that plays by old school rules. Her editors and fellow reporters haven’t really tackled new media like blogs and Twitter, and Zoe feels trapped and unable to break into the field.
You’re preaching to the choir, sister.
Zoe figures she may be able to better break stories if she has a secret source in the White House, and she finds one in Frank Underwood.
Why Frank? When they coincidentally attended the same concert, a Herald photographer snapped a photo of Frank checking out Zoe’s ass in a dress you could practically see right through.
So Zoe blackmails Underwood into slipping her information on an upcoming education bill, which Frank can use to his advantage. He was passed up for the Secretary of State position, though he was promised it in exchange for helping the newly instated president make his way into office. All the information Frank leaks to Zoe has a double benefit for him: Frank gives Zoe a copy of the bill; she writes a front-page story on it; the current politician leading the bill’s enactment is canned and replaced by … you guessed it, Frank Underwood.
What’s worse, to continue reporting her scoops, Zoe and Frank start sleeping together in a political sugar daddy/sugar baby, prostitution-esque affair, which Zoe openly acknowledges later in the season.
“As long as we’re clear about what this is, I can play the whore,” Zoe tells Frank after they decide sex is their only link to a professional relationship. “Now pay me.”
Zoe and Frank’s unethical relationship is problematic for several reasons, the most obvious being that the majority of political reporters are male. In the 2012 election, 76 percent of articles about the GOP primary and 72 percent of articles about the presidential campaign were written by men, according to data compiled by the Fourth Estate. Most newsrooms are 63 percent male, which is reflected in Zoe’s editor and the Herald’s managing editor both being played by men.
It was a male reporter who released the video and broke the news story of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s “47 Percent” speech, and it’s a safe bet he didn’t have to lie in bed on his back to do so.
Unlike he character of Frank Underwood, Zoe Barnes lacks significant motivation and goals. While House of Cards twists and turns to reveal the ruthless nature in which Underwood finds means to his political ends in ways that surprise the viewer, from episode to episode, Frank’s underlying objectives, reasoning and path to success are calculated and logical.
Zoe is easier characterized as a “manic pixie reporter girl”: She wants to be journalism’s shining new star. She breaks her way into prominence at her paper and into the national spotlight as a wiz kid. Vague goal completed. But when she’s offered the opportunity to move into a more prestigious and challenging role, she turns up her nose at it.
Why? Because Frank tells her she can do better.
And when her boss calls her a “cunt” and fires her for her attitude, which Zoe spreads on Twitter, her boss is fired and she is offered tons of great new jobs at reputable news outlets outside of D.C.
But does she take them? No. Why? Because Frank convinces her she’d be best suited at a Politico-style online startup called Slugline, where he can still feed her scoops, which she’ll gladly take.
So not only is Zoe able to be manipulated into taking the course of action someone else dictates is best for her, she proves that without his assistance, she can’t even do her job. Zoe doesn’t deserve to be lauded – she casts a negative light on all female journalists and political correspondent ethics. An idea reinforced by a follow Herald reporter Zoe convinces to join her at Slugline. “I used to suck, screw, and jerk anything that moved just to get a story,” former Herald White House correspondent Janine Skorsky confides to Zoe.
At the end of season one, Zoe and Janine begin to uncover a bigger political scandal at the hands of Underwood than they could have ever imagined, and finally Zoe breaks away from Frank’s chokehold on her career. But if House of Cards is trying to paint her as one of the good guys in a seedy political world, they’ve failed miserably. Zoe is just as slimy as Frank, who has no qualms in spreading rumors, blackmailing his colleagues into screwing over their districts, and getting those who stand in his way out of office. Zoe just does her dirty work naked.
I’ll be looking at the other female characters of House of Cards in parts two and three of this series.
What do you think of Zoe Barnes and the other women in the show? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Written by Lauren Slavin