Tuesday, February 12, 2013

House of Cards Has Female Trouble

Disruptive, risky, groundbreaking: the buzz around Netflix's original series House of Cards has been staggering. This is due in no small part to the laundry list of famous names: David Fincher, Joel Schumacher, Robin Wright, Kevin Spacey, etc. Certainly, Netflix's model of releasing an entire series at once could not come at a better time: fast internet speeds, low cost streaming services, and skyrocketing cable television prices have created a culture of cancelling cable and binge-watching television series on Netflix. This trend, when combined with an edgier West Wing storyline and an all-star cast, obviously creates a wildly successful series. The internet has become the new water cooler, and the response is clear: everyone is watching, and they love it.
House of Cards

Like the masses, I flew through the series in less than a week. The salacious political intrigue and backstabbing had me captivated. There was one giant, gaping hole, though: women. There is no shortage of female characters, but each is implicitly or explicitly coded as a shrew, a whore, or an undesirable. Chief among the offenders is Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), the virgin/whore. As a young reporter trying to make her old media employer transition into blogging, she is seemingly missing any aspect of a work ethic. Instead of buckling down and working hard (or looking for a new job), she decides to sleep with House Majority Whip Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in exchange for stories. Zoe's sexuality is not the problem; at issue here is her power and agency. She feels that objectifying herself entitles her to more privileges than anyone else; by allowing herself to be dominated, she wants to both the role of both victim and blackmailer. The problem is that she doesn't hold enough actual power to really control Frank or anyone else. Instead of being a badass antihero, she becomes an irritating shrew, badgering Frank for stories while undressing. Her trademark stance -- worried expression, thumb in her mouth -- infantilises her, hinting at potential daddy issues (explored in a cringe-inducing scene that I never want to discuss). At best, Zoe is a narcissist who is blind to her own scheming; at worst, she holds a nearly sociopathic disregard for everyone around her, stopping at nothing to fuck her way to the top.

It's worth noting that Zoe's coworker Janine (Constance Zimmer) warns against the concubine path. Now in her 40s, Janine is coded as being entirely undesirable: she is harsh, foul, distrustful, disheveled, frumpy, and simply coasting in what should be a glamorous newspaper beat. Janine has the distinction of being the one of the only main female characters not sexually objectified by the camera, yet herself admits that she exchanged sex for stories earlier in her career. Now, she's a human tissue, wadded up and tossed aside after the masturbatory act is completed. No longer can she get decent stories, for she is branded for life. It's only when she takes Zoe's ill-gotten stories that she is able to find some fire in her career again.

Then there's Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), the ice queen. She is beautiful and sexual, but she is just as conniving and dangerous as her husband. While she represents herself as a powerful nonprofit chair, she loses herself after her gender betrays her: she begins to have hot flashes. Indeed, her obsessions with pregnancy, youth, and sex quickly follow behind her earliest menopause symptoms. Although she is always sexually desirable to the camera -- long, lingering shots on her delicate limbs, high heels, and long legs -- she must be made to feel sexy again, as though sex is her only power. Subsequently, being successful with her husband is not the goal -- she must be more successful. She becomes a succubus, feeding off of her husband, her charity, her off-and-on lover, and even Zoe to succeed.

Even the smaller female characters have their values tied to sex, the most obvious of whom being the prostitute Rachel (Rachel Brosnahan). Christina (Kristen Connolly) is Peter Russo's staffer and girlfriend, but she spends a remarkable amount of camera time in early episodes not wearing pants. One of her first lasting scenes is a sex scene. Ironically, in the episode wherein Zoe accuses her editor of sexism, there is soon after a scene in which Christina's ass, clad in small and tight panties, takes up about half of the screen. Even Gillian (Sandrine Holt), the Stanford valedictorian and general do-gooder, get pregnant following a torrid affair with a married man.

This is not to say that the male characters are squeaky clean. There's enough scandal, dirt, and betrayal there to write a novel (see that funny joke I made?). The point is that the male characters are not as limited and confined by their gender. For instance, there is a beautiful scene that casually, gently reveals that Frank had a sexual relationship with a male college buddy. The soft hand that crafts this scene is so elegant, allowing the viewer to come to whatever conclusion she or he wishes. If half of this grace were applied to, say, Zoe, her characterization would be completely changed. Indeed, her growing awareness toward the end of the first season hints at some growing agency. Despite its faults, House of Cards is an addicting, delicious show that has a lot of promise for the future. It is my hope that the second season, already in the works, will allow the women the strength and independence they deserve -- hopefully with a sharp decrease in butt cleavage.