I'm one of the many people who compulsively binge-watched the first season of Netflix's House of Cards over the weekend; please don't ask me what time I went to bed last night. I loved the show because I'm a sucker for melodramatic political thrillers, but I was also particularly fascinated by the women on the series, who are just as ruthless, power-hungry, and in control as the men — if not more so.
****OBVIOUS SPOILER ALERT! I WATCHED THE ENTIRE SEASON (INSTEAD OF SLEEPING) AND WILL BE DISCUSSING IT IN DETAIL BELOW.****
I completely disagree with Slate's Alyssa Rosenberg, who wrote that House of Cards mistakes "sordid, sexist fantasies for trenchant insight, and is poorer for it" in a piece entitled "House Of Cards Thinks All Female Political Reporters Are Mean Sluts." Rosenberg acknowledges that most characters could out-Machiavelli a Shakespearean villain, but that:
...there is no one to whom the show is nastier, and for no discernible reason, than female political reporters — in House of Cards they are promiscuous, catfight-prone, and entirely unethical. If the depiction of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) is meant to be a trenchant critique of Washington journalism, or of sexism in Washington journalism, it falls very, very short of that mark. Instead, it's grotesquely insulting to the women who do serious policy and political reporting in Washington every day.
Seriously? Were we watching the same show? Because Zoe and Janine make amends after the first few episodes; Zoe is the reason Janine gets hired at Slugline, and by the end of the season the two are tighter than Woodward and Bernstein. The women swap stories and advice and, yes, gossip about sleeping with sources, but if they weren't "entirely unethical" they wouldn't fit in with the ethos of the series. Nearly every person on House of Cards is willing to do whatever it takes — sexual favors, extortion, even murder — to get what they want.
I don't think I've ever watched a TV show in which women who might be described more accurately as "sociopathic" than simply "ambitious" profit off their evilness; it's refreshing that the show's female characters are so unapologetically immoral. Zoe is the one who pursues a sexual relationship with her congressman source Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), and she's the one who ends it, too. It never seems as if Frank is using her more than she is using him, even though he's over twice her age and 100 times as powerful. He warns her early on that he'll hurt and discard her, but by the last episode, it seems the opposite will likely be the case. Then, there's Claire (Robin Wright), Frank's cutthroat wife, who is way less dependent on Frank than Frank is on her. Sure, he's willing to use her for his political gain, but she's the one who really screws him over, not the other way around. Even the most stereotypically "fallen" woman on the show — down-on-her-luck prostitute Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) — ends up holding the best cards by the end of the first season.
It seems strange to criticize the show for being unrealistic and "grotesquely insulting" in terms of how the female journalists are portrayed when everyone is so fucked up; most politicians, for example, aren't murdering their way to the vice presidency. (At least, I hope not.) The show would be way less interesting if only the male characters were running around town sleeping with people they shouldn't be sleeping with and bribing people they shouldn't be bribing while their female partners and peers waited patiently at home.
Above all, I love how it's taken for granted that the women's actions are just as repugnant; it's no more subversive or shocking when Claire sneaks away to be with her lover or when Zoe utilizes a push-up bra to get what she wants than it is when the men liberally (and literally) fuck around. The show would be weaker if the women were held to higher moral standards. I hope they don't get soft in the second season.