The Complex, Unlikable Women of ‘House of Cards’

Daddy Issues, Menopause and Female Power

Written by Leigh Kolb

Spoilers ahead

Netflix’s original production House of Cards premiered–all at once, for those of us who love binge-watching–on February 1. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is the vengeful House Majority Whip who lusts after power and is ambitious and unscrupulous in his attempts to get what he wants.

In fact, most of the characters fit that description.

We know that the anti-hero is in. Many of the protagonists in critically acclaimed dramas (Walter White, Nucky Thompson, Jax Teller, Dexter Morgan, Don Draper, the list goes on…) are not traditionally heroic and make decisions that are illegal and “immoral.”

Frank Underwood is a twenty-first century Iago, building his empire on a tenuous pile of cards. He looks at the camera and includes the audience in his thought process (much like Kenneth Branagh’s Iago in Othello). The Macbeth references also are clear, as Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) scrubs a stain out of her carpet or as Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) is consistently associated with water.

Just as Frank conjures a centuries-old tradition of villainous pseudo-heroism, the women of House of Cards also represent the kind of ruthless ambition that we find so compelling in characters.

And as “The Women on House of Cards Are Just as Evil as the Men” points out:

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.”

Zoe is a scrappy reporter when we first meet her, and she quickly transforms herself into a front-page journalist because she gets the right source.

In bed.

She draws him in with a photo, goes to his house in a push-up bra and a low-cut shirt, and gets tips of all kinds. In the first episode, the most powerful women have broken into power via cleavage, marriage and tokenism (the new White House Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez, who Frank helped promote because of her ethnicity and gender). It didn’t look so good at first, but like any good story, the characters unfold as the series goes on, revealing that Claire is ambitious at all costs, Zoe holds the cards in her relationship with Frank and the women, at the end, are instrumental in upending and beginning to unravel Frank’s plans.

Zoe Barnes

For Zoe, she is both empowered and disempowered by men who treat her like she is their child. When she shoots to stardom (via Frank) at The Washington Herald, Tom, her editor, is dismissive of her work and yet knows he needs to promote her and reward her because Margaret (his boss) wants her star-power, since Tom’s beloved hard-news print outlet is barely staying in business.

When Zoe and Tom get into a fight after she turns down the White House Correspondent gig, he accuses her of being arrogant.

Zoe: “You think when a woman asks to be respected she’s being arrogant?”
Tom: “Are you accusing me of sexism? No TV for a month.”

He’s limiting her TV appearances as punishment, but of course it sounds like he’s talking to a child and taking television away as a punishment. The line between father and boss is blurred.

Zoe’s understanding of respect is obviously convoluted as Frank constantly asks her about her parents, and her father, and if they know she lives like she does (in a shabby, dirty apartment). “Are you cared for,” he asks. “Do you have a man, who cares for you? An older man?”

When Frank visits Zoe on Father’s Day, he encourages her to call her father. While she’s still on the phone, she starts undressing him, he undresses her and goes down on her in the most graphic sex scene in the season. She’s breathless while she’s on the phone, and hangs up only after promising her father “I’m going to try and come, OK?” The line between father and lover is blurred.

Later in the season, Zoe establishes herself in a new lucrative job at Slugline, a woman-owned new media company where the reporters have free reign to post what and when they want and are not “tied to a desk.” Janine joins her after leaving The Washington Herald. Janine was her enemy at the Herald, and represents a somewhat older, jaded version of Zoe. When the two begin to work together, they make great strides. Zoe finishes her relationship with Frank and works with Janine to do real, legitimate reporting (which is quickly unraveling Frank’s web of lies). Zoe is poised to be the most successful and have the most journalistic integrity by letting go of the older men in her life (who represent a patriarchal power structure) and working with women and peer collaborators.

Meanwhile, Claire, who matches her husband in power and ambition, changes her company and re-evaluates her own life as the season progresses. She lays off half of the staff and her clean water nonprofit, including Evelyn, her office manager (after having her fire everyone). Evelyn desperately points out to Claire that she is in her late 50s, and she would have no job prospects. Claire doesn’t bend.

Claire Underwood

Shortly after, Claire goes to a coffee shop where an older woman is working the register, and can’t figure out how to ring her up. A young woman comes and shows her, as Claire looks at them, certainly thinking of Evelyn and her own possibilities.

She courts Gillian, a young, beautiful woman who has had individual success in clean water initiatives. Gillian resists the corporate atmosphere, and Claire says,

“I know what it is to be capable, beautiful and ambitious… I want to enable you, to clear the way for you.”

Gillian accepts.

And Claire starts getting hot flashes. “This is new to me,” she tells a female dinner party guest who sees her standing in front of the open refrigerator. Her coming menopause serves as a reminder that she is getting ready to enter a new phase of womanhood, which she doesn’t seem ready for.

Gillian, meanwhile, announces her pregnancy and Claire seems uncomfortable. Even though she tells Adam (her once and sometimes lover) when he asks why she and Frank didn’t have kids, “We just didn’t–it wasn’t some big conversation. I thought about it once or twice, but I don’t feel like there’s some void. We’re perfectly happy without.”

But by the end of the season, she’s visiting a doctor and having a consultation about her fertility. She doesn’t tell Frank, but the window of opportunity for her to have a baby isn’t closed yet.

Gillian goes against Claire’s orders, and Claire suggests she take some time off after Gillian snaps, “I threaten you, don’t I?” Gillian hires a lawyer and claims Claire fired her for being pregnant, trapping Claire in a potential legal battle that she cannot win. The youthful ambition she wanted to guide and empower didn’t want either.

No one is good (nor should they be, or the show wouldn’t work so well). Janine tells Zoe she “used to suck, screw and jerk anything that moved just to get a story.” And while she’s a working journalist, she obviously didn’t fuck her way to the top (nor did Zoe). They are on their way to the top, but it’s only because they’re working together.

Claire and Frank are in a surprisingly power-balanced relationship, and it only truly suffers when he puts his goals over hers. Claire elicits sympathy, disgust, anger and fear from the audience (sometimes all in one episode).

These women are complex, if not likable, and that’s a good thing. Season 2 is already in development, and the women’s stories are poised to be central to what comes next. Zoe and Janine are close to the truth about Frank, Claire’s career and fertility hang in the balance and at any moment, the house of cards they’ve all helped build may come tumbling down.


Leigh Kolb is a composition, literature and journalism instructor at a community college in rural Missouri.