Ruthless, Pragmatic Feminism in ‘House of Cards’

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Written by Leigh Kolb.

Season 2 spoilers ahead!

Novelist Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” I think about that often when looking for or critiquing the dearth of feminist film and television. We often wring our hands over the Bechdel Test and the lack of “Strong Female Characters.”

Ideal feminist media would be like Leonard’s ideal writing–films and shows that don’t feel like they’re trying to be feminist. They just are. Complex women and women’s stories that aren’t just pieces of the whole, but are woven in seamlessly throughout the narrative–that’s what I want.

House of Cards delivers. 

Last year, after season 1 debuted on Netflix to critical and popular acclaim, Amanda Rodriguez and I both wrote about House of Cards and the wonderfully complex female characters (see: “The Complex, Unlikable Women of House of Cards” and “Claire Underwood: The Queen Bee in House of Cards“). The simultaneously awful and wonderful female characters whose stories were essential to the action in every single episode. Nothing ever felt forced, and the fact that these women were both sympathetic and loathsome was an absolute delight for those of us feminist viewers who are tired of “strong female characters” who pay lip service to some kind of surface-level inequality.

 

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House of Cards’s feminism is remarkable, because it feels wholly unremarkable.

Season 2 debuted on Feb. 14, and although Netflix doesn’t reveal exact numbers, Variety reports that the viewership in the first few hours “soared,” with many subscribers watching multiple episodes at once.

And since the only Olympic-style sport we are interested in in our home is the long-form binge watch, we were finished with season 2 by Saturday night. Within the first two episodes, I was fairly certain this was the most feminist TV drama I’ve seen–because what we want (complexity, equality, and representation) is woven in seamlessly. House of Cards is not primarily about a man. It’s not primarily about a woman. It’s about people.

In the promo materials for season 1, we saw Frank Underwood sitting alone in Lincoln’s monument. Ostensibly, he’s the show’s protagonist. And in season 1, I suppose it did often feel that way.

However, the season 2 poster features Frank again sitting in Lincoln’s seat, but Claire is sitting on top of it also. From the first shot of season 2–Frank and Claire running together–we know that Frank isn’t really our sole protagonist at all anymore.

 

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The first two episodes tie up many loose ends from season 1, and introduce new ones for season 2. In the first episode, Claire picks up her appointment with the fertility doctor not, as we learn, to become pregnant herself, but to find out more about the drug that Gillian is on so she can threaten to withhold her insurance from her, thus getting what she wants from Gillian. “I’m willing to let your child wither and die within you,” Claire says to Gillian. Frank pushes Zoe Barnes into the path of an ongoing train, and she is killed. Frank, who has taken his place as vice president, courts Jackie Sharp to be the House Majority Whip. Why? Her military record of having to order strikes and kill people (including women and children) shows Frank that she is a bastion of ruthless pragmatism, which is how he and Claire move forward; and with this, season 2 begins.

In the following episodes, Claire faces her rapist (who assaulted her in college, and now Frank must give him an award for his military service), and honestly tells Frank how she wants to “smash things” and how much she wants to talk about it. These scenes were excellent because she didn’t let Frank be the vengeful husband. She stopped him, and then kept her power by talking about the assault. It wasn’t presented as if her sexuality was Frank’s to protect; the experience was hers. She wants to let her husband in, but she doesn’t want him to avenge her honor. That’s her job.

When she goes on national television and admits to having an abortion, she says that it was to end the pregnancy that resulted from the sexual assault. She named her attacker, and a young woman called in to the show, saying that he had assaulted her as well. This kicks off a season-long story line about a military sexual assault bill that pits women against women and shows the politics of justice as being just that: politics.

 

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Claire bares all–in her own way–on national television.

 

But here’s the rub: Claire had three abortions, not one, and none were from the rape. She is matter-of-fact with her doctor and press secretary that she had three abortions, and we learn that one was during the campaign with Frank, and two were when she was a teenager. One could see these story lines as using infertility, rape, and abortion as plot points.

And you know what? It’s fantastic. I love that these typically silent or exploited topics get so much air time in House of Cards, and that Claire is more human for having gone through so much, yet she uses it all for political and personal gain. (A recent study showed that when female characters consider or have an abortion in film or TV, they are disproportionally killed or at least punished.)

When done properly, I applaud these female-specific plot points. These events are plot points in women’s lives, and they should be used well on screen. House of Cards does just that.

Historically, men have wars and external, political struggles to define and provide fodder for their journeys (both fictional and non). We see this represented with Frank’s visit to the Confederate re-enactors and his war miniatures. Women’s struggles and choices–infertility, sexual assault, and abortion–are widespread and underrepresented. To have Claire live through and use these experiences is refreshing and brilliant (and appropriately villainous).

The season goes on to show the fallout that Claire receives from admitting to having an abortion (even though she publicly says she had one after a rape), including an attempted bomb attack by a man whose wife had had an abortion, and the angry, vitriolic protesters outside her home. (She tells Megan, the young sexual assault victim at one point, “They’re loud, but I think we need to be louder.”) What a great message.

Claire is a horrible human being for many, many reasons–but her abortions aren’t included in those reasons. The show makes that clear.

Jackie–Frank’s replacement and sometimes-ally sometimes-adversary–is a force. She, in her relationship with Remy, is the one who initially isn’t interested at all in a relationship. She gets tattooed to help deal with the pain of the deaths she was responsible for in the military. She’s powerful and political, and we see her as both the enemy and ally throughout the season.

 

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Jackie, adding on to her poppy tattoo (symbolic in its remembrance of bloodshed in war, and therapeutic in its pain).

 

In addition to the complex shaping of women’s stories and the characters themselves, the way the show handles masculinity and sexuality seems revolutionary.

In season 1, it’s evident when Frank goes back to his alma mater that he had had a sexual relationship with a close male friend. There wasn’t much hoopla about this, it just was what it was. In season 2, Claire, Frank, and their bodyguard, Edward Meechum, have a threesome. The next day, Frank says to Meechum as he gets in the car, “It’s a beautiful day.” And that’s all there is to it. Meanwhile, Rachel has developed a relationship with Lisa, and it’s portrayed as a loving partnership (although the camera does linger on their sex scene while it artfully pans away from the aforementioned threesome).

There’s no moral focus or panic about people’s sexuality. It just–is what it is. No fanfare. And the fact that we get to see women having orgasms (in season 2, an especially steamy scene between Jackie and Remy) is a pleasant detour from the norm as well.

In what continues to be one of my favorite articles regarding feminist media, “I hate Strong Female Characters,” Sophia McDougall says,

“Nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses. They’re still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how they don’t take no shit, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps, and then with ladylike discretion they back out of the narrative’s way.”

The women of House of Cards are not “Strong Female Characters.” They are well-written characters with a great deal of power, which they wield alongside the men. They are integral parts of the narrative. When female complexity and power is written into the narrative, everything else–including passing the Bechdel Test–effortlessly falls into place.

This is ruthless pragmatism: feminist style, and it is excellent. In a sea of male anti-heroes on TV, it’s time that women share the stage. House of Cards shows its hand, and it’s a royal flush, with the queen right next to the king.

 


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