LINK COLLECTION for ressources accompanying our article in our fourth print zine
CONTAINS SPOILERS OF SEASON 1 and 2.
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.
Rachel noted that her character never uses the word “lesbian,” nor does she identify her sexuality in any way. For her, it’s all about Lisa, the person.
“I knew a little bit about the basics of how Rachel and Lisa meet but I didn’t know it was going to develop into something as deep as it did,” Rachel said. “Like when Lisa asks if she’s ever loved anybody—she says no. And I think that this is a first. And because she loves her, she’s going to do whatever she can to protect her.”
It takes several episodes for Rachel and Lisa’s friendship to turn into something more, but they eventually move in together, which makes Rachel become more independent, something that Doug Stamper demands she put a stop to. He makes her throw Lisa out, which leads to an emotional scene where Rachel is in tears, demanding Lisa leave and never talk to her again.
The second reason I think this will be good is that Season One handled female characters really well. They’re ambitious and usually smart, and they’re much more than just prizes or sounding boards for men. Spacey got a lot of well deserved praise for his work in Season One, but if you ask me, it’s Robin Wright as Claire Underwood who does the truly stunning work on the show. She’s constantly revealing new layers, and at least twice she made my spine freeze. Claire is a completely compelling character with still-untapped depths and a rock-hard core somewhere in the center of them. I can’t wait to get to watch her again. Even though the moment when she says, “Let’s make him suffer” in the trailer suggests that we may all be watching her through our fingers while balled up in the fetal position.
And on a purely practical level, the show understands female pleasure. Like, acknowledges that it happens and that it doesn’t have to come from a penis inside a vagina and everything. And a woman can have some without being immediately punished, though Shesus knows not many people escape punishment of some sort on this show, even if they haven’t done anything.
Thanks to Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) of “House of Cards,” we now have not just a a strong-willed, merciless female antihero, but a couple who champion as antiheroes side by side. The second season of the Netflix series finally established Claire to be just as villainous as her husband Frank (Kevin Spacey). While she had some mild moments of ruthlessness in the first season, such as firing the entire staff of her non-profit, these were the mere building blocks to her brick-walled mansion of wickedness in Season 2.
Claire finally got off the couch and started to do some of her own inveigling this season. She threatened the health and safety of former coworker Gillian’s unborn baby, betrayed her former lover Adam and tarnished his name, and dropped her anti-rape bill to fulfill her own selfish agenda, which led to Megan’s suicide attempt. Claire is undoubtedly an antihero in Season 2, but she and Frank aren’t just the epitome of the female and male schemers; they are so much more than the Nancy Bowtin and Walter White of Capitol Hill.
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.
Claire is a horrible human being for many, many reasons–but her abortions aren’t included in those reasons. The show makes that clear.
However, she rarely shows emotion—her smiles seem fake, her laugh empty, and her expressions are bland. She is more restrained and guarded than Frank, and she does not reveal her inner thoughts to the viewer the way Frank does so it is much harder to know what could be going on in her mind.
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’s probably one of the few genuine, tender moments we ever see between Underwood and another character.
We couldn’t agree more with the latter.
The question of Frank’s sexuality feels like so much more than a tangential plot device. The only reason I can imagine it’s being brought up again is that it must have a greater significance in the grand scheme of “House of Cards.”
The series is already very open about sexuality. Between its same-sex (Rachel and new character Lisa) and interracial relationships (Jackie and Remy), the show isn’t lacking in sexual diversity.
However, Frank’s sexuality feels like something bigger.
As a viewer, you’re compelled to believe Underwood’s undoing will be his two murders. While he’s quite meticulous covering them up, he’s only casually discreet about frivolous relationships. Texts with Zoe Barnes carelessly floated around even after Underwood became Vice President. Now, this thing with Meechum could easily turn sour in the long run.
Those who have finished the series know that by the season’s end Underwood takes over as president of the United States.
Does “House of Cards” want to broach the topic of a gay (or bisexual) commander in chief? Is this where we’re going heading into season 3? It seems so.
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.