The scariest part about House of Cards is that any of the show’s ruthless politicking could happen. Strategically speaking, most of Frank Underwood’s stunts seem unlikely, but none are impossible if you have someone diabolical enough to pull them off. For all of the far-flung misadventures in season three, however, there was one thing that truly frightened me — the willingness of House of Cards' female politicians to use gendered issues against each other. (A heads up — this article contains spoilers.)
A long-term plot to overthrow the White House without winning a presidential election? Sure. Covering up a murder by shoving a pesky journalist head first into the metro? OK. All of those hinge on the boundless ambition of one politician and a pretty lenient reading of humanity’s moral compass. But two women sharing the stage as candidates for the Democratic primary? That shouldn’t seem like a far off dream, but it is. And if the show’s grim indication of that reality is accurate, then we have a lot to worry about when it comes to fruition.
The third season of House of Cards gives us hope for the representation of women in politics, but the scope of their vulnerabilities are off-putting. Their experiences force us to wonder: What will happen when the U.S. progresses beyond having one female candidate — if the GOP's Carly Fiorina runs against Hillary, for example? Are women forced to leverage the experiences they have been subjected to? In short, how accurately do the show’s characters reflect the future of women on the political stage?
“That’s a sexist comment.”
There's a striking scene in which Heather Dunbar, Jackie Sharp, and Frank debate before the Democratic primary. Frank, of course, has a trick up his sleeve — use Jackie to poach female voters from Heather, then bring her, voters in tow, onto his ticket when she drops out. Before the debate, he huddles with Jackie to plan their systematic attacks on Heather. Jackie draws a line in the sand, telling Frank that she refuses to call her sexist for criticizing Claire’s appointment as U.N. ambassador. She says she would never resort to “calling a woman sexist while a man is on the stage.”
Jackie holds those convictions near and dear for approximately 45 seconds. She tries to coax Heather into giving her a cabinet position for dropping out of the race, which Heather refuses to do. Now, the gloves are off. Just after the debate starts, Heather criticizes Frank for appointing his wife, and Jackie rounds on her.
Jackie: That’s a sexist comment.Heather: Excuse me?Jackie: You wouldn’t be making that argument if a female president had appointed her husband.Heather: A husband with the same lack of international affairs experience as Claire Underwood? Yes I would.Jackie: In fact, it makes me question your advocacy for women in general.
Was Heather's criticism sexist? Absolutely not. Frank knows it, Jackie knows it, and Heather certainly knows it. But in the context of the debate the attack is effective. Women are still expected to be cheerleaders for each other because they both have vaginas. Yes, they can disagree, but in the name of sisterhood they are supposed, without question, to rush to each other’s defense — something that is never expected of men. Jackie's unwarranted attack managed to chip at Heather’s credibility because as a female leader, Heather is expected to blindly defend any and all women in power. Including Claire.
At the same time, it’s more accepted for women to attack other women than for a man to do it. Outside of House of Cards, it seems to at least some degree that women have a heightened sensitivity to subjecting other women to the same kind of sexist prying they've inevitably faced.
Clinton, for example, was tapped by the Obama administration to criticize then-VP nominee Sarah Palin. In her book Hard Choices, Clinton detailed her refusal to attack the candidate.
That very first day, the Obama campaign said, well, we want you to go out and criticize her, I said, ‘For what? For being a woman? No let’s wait until we know where she stands. I don’t know anything about her, do you know anything about her?’ And nobody of course did. I think it’s fair to say that I made it clear I’m not going to go attack somebody for being a woman or a man. I’m going to try and look at the issues, where they stand, what their experience is, what they intend to do and then that’s fair game.
It’s a catch-22. Yes, women have been historically underrepresented in office, and yes, we should always view women breaking barriers (like becoming the president) as a welcome step in the right direction. But if we only see a female candidate as a woman leader and not just, well, a leader, then it is hard to put them on the national stage and have productive conversation. As we see in the case of Jackie and Heather, she is always a woman and then a candidate, never the other way around.
In 2013, former and current Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei ran against each other in Chile’s presidential election. In a country where women couldn’t vote until 1952, that is an amazing thing. But the race became less of a conversation about who would better lead the country and more of a spectacle that two women running for the top spot. The results weren’t positive.
"When the candidates are men, important issues are discussed rather than circumstantial details,” Bachelet said at a press conference. “I am delighted that women are participating in politics and I will continue to promote this, but make no mistake, this campaign is about two very different visions of this country."
The U.S. has yet to see a heavily covered race between two women candidates. But if, and hopefully when, we do see these races, how can we avoid making being a woman the primary focus?
Perhaps it starts with real women avoiding the mistakes of the fictional Jackie. The New Republic’s Rebecca Traister argued that more women should be pitted against Clinton in her inevitable 2016 run. The rationale? It would help the U.S. political system grapple with, rather than just talk about, the historic dearth of women in office.
Until we start seeing more women in politics, including seeing a woman in the White House, we can’t expect the woman candidate to be viewed as anything more than an anomaly. Hopefully the reality can avoid the House of Cards plot line.
“I would never do this to another woman.”
The second red flag raised in the third season of House of Cards has, to a degree, been an unfortunate reality in American politics. Doug Stamper, Frank’s former chief of staff, presents Heather with a loaded gun early in her campaign – proof that Claire lied about the circumstances of her abortion. Heather is appalled at the suggestion, telling Doug, “I would never do this to another woman.”
She doesn’t stick to that long, later attempting to strike a multimillion dollar deal with Doug to get the journal pages of Claire’s abortion provider.
Claire initially said that she ended a pregnancy that resulted from rape. That wasn’t true. She had an abortion — several, in fact — because she did not want to have a child. That is perfectly within her legal right, and nothing that she should have to justify to anyone. But, as Claire well knew, admitting that her abortion had anything to do with free will would have been political suicide.
This played out in the real-life Texas gubernatorial race last year. Wendy Davis, who rose to prominence with her 13-hour filibuster of an omnibus abortion bill, wrote in her memoir, Forgetting to be Afraid, that she had obtained two abortions. She went through great lengths to explain that both pregnancies were terminated because of medical complications with the fetus. Her opponent, Gov. Greg Abbott, rightfully skirted any commentary but sympathy for Davis. The media didn’t.
The National Review called Davis’ abortion stories “convenient,” digging into data that only 4 percent of abortions were performed due to physical problems with the pregnancy. Davis’ camp was asked for verification from her ex-husband. From her two daughters. It was a humiliating check on her personal affairs.
Female political figures, like Claire, subject their lives to scrutiny in a way that men have never faced. Throughout the Texas campaign, even as a member of the media, I was struck by how little I knew about Abbott’s personal life. Did he have kids? Was he married? Those details seldom surfaced in campaign coverage. Yet we knew the intimate details of what for Davis was a traumatic experience. And why? Because it’s better it comes from her than anyone else.
This is what we saw from Claire. She put the abortion story out there so no one else would, even if it was partially fabricated. But those two layers are equally problematic. Why should it be a scandal to have an abortion? And if a woman decides, as is her right, to obtain one, then why should it be under some sort of dire circumstance to be accepted? There is no good or bad reason for abortion. There is only a woman’s decision, and it’s nobody else’s damned business.
Heather, at least initially, seems to realize this. But her resolve falters as she gets desperate. She attempts to leverage this sexism that she understands is alive and well to squash any possibility of Frank getting the nomination. As someone who was rightfully angry that her children’s education was dragged into the debate, Heather should realize that exposing a woman’s personal life should be out of bounds.
But the rarity of two females running against each other leaves us with little more than speculation. The ultimate takeaway from the depiction of women in House of Cards is that they can still be taken advantage of for their traditional absence in political roles, but that they are also willing to use that imbalance against each other.
Let’s hope that women in the real world know better. But it’ll take having more female candidates to find out.
Images: Netflix/House Of Cards (3), Getty Images (3)