Chapter 4: Directed by James Foley, Co-written by Rick Cleveland & Beau Willimon
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The deeper and farther we fall down the House of Cards (@HouseofCards) rabbit hole, the more inclined we are to believe that, while centred around the shenanigans of a power-hungry and apolitical congressman plotting his way about a male-dominant Washington D.C., HoC is chiefly about its women. At least half of the regular cast are women and in many ways the show weaves a tapestry of their lives and motivations from a uniquely female experience, but at once universally and painfully human. They are ambitious, young, old, weak, brutal, noble, frustrated, manipulated, conniving and above and beyond refreshingly complex, while not exclusively defined by or confined to their sexuality.
That’s really the key break through with a show like House of Cards, employing so many incredibly talented actresses in intelligent roles and with much thought given to how they intersect with all the show’s A, B and C plots. Plot lines that thankfully don’t hinge on “will they or won’t they” romantic clichés, a sign that the writers decided not to take the lazy approach. It might also be indicative of the kind of audience that Netflix (@Netflix) aspires to appeal to, a sophisticated adult audience that is both aware and diverse in of itself: The digital audience, which knows no bounds, gender or nationality.
The Numbers Don’t Lie, Because They’re Not People
House of Cards bats a revolutionary average when it comes to diversity and complexity of cast and story lines. How do we know this? In the TV & Film industry almost all speaking roles are 71% male. You read that right. According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media only 29% of speaking roles in G to PG-13 rated productions are given to women. That is astoundingly skewed, and comes as a bit of a shock given how many TV shows with prominent female characters. There’s that annoying little habit we people have of forming ideas about what we think the reality is versus what it actually is. Break it down a little more and consider that speaking roles include one or two-line walk-on appearances by non-regulars or extras.
Women, that primary half of the species which for the entirety of the post-Enlightenment period helped shepherd in the industrialized age and spent the bulk of the post-French Revolution era of western democratization relegated to a ‘minority interest group.’ All the while being the dominant sex on the planet and given just above a quarter of all speaking roles in media. That doesn’t begin to offer a window into what the situation is like for non-white women, much as it doesn’t afford a picture of what its like for non-white men, for that matter. When Kerry Washington was cast as the lead on the hit show Scandal, it made her the first female black actress in the lead of a prime-time television show in over 38 years!
This highlights that not only is there a deficit in roles for women, there is also a greater deficit in well-written roles for women. In other words, roles that don’t degrade, simplify and objectify women. That their multitudinous stories and uniquely female experiences, that are important to convey, remain untold and under-sold in media is an injustice that can only be attributed to patriarchal attitudes and systemic chauvinism. Additionally, the sexism debacle is interwoven with that same machine that churns behind the industry of systemic racism. Often detractors like to separate feminism and sexism as “isms” on an Island, alone and reified, but the truth is feminism is part and parcel of the progressive movements that seek to equalize the playing field in the arts, academia, medicine, government and corporations for all historically marginalized groups.
We should also get one thing straight: Saying that feminism is no longer a relevant movement or that oppression of women no longer a “real” problem just because there are more women of power and influence than there have been in human history is the same as saying racism is no longer a relevant issue in America because Barack Obama is President. This may seem self-evident, but many are now making this argument based on a twisted circular logic where several southern states are barking about overturning Civil Rights Legislation (like the Voting Rights Act) because some deem these laws “redundant” given the relative advancement in race relations. As long as these master logicians in the majority of the world’s nations, including Western Democracies and post-Colonial societies, continue to allow women (and minorities) to be victims of violence, rape, hypocrisy and prejudice, the progressive movements will continue to fight their cause. Especially feminism.
The collective conscience seems to have forgotten that women in America bled and died for the right to vote. A right that was granted to them in 1920 by a male superstructure that finally found it politically expedient to do so. That was only 93 years ago. Let that simmer for a while and think about how recently that was. Someone has fooled an alarming amount of people that Feminism is just another ideology to be debated like other partisan issues. Feminism is not an ideology. It is a sociopolitical philosophy centered primarily on issues of human and civil rights. That is not debatable.
Let’s face it, African-American and Hispanic women have it considerably more difficult than their caucasian counterparts, because of their gender and race, even though their struggle is one and the same. Women are unified in their gender-based struggle in a way that men are not, simply because men have never been killed because of their gender. At a fundamental level, the plight of women in the entertainment industry (as a microcosm of their struggle in society as a whole) cannot be separated from the struggle of marginalized groups in the business as well: Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Arab-Muslims (the latest inductees into the ‘acceptable bigotry’ hall of fame) and LGBT. Their stories go vastly untold, their experiences unshared and the complexity of surface levels of “diversity” in storytelling remains lacking in believability and detrimentally uninformed. But what do you expect when the majority of those in charge, producers, showrunners, executives, writers, are almost exclusively middle-aged to elderly white men?
We did a rather ad hoc survey of diversity in film & television, sampling news anchors, late night television hosts, A-list directors, primetime television casts (drama & comedy) and came up with this admittedly crude but nonetheless striking visual:
Incredible isn’t it? Even more incredible is the recent hubbub about Downton Abbey introducing its first black character. Is this really a news item or something to be proud of in 2013? The problem is a little more complex of course because these are on-screen performers. This says nothing for production crew and even more importantly what writing staffs look like. I had a tertiary glance at what pictures I could assemble of some television writing staffs and it was almost a complete white wash dominated mostly by older men. Ready, set, go!
Most can name at least five TV Showrunners off the top of my head and odds are they would all be men. The women that come to mind are trail blazers like Tina Fey (NBC’s 30 Rock), Lena Dunham (HBO’s Girls) and Shonda Rhimes (ABC’s Scandal). I can’t name too many other prominent female showrunners and that’s part of the problem. With that in mind, let me further curb your enthusiasm.
Math Is A Dish Best Served Cold
Exhibit A: Before I blow your mind completely out of your head, let me hit you where the heart is with this emotional appeal from the Geena Davis Institute:
Alright, so if that rather evocative emotional appeal still has you unconvinced then here’s a statistical approach that will certainly broaden your horizons because, let’s be honest, there’s nothing more cleansing to the palette than cold hard mathematics. In theTVAddict.com’s TV Showrunner Maddness Bracket, of the 48 TV Showrunners listed in the bracket only 10 were women and only 1 of 48 was not white (Shonda Rhimes). The prosecution rests.
If Women Ruled The World It Might Still Suck, But Maybe Not As Much
The oppression of women is alive and well and as long as that is the case, feminism won’t die. It’s so often now you hear that feminism is ‘dated’ or that it needs to evolve into a more humanist movement that doesn’t “demonize men.” Or that the oppressed (women) shouldn’t adopt the language and attitudes of the oppressors (men). Those poor men, they’ve had it so bad.
Don’t get me wrong, the emasculation and stigmatization of manhood, the rise of the hipster man-child and the stereotyping of men as neanderthals who are primarily interested in sex has reached a critical mass where it’s doing a bit of damage. That’s fair to accept because it’s evident in the media and in our discourse. There’s also a resounding amount of people (men) who point to how many powerful and influencial women there are in various sectors of society. There is of course a truth to the fact that major progress has been made, but to paraphrase Malcolm X:
“You can’t stab a [wo]man in the back nine inches deep, pull the knife out six inches and call it progress.”
Feminism not dated, it is needed more than ever as a struggle that can galvinze women and men behind a common cause. I am a man and I firmly believe that real Feminism is also by definition and extension the empowerment and advancement of men as a by product of empowering women. To quote President Obama: “Empowering our women is not just the right thing to do, its the smart thing to do.”
Feminism is a cause that is about elevating and enhancing the lives of women around the world who live in absolutely excrutiating and macabre conditions. Particularly women who live in poor regions of advanced economies and in developing countries where their destinies are, as a matter of policy, firmly in the hands of men in patriarchal systems. Feminism itself is inherently a humanist movement but it must still form itself around a gender-based philosophy of resistance simply because most of the worlds women are oppressed precisely because of their gender. Women are the most fundamental asset to human civilization, this is not a matter of pure construct, it’s a matter of the elemental and practical health of the species that women are empowered.
The issue is also about balance, because it is equally as sexist to presume that a world is necessarily better if “women ruled it,” a notion that’s commonly considered, but I think reduces the discourse to a juvenile level. If women ruled the world it might be just as corrupt or brutal as if how men have ruled it. In part this is what makes House of Cards interesting because the women are just as machiavellian as the men! History has given us countless female rulers ready to wage war and engage in geo-political maneuvering: Queen Victoria, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Imelda Marcos, Condoleeza Rice and Madeline “it was worth it” Albright.
The universal human capacity for calamity extends to anyone and everyone: Male, female, black, white, gay, straight, etc. The point is about fairness and opportunity or just leveling the playing field. When you have diversity on the table, you will have a more robust product. Let’s also make it clear: Women are different than men in their capacity to bear children. A fundamental anatomical difference, of course, that inherently changes how they approach certain things, for better or worse. That capacity and the wisdom, experience and perspective it engenders in half of the world’s population calls for empowerment, respect and nurturing. Otherwise, good luck to the human race.
Someone on our twitter feed once said something I found quite profound:
“Only women menstruate, gestate & lactate. Gender is socially constructed, sex isn’t.”
Often, detractors say that such schools of feminism demonize men, especially white men. My answer to this, is one of consolation because in other parts of the world its not only more white men, its brown men, black men and all other variety of men who oppress women. Quite consistently and efficiently we might add. Men with beards and men in uniforms, men in robes and men in droves, men with turbans, men with hats, men with crosses and men with bats. See? The oppression of women by men is so ubiquitous, you can write a Dr. Seuss rhyme to it.
Seth, The Oscars & Mr. Warmth Himself
Back to showbiz for a second. A final nail in the coffin was Seth MacFarlane’s hosting of the Academy Awards. Lacking a capacity for wit, slight of hand and charm MacFarlen resorted to an unrelenting sequence of more than mildly junvinile jokes and musical numbers that left many crying sexism, mysogeny and even racism. It sent me into a rather surreal spiral wondering whether we’d traveled back in time sixty years. Billy Crystal aside, the last great host of the Oscars was Ellen. We need Ellen back for another round to class up the show and inject her touch of class, intelligence, charm and thoughtful brand of funny. Really funny.
I’m no prude nor I am the first to scoff at the PC Police. Political correctness is censorship and is chiefly a way of quieting dissent. But there’s a difference between, say, what Don Rickles (the king of insult comedy) does and what Seth MacFarlen tried to do. The former is funny and inclusive, the latter unintelligent and marginalizing. It seems like a double standard, but like with all things it’s about the execution. I am a huge admirer of Prior, Rivers, Bruce, Cosby, Barr, Murphy, Rock, Silverman, Carlin, Maher and Gervais, all of whom fought against censorship and addressed deeply controversial and taboo subject with gravitas and profound levels of insight, intelligence and even crass and at the risk of deeply offending established views. There is however a new breed of comedians who laud themselves as “equal opportunity offenders” and as such self-qualify racism, misogyny and lazy comedy. In this way they also attempt, in advance, to disqualify those they target. This ‘new edgy’ or ‘that’s so racist/sexist, it can’t be anything other than a joke’ schtick is not funny or inventive. It is a means without an ends, and succeeds in being random and unimaginative.
“What Women Want” Are Sophisticated Narratives
With International Women’s Day (#IWD) permiating the air, I approach Chapter 4 through the lens of Claire (Robin Wright), Zoe (Kate Mara), Janine (Constance Zimmer), Christina (Kristen Connoly), Gillian (Sandrine Holt), Linda (Sakina Jaffrey), Catherine (Jayne Atkinson) and Margaret (Kathleen Chalfant) all of whom are trying to wrestle their destinies from the men around them, and in many ways persuing things both equally as self-serving or infinitely more noble. Some of our men are trying to wrestle their destinies from the women around them as well. What an incredible ensemble cast, indicative of all the things that Beau Willimon (@BeauWillimon), Kevin Spacey (@KevinSpacey), David Fincher and Dana Brunetti (@DanaBrunetti) have done right on this show. The cast is diverse on the men’s side as well as it includes African American Muslim actor Mahershala Ali playing Remy Danton. House of Cards is a great example of how sophisticated TV can be simply by making a few simple choice. How simple? This simple:
This simple logic applies not just to female characters, but characters of colour. America is so diverse, so incredibly complex and its stories demand to be equally as compelling.
And now ladies and gentlemen, an ode to women with an excerpt from Tupac Shakur’s timeless song Keep Ya’ Head Up:
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up
I know you’re fed up ladies, but keep your head up.
In the second part of our analysis, Chapter 4: Part 2: Is That A Monument In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?, we geek out and get neck deep into the fine details of the chapter by examining the women (and the actresses behind them) that we’re growing to love (and hate) and why they are some of the best written and offer some of the most layered performances on television. We’ll do some scene analysis, breaking down the phone call between Tom Hammerschmidt and Margaret and tie it in to Zoe and where she’s headed next.
We’ll also look at the visual and narrative themes having to do with the neanderthalic battle of wills and (literal) penis-measuring contests that go down on Capitol Hill between Frank and his bosses in Congress. We are treated to Kevin Spacey delivering his most devilish and nuanced performance yet, dropping quotable non-sequeters like they were Justin Bieber’s pants. We’ll also talk about the ‘monuments of men’ and the phallic symbols that litter the episode and the real world. Hint: It involves, among others, the Washington Monument and the CN Tower.