In dehumanizing, we treat others as if they are not as capable of feelings, thoughts and actions as we are. We imagine that they do not matter as much as we do. And that our actions against them are, if not justified, unimportant.
Beginning life as a novelty, being the first big-budget full-length serial produced for the internet, the series soon became widely popular. Along with Orange is the New Black, House of Cards taps into more recent trends of video consumption, allowing subscribers to its producer, Netflix, to binge watch all episodes of a season as soon as the first becomes available. The series follows Frank Underwood, initially House Majority Whip, as he attempts to climb the greasy pole to the American Executive Branch. Involved in this narrative, and receiving screen time apart from him are his fellow congresspeople, journalists, White House officials and his wife, Claire, who variously aid and hinder his planned ascent to power. If you don’t want to know what happens, click away now.
I joined the House of Cards train pretty late, when what felt like the entire western world was already on board, and, though the congressman’s descent into the murky depths of Washington politics was certainly entertaining, I could not ignore my growing discomfort as, moving further and further through the first series, its female characters still remained difficult to think about in the absence of Frank Underwood. His presence seemed to remain during their independent scenes, something I didn’t notice with the series’ other male character. This is not to say that House of Cards has uninteresting story lines involving its female protagonists, nor that the characters are entirely one dimensional, I simply found them not believable to me as people.
It took me a while, however, to quantify this. House of Cards passes the Bechdel test. There are several occasions during which 1) two women 2) have a conversation, which is 3) not about a man. But, though the test weeds out the female characters who are most blatantly the tools of plot progression, it fails to capture more insidious instrumental use of women, or the investigate the context within which they are produced as less than convincingly human.
This, I think, is something that is captured by Martha Nussbaum’s definition of objectification, from her 1995 essay of the same name. Chancing across it in Feminist Frequency’s miniseries, Women as Background Decoration: Part 1 – Women vs. Tropes in video games, it seemed like an incredibly useful tool to further investigate the depth of characters, their plausibility outside of the context of the male characters they relate to, as well as to question how far they are objectified by these characters. “Treating as an object what is really not an object, what is, in fact, a human being” (Nussbaum 1995) is a move which, according to Nussbaum, encompasses seven features: Treating a subject as an instrument – a means to an end, as lacking autonomy, as inert, as interchangeable (fungible), as violable, as owned, or as without feelings (subjectivity). Her framework allows us to further investigating the depth of these characters, their plausibility outside of the context of the male characters they relate to, as well as questioning how far they are objectified by these characters.
While a certain degree of House of Cards characters’ instrumentality can be ascribed to their subordinacy in Frank Underwood’s narrative – after all, we are constantly reminded of his primacy through his privileged asides and soliloquies to the viewer- this does not entirely explain the extent to which they are rendered object, non-people in the series.
First, of course, is Claire Underwood, the supremely acted icy first lady of the drama. Swanning across the screen, striking fear into the hearts of characters and viewers alike, she seems an unlikely candidate for sufferer of patriarchal abuse. However, aside from her single venturing behind Frank’s back to save her project, she does not appear to act independently of his projects, and, when she is asked explicitly by Frank to put her ambitions to the side in service of his, she does not object. The same can be seen in her romantic life. When Frank asks her, in a parallel of so many scenes between him and naïve legislators, whether she wishes him to break off his affair with Zoe Barnes, she refuses. However, when faced with similar unvoiced disapproval of a renewed liaison with an English photographer, she decides she will not go ahead with it. Though she is by no means inert, she can be seen here to be both instrumental to Frank’s ambition, and displaying limited autonomy from him. Though, arguably, this self-denial on her part does not so much demonstrate her object status as the strange pact she and Frank have made, to rule the world side by side, it is not clear how far he, in fact, considers her his equal. We can see this not only in what she gives up, but in how much she knows of the grand plan.
Though she clearly assumes herself to be part of Frank’s plan at the opening of the series she neither asks nor does he tell her, on screen, what this plan entails. At important moments, such as the death of Peter Russo, it is not at all clear whether she is aware of Frank’s involvement, or even the events’ significance for his long game. In the aftermath of important events, most of her dialogue is taken up with her badly taken advice to Frank. She tells him to quit smoking, to exercise on the machine she has bought for him, to come running with her, and his reaction, though eventually acquiescing, is to claim that he doesn’t do what anyone tells him to.
However, most shocking of all is the episode in the second series when she comes across the man who raped her as a college student. After going to the bathroom to recover from the shock of meeting him so casually, Frank comes in after her. His reaction to the news is explosive, pacing around the bathroom, shouting, while failing to provide Claire with any support. Only consenting to keep quiet after she pleads with him extensively not to make a scene, Frank acts almost as if he was the wronged party, evoking the origin of the offense in English law of rape, when it constituted a property offense against the husband or father of the victim. This makes her appear less like Frank’s loyal partner in crime than a possession of his.
Second, the female character with perhaps the most screen time in the first series, the young Washington Herald reporter Zoe Barnes, is almost a perfect case in point.
As has been remarked before, Zoe appears to have little professional ambition aside from the short term goals of printing stories and being on television. At Frank’s request, she turns down the prestigious job of White House Correspondent and, when fired by her boss, chooses a job he approves for her. Although before this point, her interaction with Frank is somewhat suspect, and certainly not remotely autonomous – she appears willing to print the stories he gives her without questioning why he wants them leaked, interrogating his political position or doing much fact-checking at all. It is at the point she is fired that their relationship takes on a far more problematic guise. Drunk, on the way home, Zoe propositions Frank. Though her motives for this are never completely clear (see later), it might be supposed that a) after the upheaval of getting fired, she takes up with Frank as a form of physical relief, or b) as a form of insurance guaranteeing his support in order to ensure her continuing value as a journalist through her hunt for a job (though these are, of course, not mutually exclusive). This explanation is both more likely- given her later exchanges of sex for stories, and more depressing. Zoe, already an important tool of Frank’s as she fails to question his angle on stories and, even against her better judgement, prints items with tenuous credibility, is unlikely to be cut off by him merely because she is forced to leave her initial paper. Her employability is likewise unthreatened, as is proved by the slurry of job offers she receives in the morning. A cynical viewer might credit this confusing reasoning on Zoe’s part to a lack, thus far, of an interesting sexual relationship on the show, making her instrumental, without even much plausible motivation on her part, both to the show and to Underwood.
Though initially taking the initiative, the sexual scenes we see between her and Frank mostly display passivity on her part, activity on his. Particularly disturbing for the viewer is Frank’s habit late in the first series of referring to her as a child, which suggests that, at least in his eyes, she is both non-autonomous and inert. These assumptions are proved flawed when she begins to investigate Underwood’s part in Peter Russo’s death, but her reluctance, and readiness to accept the words of her source display a less than inquisitive side to the reporter.
As others have pointed out, Zoe is in many ways a manic pixie dream girl – a trope which denies the subjectivity (the capacity to feel) of female characters. With her motivations, her past, her future plans effectively uninvestigated either by Frank or by the show as a whole, she retains the sexy mystery and up-for-anything attitude of the manic pixie dream girl. At some points she appears to be having sex with Frank for her own sexual gratification, yet at others, it appears she does it purely for gaining information.
Though this might arguably be an attempt to portray the complexities of a relationship with such disparities in age and power, and its inherent threat of exploitation, we do not follow Zoe in her processing of these nuances, and only see Frank’s largely unchanging response of emotional distance at the same time as physical proximity, her feelings and desires in this way remain unintelligible to the viewer. This cannot be explained away simply by her status as a morally ambiguous character. More than any other character, and in sharp contrast to Frank Underwood, we are unsure of what she actually wants, or if she is capable of independent ambition, or even emotion, at all.
And finally her death, at the beginning of the second series, is absolute proof of her interchangeability. For Frank, she has served her purpose and is becoming dangerous- her function for him may be filled by others, so, in turn can her function for the show. Her quotient of the series’ sexual intrigue is taken up by the Underwoods’ driver, Meechum, and we are left none the wiser as to what drove Zoe Barnes.
While only a cursory look at a single season of a complex and critically acclaimed series, examining Claire Underwood and Zoe Barnes through the lens of Objectification invites inquiry as to how far female characters across popular culture are recognisable as human- instruments neither of narrative progression nor the male characters they interact with.
Though it might seem a frivolous concern for a movement with so much else on the agenda – epidemic rates of rape and sexual violence worldwide, rampant street harassment and commodification – it is precisely this move, from seeing women as worthwhile human beings in their own right into means to ends, things to be used, without feelings or desires of their own, that enables these things to happen. Anita Sarkeesian explores this in her investigation of tropes of women in video games, detailing the representation of women as incidental sexual objects in the narratives of mostly male characters and often even as possible victims of their (sexualised) violence. And she asks the question of how far these representations remain in games, and how far they permeate into real-life attitudes toward women. This invites us to question whether popular culture is straightforwardly a mirror of the world it represents, or something which also produces that world.
Rosy Mack is a third-year SOAS Arabic and Persian student currently studying in Palestine. When she isn’t fangirling over feminist theory she is mostly eating all of the Palestinian sweets and finding new ways to avoid grammar homework. Knitting Hogwarts house scarves is her favourite yet.