Spoilers or not, I think “House of Cards” would be better off without Zoe Barnes.
So, “House of Cards,” my favorite Netflix series set in A Fictional Washington That Has Good Barbecue And Is Glimpsed Eerily From Under Bridges, is back rampaging through our playlists as we speak.
Many people in “This Town,” including The Post’s own Chris Cillizza, have noted inaccuracies and flaws in the series. Sure, we’re attached to it, if only because of all the establishing shots and the way that Central Park turns out to be an area of D.C. you can jog through if you just will it hard enough.
I enjoy it, but mainly as escapism. If you work in this actual town, “House of Cards” is basically science fiction. It’s not just its central assumption that the reason things work the way they do is because there is a Scheming Puppetmaster behind the scenes. It’s like a bizarro funhouse-mirror D.C. where things don’t happen because someone is incompetent; they happen because someone is malevolent. Malevolence beats incompetence? Really? Have you met this town?
Of all the ways that the show is a strange fantasy version of D.C. and not actually D.C., one of the most noticeable and most irritating is what it does with its female characters. I know it fits with the amoral, dog-eat-dog, Kevin-Spacey-murder-dog schtick of the show, but is it really necessary that almost every woman on the show is trading sex for power to some degree? There are actual prostitutes. There are female journalists, or, as the show sees them, prostitutes with notepads, trading sex for information instead of money. Even “nice” women, such as the girlfriend of the dissipated Rep. Peter Russo, still manage to be engaged in inappropriate relationships with their bosses.
Is it not possible for anyone on this show to have an appropriate workplace relationship? I guess no one on the show, not even the men, is engaging in appropriate workplace behavior, but it’s especially egregious where the ladies are concerned. The tightly wound Claire Underwood is the closest it comes to a three-dimensional figure, but even then, she seems to think all her problems could be solved with a baby. Really? The women all occupy one half of a weird dichotomy. You’re an ice queen (Claire Underwood), or you’re a seductress (Zoe Barnes). You’re a mother (Gillian Cole), or you’re barren (Claire). You’re oozing with sensuality (almost everyone), or you have aged out of being able to ooze with sensuality and have to act like a professional (Janine Sikorsky). The people on this show only commit actual journalism once the option of sexing their way to the information is taken off the table. “Just do some shoe-leather reporting, you moron!” you are yelling at them by the middle of season one, to almost no avail. Sure, their motives are varied, but their methods are uniform: get it with sex.
Which brings me to Zoe Barnes. The Zoe Barnes character is a weird yeti of a trope who keeps popping up relentlessly in fiction. In “Thank You For Smoking” it showed up in the person of Heather (“I presumed anything said [under intimate circumstances] was privileged!”) Holloway. It’s the sexy, put-it-all-on-the-line-to-get-closer-to-a-source reporteress.
The show would be better off without her.
I feel this particularly strongly because everyone says, “Hey, you’re Zoe Barnes!” once they discover what I do for a living. “You are a lady who does journalism-like things, right?”
“Yes,” I say, tearing off whatever I am wearing in a steely, deadpan manner to reveal a white v-neck while pulling out a recorder. “Yes, I am. Now hand me all those scoops again!”
Which, no. This is not how it works. Marin Cogan wrote a grand piece last year in the New Republic pointing out that this idea of the sexy reporter trying to get into your mind and pants simultaneously is a male fantasy that leads to all kinds of awkwardness in source-reporter relationships. The only people who want this to happen are the men on the receiving end.
I’m not saying there might not exist one or two people out there like that (see Paula Broadwell) but, well, you have to wonder how Zoe managed to make it to the Definitely Not The Washington Post or the Definitely Not Buzzfeed-Politico Hybrid, given what appears to be her active distaste for actual storytelling.
Watching the British version of the show, I realized why Zoe feels so wrong. Mattie, Zoe’s British equivalent, is an eager go-getter young journalist who desperately wants to understand the internal mechanics of government. Zoe, well, isn’t. She wants to be heard and noticed. She literally walks up to Frank Underwood and says (I’m paraphrasing here) “So, how about we exchange sex for information? Would that be okay? I would like to be on TV more.”
This is a fantasy.
The worst punishment they inflict on Zoe Barnes in the offices of The Washington Definitely Not Post, is to bar her from doing TV hits.
“No more TV!” her editor barks, irate.
All of “House of Cards” is a fantasy, and I know they have female writers, but it is when Zoe’s front and center that the show feels most explicitly like a male fantasy of how D.C. ought to work: men pulling the strings, women eagerly putting all their cards on the table.
It’s a trope worth getting rid of, is all I’m saying.