On Wednesday, the left-leaning blog FireDogLake issued one of the periodic reminder that identifying as progressive does not actually mean showing much concern about sexism, publishing an unsourced attack on BuzzFeed reporter Rosie Gray. After Gray published a piece about the infighting over Max Blumenthal’s new book “Goliath,” the site declared that Gray’s ideas weren’t exactly emanating from her own head, or her own reporting. “It is widely believed,” D.S. Wright declared, though not exactly clarifying the definition of “widely” or “believed,” “[reporter Eli] Lake has been schooling her on the ways of neoconservatism and shoddy reporting, including giving her leads on stories.” The evidence? A single Tweet.
There is nothing wrong with debating the assumptions that are guiding a reporter’s work, but suggesting that a woman’s ideas must be provided by her potential partner, or that a young woman’s father schooled her to combine sex and politics, is a way to sidestep those conversations, rather than to have them in a substantive way. Most of the time, my only response to an allegation like this one would be to elevate my eyebrows as far up as they can go, and then move on to something more reasonable. But FireDogLake’s slam on Gray comes at a moment when pop culture is obsessed with Washington, and specifically with ethically flexible women who are being manipulated by powerful men.
First and most relevant to the specific terms of the attack on Gray is Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) from “House Of Cards,” the young female reporter who jump-starts her career by beginning an affair with Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Zoe does not have to sell out her political convictions or her journalistic ethics in exchange for scoops, mostly because “House Of Cards” portrays her as relatively unformed, except for her intense ambition. And Frank is not really pushing a party line through Zoe, just whatever stories will fuel his personal advancement. But the animating spirit of Zoe Barnes and this attempted teardown of Gray have in common the idea that female reporters lack some fundamental spark, the ability to generate stories on their own without the assistance of a powerful man. When Zoe tries to break away from Frank, she gets quite literally shoved under a train. She is powerless without him.
A similar female character shows up in “House of Cards” showrunner Beau Willimon’s movie “The Ides Of March,” an adaptation of his stage play “Farragut North,” which was released in 2011. In that film, Marisa Tomei plays Ida Horowicz, a political reporter for the New York Times. But rather than being a savvy professional, Tomei is just a pawn. First, she gets leaked a story by a campaign trying to get rid of a staffer without having to fire the man directly. At the end of the movie, she gets barred from a campaign event by security: Apparently, a presidential campaign can afford to blow off the Times if the paper’s representative is just a little lady.
Then we have “Scandal.” I would never lump boss-lady Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) in with the pawns, though watching the Washington crisis fixer try to reestablish an independent identity as a serious professional after being accused of being the president’s mistress (an allegation that is, of course, true) is a testament to just how quickly a talented woman can get reduced to her ties to a man. But Olivia’s former mentee, Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes), has gotten herself in serious trouble by letting a man talk her not just into pursuing a bogus news story, but into committing murder. Then, he uses that crime to tie her to an unaccountable spy organization.
As a young woman in Washington who’s been perfectly capable of functioning without some man giving me dictation, it all gets a little bit exhausting. And this trend makes me wish that real life would take its queues from another DC show, one with a female character who may not have Quinn’s great wardrobe, Zoe’s moxie, or Ida’s prestige perch at a big paper, but at least is allowed an actual mind of her own. As Amy Brookheimer, the chief of staff to Vice President Selina Meyer on HBO’s “Veep,” Anna Chlumsky is the most competent person on the show, possessed of an immense work-ethic and an epic side-eye she regularly dishes out to Dan Egan (Reid Scott), the hyper-competent bro who is constantly angling for her job. Amy’s job is thankless, particularly given Selina’s propensity to embarrass her, but she quietly and consistently outflanks and embarrasses Dan, who fancies himself a master of Capitol Hill. As Amy puts it after getting a “Clean Jobs” task force okayed at the White House, a project that will both give Selina a high-profile assignment and advance Amy’s priorities, “That’s why I get paid the medium bucks.”
For young women working in politics and journalism in Washington, the reality’s much closer to Amy’s good-enough salary and crushing workload than it is to Zoe Barnes’ seduction and downfall or Quinn’s descent into espionage and captivity. The hours are long; the credit is intermittent. But at least sometimes, even if it’s an inch or two at a time, we get to advance our own priorities.