House of Cards, the most prominent of Netflix’s original shows and an adaptation of an acid British miniseries, is almost entirely consumed with nastiness. Its main character, Democratic House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey), is a master of the carefully delivered political shiv, a manipulator who makes Lyndon Johnson look cuddly. His chief of staff isn’t just written as tough and savvy—he’s willing to manipulate a prostitute into helping him knock a vulnerable Congressman off the wagon.
But there is no one to whom the show is nastier, and for no discernible reason, than female political reporters—in House of Cards they are promiscuous, catfight-prone, and entirely unethical. If the depiction of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and Janine Skorsky (Constance Zimmer) is meant to be a trenchant critique of Washington journalism, or of sexism in Washington journalism, it falls very, very short of that mark. Instead, it’s grotesquely insulting to the women who do serious policy and political reporting in Washington every day.
At various times, it seems as if House of Cards is proud of its apparently trenchant critique of sexism in the Washington press corps. After Zoe gets photographed going to the Kennedy Center in a dress that turns out to be more see-through than intended, one of her colleagues sends her an email that says, “If you want ‘em to take you seriously, maybe wear more than a g-string?” Later, when she clashes with her boss, Tom, after turning down a promotion to White House correspondent, Tom lashes out, calling her an expletive generally reserved for women.
None of this feels slightly realistic. This isn’t to say that sexism doesn’t exist in the Washington press corps, or that it can’t be ugly. But the problems are most often systemic, rather than comically villainous. According to a 2008 report by UNITY, an organization that represents journalists of color, and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, women made up just the 32.3 percent of positions in the Washington press corps, and just 23.8 percent of editing positions and 20 percent of bureau chief positions. In surveys of major magazine bylines, the literary organization VIDA found that men overwhelmingly outnumber women, and correspondingly, women are nominated for far fewer National Magazine Awards. Women are also frequently siloed into covering so-called “pink” topics, issues that are treated as if they are of interest to female readers, but not to a general news audience.
House of Cards is not interested in these real journalism issues, perhaps because it’s too busy pitting Zoe and Janine against each other, or insisting that all female journalists are sleeping their way to the top. When we first meet Janine, she’s refusing Zoe’s offer to help her do research for a story. I have no problem with portraying female journalists as competitive—many of us are!—but Janine is gratuitously, unprofessionally unpleasant to Zoe: “Hey, Twitter Twat, WTF?” she addresses her younger colleague in one meeting. This isn’t a thoughtful attempt to capture the grittiness and looseness of a newsroom. It’s straight-up catfight material that luxuriates in how nasty it is, as is Janine’s insistence that Zoe must be having sex with whatever source is suddenly feeding her juicy stories because “You’re a Metro scrub.” (Did I mention the clichéd writing?) Zoe is, in fact, sleeping her way to the top. And as Janine later confesses to her in graphic detail, everyone does it! “I used to suck, screw, and jerk anything that moved just to get a story,” Janine tells Zoe over green curry.
I’m not against the idea that bad people can be interesting, or that women can be rivals, or even that the pace of political reporting puts extraordinary pressures on young reporters to get the scoop. But when House of Cards attributes Zoe’s success to a “pushup bra and the v-necked tee,” I know the show has no interest in getting this profession right. House of Cards has mistaken sordid, sexist fantasies for trenchant insight, and is poorer for it.