Netflix's House of Cards, Season 1: Becky Graebner's Guide
Seduce Your Way to the Top? Meet the Anne Boleyns of Washington, D.C.
This week’s House of Cards essay will expand on last week’s piece, "The House of Cards Vision of Infidelity: More Fact than Fiction." Yes, unfortunately we remain stuck with this slimy theme of infidelity. This week let's talk about the women.
Men have had a leg up in the world, especially in the workplace. Females are still trying to catch up. Salary comparisons and lack of women in certain fields will underline this fact. Unfortunately, some women feel like they are faced with two options: be ruthless and work really hard to achieve their goals at the risk of the “ice queen” label, or take an easier route and use other means. Some women do decide to use medieval methods (think Anne Boleyn in the Tudor days) in order to succeed in the workplace -- and this is all too evident in big cities like Washington, D.C.
Women have employed method #2 for centuries (men have as well). But dabbling in this kind of currency can lead to two very different ends: career destruction or the attainment of dreams. Last week, we talked about how scandals tend to be both concentrated and magnified in D.C. The cutthroat culture here seems to breed an underground marketplace of give-and-gets, with scandal as the most likely outcome. Ultimately, Washingtonians must decide if they are going to enter that market — or try to forge their own way up the ambition ladder.
As you may have noticed, in all of my “salacious examples” from last week, the female actors were all the “underdogs.” They were not in positions of power as General Petraeus or Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were. Monica was an intern, Paula a biographer, Rielle a videographer. Although smart and accomplished themselves, compared to their public-office-holding men, they had less to lose and more to gain from their affairs: a better job, book deals, and the affections of the president. The heart of a woman is a very wild place — we cannot count out feelings of love -- but this also isn’t a Disney movie; this is D.C. I cannot guarantee that all used their "womanly wiles" to get ahead (Marilyn Monroe was famous in her own right), but many did profit from their relationships with their famous liaisons and, decades later, remain famous due to their association with the scandal.
House of Cards gives us a glimpse into the world of Monica and/or Paula pre-affair… and the dilemma between hard work and easy street. HoC’s two leading ladies, Claire and Zoe, are both very ambitious. They both feel that they can achieve more if they push just a bit harder. Claire wants power, to be the wife of the president or secretary of State, and some money for her struggling charity. Zoe wants to be noticed and promoted at work. Everyone wants to “be somebody” in D.C.
Zoe starts out as a likeable character -- occasionally annoying, but not morally corrupted ... yet. However, the hunger for a newsworthy story becomes too great and she engages in an affair with Frank Underwood, a married congressman. I think this is when I started to really dislike her. She gets creepy towards the end of season one, while wearing Claire’s clothes and examining which side of the bed Claire sleeps on. She tries to turn the tables on Frank and exert some of her own power.
I had the biggest problem with the Frank-Zoe storyline because of the big jump from “symbiotic relationship between ladder climbers” to “symbiotic relationship” with a side of “extramarital affair.” Zoe could have written Frank’s stories without engaging in “other activities” and would have gotten the same fame and attention that she craved. Frank needed Zoe just as much as she needed him — thus the affair was a sort of "extra" in their little arrangement. Zoe used Frank knowing that he was her ticket to the big time and that, eventually, she could blackmail him.
Claire’s path to power via the sheets is a little more “traditional” compared to Zoe’s. Claire hitched her wagon to Frank because he was going to be somebody big. She married him to guarantee that she would be second in command no matter how far up the ladder he climbed. Episode one showed Claire’s utter disbelief when she found out that Frank was not nominated as secretary of State. I think she took the news that she was NOT to be Miss Secretary of State worse than Frank did. Frank and Claire have some love for each other — but not enough to stay true to their wedding vows. While she does engage in an affair, Claire’s extramarital relationship doesn’t seem to lead to any gains for herself. Are we seeing the soft, vulnerable side of Claire?!
Nonetheless, while Frank is off with Zoe, Claire uses Frank’s influence and name to wheel and deal behind his back (with Remy, the powerful corporate lobbyist) for the benefit of her charity. Although Claire doesn’t use her affair for gain (that we know of), her own marriage of convenience is just as wrong because she uses it as a means to advance herself.
In the end, I bet most of the women named last week and this week regret their decisions to have relationships with their political lovers. True, they all got their book deals, but their own credibility and all of their hard work? Evaporated. (They should be thankful they didn't lose their head like Anne Boleyn!) Zoe stopped her affair and attempted to continue her professional relationship with Frank — but it was too late. You can’t simply pretend that such perfect blackmail material just “didn’t happen.”
Like Zoe, Claire also ended her affair with her long-time photographer friend and came home to Frank. However, unlike Zoe, Claire’s ongoing immoral actions happen within her marriage — not in the space outside of it. Therefore, she is not really redeemed.
In real life, Monica has tried to overcome her tarnished image through a line of handbags -- but I’m not sure it is working. She is a household name — one half of the largest scandal in White House history. Although time has passed, the others have not escaped the public either. Rielle ran for cover with her baby after Edwards went public, Marilyn died tragically — adding to the mythology of the Kennedy White House. One of the Gingrich women ended up married to him; the other ended up divorced and bitter. These women could have been great political powerhouses and respected in their own right but they decided to risk it all when faced with an influential man who could put them on the fast-track to their dreams. They used their bodies to up the ante in hopes of advancing themselves… and ended up disgraced.
The moral of the story: work hard and be ruthless. Never sell out—even if he commands the fiercest fighting force on the planet—because you can’t recapture time or innocence. Once the public judges you, the sentence always stands.
NEXT: Why We Love to Hate Politicians...