Netflix’s new show, the much-anticipated House of Cards, makes me sad. Not for the reasons you might think, however. The show, of course, portrays a world in which politics boils down to underhanded deals and powerful people constantly scheming for more power. This version of Washington, D.C. is one with which we are all familiar. Debate, if you wish, how apt a portrayal it is, but the fact of the matter is that the cliche that politicians are all greedy scumbags is so ingrained in the conscious thought of the American populace that it’s treated as nothing less than an unavoidable fact. But none of this is what makes me sad. For those not well-acquainted with the program, I’ll give a brief run-down of the premise first: the series centers on Representative Frank Underwood, a South Carolina democrat, and the Majority Whip in the House of Representatives. As the show opens, Frank, played by the remarkable Kevin Spacey, is being passed over for a position as Secretary of State to the new president, whom Underwood helped get elected. The rest of the season is metaphorical bloodbath as Frank takes his revenge on those who betrayed him, often while smiling directly to their faces.
So why does all this make me sad, you ask? It’s a thrill to watch isn’t it? And it’s funny, emotional, dramatic, insightful, and surprising? Yes of course it is. It’s not the show itself I take issue with, but rather the response to the show. House of Cards is touted as the next great drama, supposedly good enough to spark an epic rivalry between Netflix and HBO (a rivalry that's completely imagined on Netflix's part, but that's another article all together). And believe me when I say that the show is great. Terrific lead performances from Spacey, Robin Wright as his Lady Macbeth-type wife Claire, and Kate Mara as a young reporter who, of course, gets roped into it all, help sell what’s already an accomplished piece of writing. It deserves to be called a great drama. But here’s the sad truth: it wouldn’t be, if just one small detail was different. If everything about the show was the same, down to a T, except one crucial - to some, yet insignificant to others - fact about the show was changed. If the central figure of the narrative were a woman, this show wouldn’t be looked twice at by any publication beyond TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly.
That’s quite the declaration, I know. How can I know this for sure? I can’t just assume that a show that centers around a man wouldn’t get the degree of attention it does if it was about I woman, can I? (I’m not actually doing a whole lot of assuming here, but more on that in a minute.) First, let me handle an obvious objection to my thesis here: Netflix’s first original programming w was bound to get some attention, of course. People wouldn’t have ignored the show based on the sex of the protagonist, but what I’m saying is that it would not receive the prestige it’s getting for being such a thought-provoking drama. (Again, let me be clear: it is a thought-provoking drama, and I enjoy it very much. My beef is not with show or it’s quality.)
So how can I say with such certainty that this show would be ignored if it had debuted with a woman at its center? Because essentially, this show did debut with a woman at its center, last April on ABC. Only then, it was called Scandal.
Obviously, Beau Willimon's House of Cards and Shonda Rhimes' Scandal share more differences than the genders of their main characters, but the association is there nonetheless: both series depict a poetic, almost Shakespearean version of Washington D.C. Both involve people in varying states of overcoming past trials. And both have main characters who are determined to get what they want, no matter what getting it might entail.
House of Cards is fatalist where Scandal is idealistic, but there is a strange crossover between the worldviews of Frank Underwood and Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope. Both see a world filled with awful people, people who want nothing more than to tear them down. Frank, of course, sees himself as part of this world, and succumbs to it, often sinking to his enemies’ levels. Olivia knows her tendency to play dirty like everyone else does and tries to be above it (usually in vain). Both shows are, in their base form, beautiful portraits of their central figures, and they share the themes of power, corruption, and how our actions can affect others.
The network, of course, matters. A political thriller with some procedural leanings on ABC is not set up to gain the kind of exposure that the first original show from Netflix, whatever it might be about, is going to get. But the fact that Spacey gets Emmy buzz while on a show not technically eligible for Emmys, while all Washington is bound to get for her stunningly powerful portrayal is a couple Image awards, destined to lose whatever first-string nominations she does get to Claire Danes and Julianna Margulies? That’s just wrong, and one can’t help but ask why two shows so similar are treated by the press and the public in two such radically different ways.What I’m saying here is not that all shows should have a female main character. House of Cards is a wonderful show, and a joy to watch, and that’s in no small part due to the performance of the decidedly male Kevin Spacey. But the fact that shows about women can never hope for the same kind of prestige is a saddening truth of America’s current cultural landscape.