"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,
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.
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.