TV STILL -- DO NOT PURGE -- House of Cards - Season 3 Key Art, Netflix

Politics, Power and Queerness in “House of Cards” Season 4

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site. Posts published on the Community site do not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

In a presidential election year, popular culture representations of politicians – real and fictional – reach new heights of significance as viewers and commentators assign them meaning. The March 2016 release of season four of the Netflix original series House of Cards was no exception.

The political drama focuses on the relationship between President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and First Lady Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), and reveals a power-hungry and sexually charged Washington, D.C. Even if you have not seen the show, you may have come across questions about just how accurately it depicts the dark underbelly of politics or, more relevant to the 2016 election cycle, to what extent the Underwood marriage is meant to mimic the marriage between former President Bill Clinton and current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Regardless of both, House of Cards is ripe with complex representations of gender dynamics and sexualities worthy of a feminist pop culture analysis.

In the years since President Bill Clinton’s extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was exposed (and his subsequent impeachment and acquittal), many have accused him and his wife of having a political marriage – a relationship orchestrated and/or maintained for some personal gain or strategic purpose, like the advancement of both Bill’s, then Hillary’s political careers. I have no right to or interest in examining the merits of such an accusation against the Clintons, but their prominence this election season has given the concept of the political marriage some resurgence in the media. In the fourth season of House of Cards, Mr. and Mrs. Underwood also navigate an election season as they gear up to seek Frank’s reelection. But Claire’s pursuit of her own political career deepens as she grows impatient, not wanting to wait for Frank to finish his own endeavors before she begins hers, like Hillary seemed to do for Bill in the 1990s. If we are to view power in the way that Michel Foucault defines it – meaning that power can concentrate across different sites and institutions – the power to shape social norms through the institution of marriage is concentrated partially in our government, through legal definitions, laws, rights, and the projected images of those working in politics, like the notion that our President should be a straight man with a straight wife, the First Lady.

Foucault’s notion that power is (and comes from) everywhere is a good lens through which to view Claire’s assertion of agency in the latest season of House of Cards. Like one would imagine Hillary Clinton’s were throughout her husband’s political career, Claire’s own political ambitions have largely been deemed secondary to Frank’s, simply because he is a man and she is not. Claire’s gender places her in a position of relative disadvantage in the sense that within traditional (though not all) political families, a male politician is supported by a wife whose professional life is dictated and stifled by or comes second to her husband’s. Claire takes advantage of these expectations in Season 4, though, and uses the ways in which gender and sexuality are regulated by the ideals of the political family to her own benefit. By threatening to divorce Frank in an election year, Claire has the power to ruin their (political) marriage and effectively end his political career. She makes use of her fundamental role in the production of Frank’s public image (straight, married man) by threatening to remove Frank’s ability to achieve or at least appear to approach the norms of sexuality, family structure, and marriage upheld by/concentrated in American politics.

Claire also operates under a similarly Foucauldian manner when she takes advantage of a sexist female victim narrative in order to avoid admitting that she and Frank did not want to have children or did not think they had time to have children given their professional goals. In an interview, Claire exaggerates stories of her own rape and abortions in an effort to implicitly explain away not having her own children, garner support for a bill to fight sexual assault, and further her pro-choice agenda in general. While this can be read as deceitful, Claire is acting to seek personal and political gain by using the pressure and expectation of motherhood as well as the patronizing victim narrative of rape (and rape-related abortion) to her advantage rather than allowing these often disempowering tropes to hinder her agency or negatively affect her own career.

The Underwoods serve as useful models for how the ideals of the family, heterosexual relationships between husbands and wives, gender roles and the professional hierarchy that prioritizes men’s careers above women’s are constantly demanded of and upheld by political figures. These norms are redeployed and often successfully approached by politicians like the Clintons, who have continued to strive for marital validation despite Bill’s infidelity and longstanding rumors about their political marriage. A quick Google search about the Clintons’ political marriage brings up this interview with Bill Clinton, in which he seems to address the rumors while promoting a loving, egalitarian image of his relationship with Hillary. The Underwoods seem to have a different plan: maintain their heterosexual, monogamous images and avoid any non-loving stigma attached to being childless adults. In seasons one, two and three, House of Cards gives us access to what ‘really’ went on between the Underwoods behind closed doors, and how they contradict the aforementioned norms of gender and sexuality. We learn that both Frank and Claire have affairs outside the marriage – some more meaningful than others – and that Frank also has sex with other men. Frank’s sexuality and the seemingly open nature of his relationship with Claire go against the trajectory of compulsory heterosexuality so brilliantly explained by Judith Butler, one of the most frequently cited gender theorists of the late-20th and early 21st centuries. Butler outlines the normative expectations that everyone born considered a male will exhibit masculine qualities and go on to, when he reaches sexual maturity, have opposite-sex desires for women. Likewise, it is assumed that everyone born considered a female will exhibit feminine qualities and also be heterosexual, desiring men. Despite the performative nature of sex, gender and sexuality, deviation from this path is considered ‘other.’ In the first three seasons of House of Cards, it is obvious that Frank’s public identity of married, straight man aligns with the compulsory nature of heterosexuality as well as the added pressure on elected officials to be models for the rest of society.

Until the fourth season, Frank’s sexual fluidity mostly reflects a sensationalized view of sexual deviance in politics. Scandals like former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s hiring of women prostitutes, former Idaho Senator Larry Craig’s arrest for soliciting sex from an undercover male police officer, former Representative Anthony Weiner’s accidental nude photo debacle on Twitter, and – of course – President Bill Clinton’s extramarital affair with a White House intern all garnered an incredible amount of media coverage over the last twenty years. Unsurprisingly, each of these stories has its own Wikipedia page. Anthony Weiner is even the subject of a new documentary film about his post-scandal career, cleverly titled Weiner. Whether legal or illegal, harmless or harmful, politicians who are ‘caught’ departing from norms of sex, gender or sexuality are seen as deceitful, sexually deviant and morally corrupt; they are expected to adhere to narrow definitions of straight, monogamous, child-bearing marriages, are scrutinized and punished if they do not, and yet the trope of the power-drunk, sexually deviant politician appears again and again in cultural texts, from TV and film to print journalism, social media, and literature.

Though Frank Underwood has yet to be ‘exposed’ in House of Cards, his deviation from heterosexuality seems, in seasons one through three, to represent a desire for power rather than a sexual or emotional desire for persons of any particular gender. In the ninth episode of the series, Frank himself says, “A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.” The show and Frank’s attitude suggest that he falls squarely into the unfortunate trope of the sexually deviant politician, and that his same-sex experiences have no place in the formation of his personal identity.

During the fourth season of House of Cards, President Underwood’s sexuality is portrayed in a far more nuanced way than in the three previous seasons of the show. We see Frank’s relationship with his bodyguard Edward Meechum (Nathan Darrow) deepen as the two reveal an obvious emotional attraction to each other. In Season 2, Meechum was part of a sexual threesome with Frank and Claire; their scene had confirmed Frank’s sexual attraction to men, though it was not until Season 4 that this attraction seemed to be anything more than an appetite for power through sexual dominance. When Meechum is killed in an attempted assassination of President Underwood, Frank’s private mourning indicates that the death of his lover is an emotional loss that reflects the complicated nature of queer loss described by Sara Ahmed in her chapter on “Queer Feelings” from The Cultural Politics of Emotion. In “Queer Feelings” Ahmed’s section on Queer Grieving helps us understand the painfully hidden sadness Frank feels after losing Meechum. On top of the fact that neither Frank nor Meechum identified as queer or formally recognized their relationship as anything more than President and Secret Service agent, queer lives are devalued to the point where their loss is rendered invisible; Frank does not have the privilege of mourning the loss of something he never had, and we see how this affects him as he unravels a bit during his recovery. House of Cards, through Meechum’s death, transforms President Underwood from a simply power hungry sexual deviant to a somewhat sensitive man with same-sex desires based both on physical attraction and emotional connection. In building sympathy for Frank while he mourns, the show comments on the difficult effects sexual and social norms have on those who attempt to inhabit them by ‘passing’ or those who live in tension with them altogether. Couples like the Underwoods – who appear to inhabit most of these norms in the public eye – reveal that when such high value is placed on ‘authentic’ heterosexual marriages and the nuclear families they are assumed to (re)produce, we run the risk of erasing or marginalizing the lives of those who do not embody normativity, or who do not have the means to ‘pass’ as normative.

Even in the real and House of Cards’ fictional 2016, Americans remain fixated on marriages rooted in (the nuclear) family and (heterosexual) love. Why do we reject relationships that may be built upon or upheld by other desires, be they for financial, career-related, or safety reasons? Why, in order to be the leader of the ‘free world,’ does Frank’s marriage to Claire need to be perceived as what it is certainly not: a strictly heterosexual bond between two monogamous adults who want(ed) to have children? Why is it still hard for many to imagine politicians who come from queer families, women-led families, or no families at all? This 2016 election cycle and the latest season of House of Cards reflect the concentration of power to regulate gender and sexuality norms through the families of politicians and, in the greatest sense, the role of the White House as a figure for what normative, nuclear families should embody: love, heterosexuality, the desire and ability to have children, and an emphasis on men’s careers above and before women’s.

Recent Cornell University grad working in the PR industry. Lifelong learner of English and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, just now without the mandatory papers and grades. Lover of memes and documentaries.

Recent Cornell University grad working in the PR industry. Lifelong learner of English and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, just now without the mandatory papers and grades. Lover of memes and documentaries.

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