House of Cards is a political drama on Netflix that has certainly gained a lot of attention and popularity in the past year or so. It’s one of those shows that has us simultaneously terrified of, yet ultimately rooting for, the villain. Frank Underwood is a manipulative, maneuvering, and dark politician, who will stop at nothing to achieve ultimate power—which for him is becoming the president of the United States, and thus, becoming one of the most influential leaders of the “free world.”
And what would a political drama be without sex and scandal? Am I right? At one point in the first season, Frank references Oscar Wilde and talks directly to the camera and advises those watching, “A great man once said everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” Of course sex is about power, Frank. He says this to provide reason and rationalization for his affair and political relationship with Zoey Barnes, a youthful, cute reporter.
Let’s think about the economics of sexuality, as Marxist social theory would have us do. Marx argued that the economy is the most significant social force shaping human behavior, and as scholars, we can go one step further and conclude that the economy (which the government, and thus Frank, is intimately intertwined with) must also be the most critical force shaping sexuality. As capitalism emerged as the dominant economic ideology, the commercialization of sex quickly followed, which simply means that with sex comes a certain value, and in Frank’s case, it’s not necessarily a monetary value. We could call Frank a Marxist if we were to critically examine his and Zoey’s relationship and the negotiation of power between the two. Frank lives up to Wilde’s thoughts about sex and power, as the sexual relationship between him and Zoey has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with obtaining power. Both use each other’s different types of power, Frank’s political power and Zoey’s power in the media, to empower themselves respectively even further. For them, sex thus becomes a tool that can be used for bargaining or negotiating.
Kristen Barber, in her article “Sex and Power,” references many feminists who argue that heterosexual sex is a means for men to assert dominance over women, and that men define sex and sexuality through aggression and violence. In a way, this describes Frank perfectly. He makes it clear to Zoey that having sex with her is his means of establishing and maintaining control over her, that she is nothing but disposable to him once he gets what he needs out of the relationship. However, Zoey is not a passive, submissive, and weak female in this relationship. She, too, uses Frank for her own gains in the media. Moreover, as their relationship develops and grows more complex, Zoey finds Frank’s weaknesses and uses them against him to get what she needs from him. What would feminists that Barber mention, like Dworkin and MacKinnon, have to say about Zoey? How does Zoey fuck up their perceptions of gender, sexuality, and power?