‘House of Cards,’ ‘Said To LadyJournos,’ And The Sexual Harassment Of Female Reporters

In The New Republic, Marin Cogan dismantles a central assumption of Netflix’s House of Cards, the idea that all female reporters in Washington are constantly sleeping with sources for stories. The show got Washington Herald-turned-Slugline reporter Zoe Barnes’ arc wrong, she argues, not because no reporter ever succumbs to the personal charms of a staffer or member of Congress, but because the show reverses the dynamic. Instead of throwing on v-neck t-shirts and push-up bras and heading over to Congressmen’s townhouses, the more common dynamic is powerful men in Washington putting the moves on women they assume are interested in them. Marin reports:

As a political reporter for GQ, I’ve been jokingly asked whether I ever posed for the magazine and loudly called a porn star by a senior think-tank fellow at his institute’s annual gala. In my prior job as a Hill reporter, one of my best source relationships with a member of Congress ended after I remarked that I looked like a witch who might hop on a broom in my new press-badge photo and he replied that I looked like I was “going to hop on something.” One journalist remembers a group of lobbyists insisting that she was not a full-time reporter at a major publication but a college coed. Another tried wearing scarves and turtlenecks to keep a married K Street type from staring at her chest for their entire meeting. The last time she saw him, his wedding ring was conspicuously absent; his eyes, however, were still fixed on the same spot. Almost everyone has received the late-night e-mail—“You’re incredible” or “Are you done with me yet?”—that she is not entirely sure how to handle. They’re what another lady political writer refers to as “drunk fumbles” or “the result of lonely and insecure people trying to make themselves feel loved and/or important.”…“I think journalism schools should have workshops for young female reporters on managing old men who have no game and think, because you’re listening to them intently and probing what they think and feel, that you’re romantically interested, rather than conducting an interview,” says Garance Franke-Ruta, a senior editor at The Atlantic. “Every female reporter I know has had this issue at one time or another.”

Marin’s piece clarified for me the reasons I reacted so viscerally to the element of the show that portrayed Zoe as the initiator of her affair with Frank, and her colleague Janice’s revelation that, despite slut-shaming Zoe, she too was sleeping her way up the ladder. The arc wasn’t just a male fantasy—it was a fantasy that erases an ugly reality by inverting it. It’s not Frank’s fault for stepping out on his marriage, or putting Zoe in a position where she feels like she has to put up with his advances to get a story. An ugly scene between them in which Zoe asks Frank “If you just want the girl who will do your bidding, you have that. Why do you have to fuck me?…Why do you need this? You don’t seem to get any pleasure out of it. I certainly don’t,” is, in the framework of the show, at least partially her due for being naive enough to think that what was going on was something other than, as Frank puts this, “a transaction between two consenting adults.”

What Marin is talking about is a very specific form of sexual entitlement. But this week also saw the debut of Said To Lady Journos, a compilation of the way female reporters have been harassed on the job. “If you got shrapnel in your ass, I’d be happy to take it out,” a contractor says to a reporter in Iraq. “Why don’t we make it a camera, and turn it on you?” a city councilman tells a reporter who is asking permission to tape record their interview. And these are the things that people are saying to female journalists in person.

In combination, it makes the thought of recommending journalism as a career to young women kind of exhausting. Be ambitious? Pop culture will tell people that you’re an amoral blogslut. Get sexually harassed on the job? You were probably Zoe Barnes-ing it up. This is not to say that no woman with a reporter’s notebook and a hard pass has ever behaved poorly, or that journalistic sauciness doesn’t make for compelling drama. But when it comes to sexism fatigue, the Evil Girl Reporter has me particularly tuckered out.