How ‘House of Cards’ Gets Sexuality And Recovery From Sexual Assault Right


Credit: Netflix

This post discusses the events of the first several episodes of the second season of Netflix’s House of Cards.

I’m working my way through the second season of Netflix’s political drama House Of Cards in between some travel, and while I remain immune to series creator Beau Willimon’s belief that in Washington, the drive to power is unecumbered–or unaided–by ideology, once again, I’ve found myself struck by the show’s approach to sexual politics.

In its first year, House Of Cards had its best episode when its unscrupulous politician, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), left Washington for a college reunion. During a long, boozy reminiscence with a fellow member of his former a capella group, Underwood revealed that he’d had had a romantic and sexual relationship with the man that clearly still exerts a powerful hold on him. It was the most personal moment of the show, and House of Cards treated it with admirable restraint. There was no rush to parse Frank’s identity, nor attempt to sow a potential scandal, just a truly private moment, a sense of absolute trust that lingers long after the rush of passion is gone. And it was a striking departure from the atmosphere of sexual sleaze that colored Underwood’s relationship with Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a young reporter with whom he had sex and bartered information and coverage.

Now, it is second season, House of Cards has exhibited admirable subtlety in taking on a subject that’s had increasing prominence in recent pop culture: how men handle learning that women in their lives have been sexually assaulted. House Of Cards isn’t the first prestige television show to consider this. FX’s biker drama Sons of Anarchy had its best season when it tackled a similar plotline several years ago, and The Americans, which airs on the same network, also used a couple coming to terms with the wife’s sexual assault as a moment of marital bonding. And Sundance’s breakout miniseries Top Of The Lake handled the question to great effect earlier this year. But in House Of Cards, this story has been particularly striking precisely because learning that Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) was assaulted in college forces her husband to confront the limits of his own power.

The revelation comes at Frank’s first public event as Vice President, a medal ceremony for high-ranking members of the military. At the dinner, one of the honorees stops by Frank and Claire’s table to reminisce about how he dated Claire briefly in college. But rather than being sweet, or an opportunity to make her husband jealous, the encounter sends Claire to the bathroom to try to preserve her mascara. The man, it turns out, is the boy who raped Claire in college. And while Frank knew that Claire had been assaulted, he hadn’t known specifically who her assailant was until that moment.

Frank’s first instinct, of course, is to use his newly-acquired authority for some sort of revenge. “I’m not going to pin a medal on that–” he declares, before Claire cuts him firmly off. “You have to,” she tells him. “Do not make a scene. Please.” It would have been grotesque but entirely in keeping with the show’s worldview to have Claire tell Frank that he can’t be petty, can’t endanger the power that’s been so freshly granted to him by using it for a personal vendetta.

But fortunately, Claire explains her reasoning in greater detail when she and Frank return home.

“You think I don’t want to smash things? I know what that anger is more than you can imagine. When he was on top of me–” she tells her husband, forging ahead even when Frank gives her permission not to continue. “No, I want to. When he was on top of me I pressed my hand, with everything I could, I pressed it into his face. I pressed it so hard I broke his nose. That didn’t stop him. He shoved the sheets in my mouth. I could barely breathe. Every time I think of her, pinned down like that, I strangle her, Francis. So she doesn’t strangle me. I have to. We have to. The alternative is, it’s unlivable.”

Claire’s concern is less for Frank’s image than for her own emotional security. But she’s also reminding him what so many women have had to learn, and what men like Frank Underwood sometimes never do: that you can dash yourself against the rocks seeking justice that was not, and never will be, available to you. Or you can use that energy for fights that don’t require your self-destruction to accomplish them, for missions where you stand some chance of success. “You’ll still feel the hate in the morning,” Claire tells her husband, introducing him to the reality of her daily existence. “You’ll use that, but not on him.”

Frank Underwood may be new to living with this terrible truth. But some of the male characters in Top Of The Lake have been trying to grapple with their responsibilities to women who have been sexually assaulted for years. In Sundance‘s striking mini-series, a female detective, Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), returns to her home town to investigate how a 12-year-old girl came to be pregnant, and why she attempted suicide. But she is not an uninterested party: as a teenager, she was raped. And like Claire Underwood, she’s made greater peace with the assault than the boy who was her friend at the time.

She and Johnno (Thomas M. Wright) slowly reconnect after Robin returns to town, before they return to the central question between them. “I should have helped you and I didn’t. I was a coward,” Johnno tells Robin. And even when Robin reassures him that “No. There was nothing you could have done. it was four against one,” he doesn’t believe her. “You raped my friend. Fucking sweetheart. Fifteen. She was fifteen,” Johnno confronts one of the men involved. “I don’t remember,” the man, who goes by Sarge (Oscar Redding), insists. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And he begs Robin to tell him if he’s guilty in her assault: “Did I set you up? Did I offer you up to those animals?”

Robin has dealt with her assault because she’s had to: it was that, or accept that she existed for other people’s violent amusement. She has a job that lets her work to get the sort of justice that was denied to her, both under the law, and in a community that didn’t even really recognize what happened to her, much less repent for it.

But Johnno, and the men who raped Robin, the kind of thinking hasn’t been necessary. Sarge, like the protagonist of Teju Cole’s novel Open City, has never had to come to terms with the idea that he’s a rapist, because he doesn’t understand himself to have participated in a rape of Robin in the first place. Johnno, by contrast, has at some point encountered the idea that men are supposed to be repulsed by and do everything they can to prevent violence against women. But it’s too late for him to have applied his principles to Robin, even if he could have fought off the group of boys who wanted to attack her. And the path forward to decency isn’t entirely clear to Johnno: is he supposed to be some sort of avenger, policing his community’s sexual norms on his own? Being a good man in his own life doesn’t feel like it’s enough for Johnno, and maybe it shouldn’t be. But his grief and rage are a reminder of how far we have to go in building a sexual culture, based in consent, that serves all the participants in it equally.

In Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, we see the question of how to be a good man, specifically when a woman in a good man’s life has been sexually assaulted, not from the perspective of an adult meeting his wife’s attacker, or a grown man reconciling with a woman he feels he failed, but through the experiences of a teenaged boy, Joe.

When we meet him, Joe has a teenager’s understanding of sex and consent. He and his friends, who live on an Ojibwe reservation, are Star Trek fans, and Joe explains that: “Naturally we all wanted to be Worf. We all wanted to be Klingons. Worf’s solution to any problem was to attack. In the episode Justice we found out Worf didn’t enjoy sex with human females because they were too fragile and he had to show restraint. Our big joke around pretty girls was Hey, show some restraint.…Next to Worf, we liked Data because he mocked white people by being curious about stupid things the crew would do or say, and because when gorgeous Yar got drunk he declared himself fully functional and had sex with her.”

But when his mother is sexually assaulted, Joe’s notions of masculinity begin to shift. In the hospital, his father, a tribal judge, crumples: “My father walked to the wall as if he were going through it. He pressed his forehead and hands against the wall and stood there with his eyes shut. Dr. Egge tuned and saw me frozen at the doors. He pointed toward the waiting room. My father’s emotion was something, his gesture implied, that I was too young to witness…Much later, after I had gone into law and gone back and examined every document I could find, every statement, relived every moment of that day and the days that followed, I understood that this was when my father had learned from Dr. Egge the details and extent of my mother’s injuries.”

Joe’s father has been powerless to stop the assault. And as the investigation proceeds, it seems that despite his legal authority, he may be powerless to get a conviction and prison sentence for her white assailant that would make his wife feel safer. Even in the confines of his own home, he has limited ability to aid her recovery: she withdraws to her bedroom, bans him and Joe from it, and refuses, for a long time, to eat.

And as his mother slowly comes back to himself, Joe, who decides to kill her assailant, comes to terms with his own terror of the man, and what he’s done to Joe’s family:

In the uncanny light a sense of dread so overwhelmed me that tears started in my eyes and a single choking sound, a sob maybe, a wrench of hurt, burst from my chest. I crossed my fists in the knitting and squeezed them against my heart. I didn’t want to blurt out the sound. I didn’t want to give a voice to this roil of sensation. But I was naked and tiny before its power. I had no choice. I muffled the sounds I made so that I alone could hear them come out of me, gross and foreign. I lay on the flower, let fear cover me, and I tried to keep breathing while it shook me like a dog shakes a rat…As I fell into a darker sleep, I understood that I had learned something. Now that I knew fear, I also knew it was not permanent. As powerful as it was, its grip on me would loosen. It would pass.

Joe hasn’t survived what his mother survived, but he’s had to learn a similar lesson: that life continues, and your choices are to live it, or to die.

And he also has an insight that applies to all of these men, in coming to terms with their own fallibility, and what happens when terrible things are done to the women in their lives. “Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits,” Joe explains. “We absorb their comings and goings into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones. Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon we were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on the evening. And so, you see, her absence stopped time.”

None of this is to say that sexual assault only matters when the consequences of it arrive in men’s minds and hearts, or that we should emphasize the impact sexual assault has on the men who love the women who experience it, because clearly, speaking about women’s experiences has failed to change policy, culture, and conversation. Rather, Frank Underwood, and Johnno, and Joe are all learning what so many men have come to understand: that they have an interest in what is done to women’s bodies without their consent. The harder question is the one that follows: what are such men to do next, in a world where simple vengeance is out of reach, or of little use to the women on whose behalf it might be meted out?