Strong, interesting female characters are the secret of House of Cards’ success

Unusually for a political drama, Netflix's remake of House of Cards has a brilliant and independent political wife its heart, and is all the better for it.

Warning: this blog contains spoilers for the first series of House of Cards

The first series of Netflix’s House of Cards is full of motifs, of threads that run through the thirteen episodes if you care to look for them. For instance, Kevin Spacey’s character, the calculating and Machiavellian politician Frank Underwood, has a habit of rapping twice on a table top or car door when he’s come to a decision, which acts as a kind of aural punctuation echoing through the series. More obvious, perhaps, is Underwood’s habit of turning his head to speak directly to the viewer, usually with a pithy aside or epigram (a trick borrowed straight from the original 1990 UK series). But my favourite recurring scene is also where you find some of the drama’s most genuinely intimate moments – when Frank and his wife Claire share a cigarette by the window of their immaculate DC townhouse. The smoking itself is important, as it signals transgression and trust. Their conversation as they pass the cigarette to each other is even more important, though. This is when they plot.

The Underwoods’ marriage is a rare thing in a political drama: it is an equal partnership, even if it doesn’t seem so on first glance. On the surface, it looks as if his is the career that matters: he is the Democratic Majority Whip in the House of Representatives, a power broker who has the ear of the President. Yet Claire is a professional success in her own right, the founder of an NGO who raises millions of dollars and writes bills for Congress. The way the show is structured reflects this – unlike in the original UK series, where Elizabeth Uruquart had a lot of the ideas and very little of the agency, Claire Underwood has her own storylines. She isn’t just Lady Macbeth, pacing the floor while her husband does the deed. She gets in her own tangles with lobbyists, has her own extra-marital affair, and formulates her own strategies for seizing power.

Above all, though, the Underwoods are a team. The success of their quest for power and revenge relies on them both, in keeping everything in balance. As Nancy Dewolf Smith puts it in the Wall Street Journal: “This is a power couple with the same malignant chemistry as pairs of serial killers, where each needs the other in order to become lethal.” Even the way Claire addresses her husband is calculated to demonstrate how closely entwined they are: she’s the only one who calls him by his full name, Francis. At first this sounds stilted and strange when everyone else calls him Frank, but then you realise why she does it. It’s a kind of possession, a reminder that he isn’t acting for himself alone. Their relationship may be twisted and dark – Frank declares early on that he loves his wife “more than sharks love blood” – but it is essential to what they achieve.

United we stand: Frank and Claire Underwood are
literally partners in crime

It’s a symbiotic relationship. Robin Wright, who plays Claire in the series, told the Radio Times: “I feel like [Claire] has the levers, the sound board in the music room. She’s operating the operational modes and in contrast, Frank is very impulsive.” Claire needs her husband’s contacts and position to raise money for her NGO and to curry favour with the Washington elite. Frank needs Claire’s professional independence from partisan politics as a way of introducing controversial ideas at arm’s length and safely securing favours from lobbyists and industry. Above all, with her cool charm and elegance, she makes him seem more rounded, less monomaniacal. Their policy of ruthless honesty with each other preserves their unity, and it is only when they start concealing things from each other that their pursuit of power is thrown off course.

Since this relationship is the driving force behind the drama, it is fundamental to the success of House of Cards. Both in real life and in other shows (like The West Wing, say, or Scandal) politicians’ wives are tools to be deployed on the campaign trail, or else end up beating their fists fruitlessly against the closed door of power. It’s no accident that Robin Wright’s portrayal of Claire won the show’s only Golden Globe this year (also the first major acting award for an online-only series). Her incredible poise rivals Kevin Spacey’s intoxicating southern drawl for the prime spot in my affections. It’s brilliantly refreshing to see her make such a success of the role – these days, it’s becoming less and less plausible that any woman would aspire to a full-time job that consists almost entirely of standing next to her husband and waving graciously. House of Cards is a far better drama because it has independent female characters and an equal partnership at its heart. As we watch the Underwoods’ inexorable rise continue into the second series (which is released on Netflix today) it’s difficult not to wonder – if politics is more interesting on television when women can occupy positions of power and influence, how much longer can we ignore that fact in real life?

 

Robin Wright, who won a Golden Globe for her performance as Claire Underwood in House of Cards. Photo: Netflix

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser