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How House of Cards made me a bad person

As I sink into the most recent series, I can feel the increasing pressure to manipulate/scheme/rise to my natural place in the White House again.

I first encountered House of Cards in an illness-fuelled delirium. I am unsure why I thought an intense drama that demands a reasonable level of political awareness would be ideal viewing, but like any series, I’d heard it was amazing, and I have a deep and profound love for television. Thus, armed with hours to kill, I plunged into the world of Frank and Claire Underwood, unaware of the behavioural mind-fuck I was about to embark on.

Everyone is horrible in House of Cards. I don’t mean a kind of “the Mayor of London is backing Brexit and undermining your political prowess” kind of horrible, more like “I might have to publically humiliate, shame and maybe murder you if you interrupt my rise to power” kind of horrible. People are perpetually manipulating. No one can be trusted, not even the people you think might actually be okay. Lying is a given and killing people becomes as normalised as a press conference. To any rational human being, the behaviours the show exhibits are borderline sociopathic.

Except, somehow, I found something wildly alluring in the attitudes of those characters. Their no-bullshit approach. Their unwavering ambition. Their cold-hearted rationale. Forced marriage? Just got to be done! Murder? A measured political decision! Inter-marital affair? Makes sense! The high-budget drama engulfed me within its flexible system of morality, and I found myself adopting the various character traits. I recall approaching vicious judgements as statements of my own truth. I was less forgiving. I considered stepping on people to get ahead. I had prying journalists put in prison for cyber crimes. Okay, that last one didn’t happen but I did get quite mean.

Ignoring my slightly noxious personality, I think part of this allure came down to an internalised misogyny. Much of the behaviour in House of Cards demonises emotions, trumpeting that that fallacious claim made by old men who had their emotions drilled out of them at a posh boarding schools: that emotions threaten good decision making. A neo-liberal, implicitly misogynist mantra runs through the show that states: feel emotions, support other people, and you’ll fail.

House of Cards does a good job of both depicting these behaviours and critiquing them, but the critique is subtle at times. Sure, the Underwoods fail at times. But often this makes way for an even scheme-ier scheme and an unusual sex scene, and in the end they remain in control. The critique lies in a larger ethical debate, as, in reality, the behaviours are exploitative, malicious, illegal, and also just crap politics (not to mention questionable journalism). However, characters who challenge the malice suffer defeat (in various forms) as a result – see the characters of Helen Dunbar, the (female) secretary of health, the (female) attorney general and Lucas Goodwin.

Of course, it’s no fun watching polite and considerate political interaction (not to mention, it would be quite inaccurate) and the appeal of House of Cards lies in how successfully the show steers away from absurd plotlines by maintaining naturalism to the chaos. When the form of the show is so skilfully constructed, the content becomes palatable, if not alluring.

House of Cards is intellectually demanding and well-paced: a combination of impressive character-focused set-pieces mixed with larger engulfing plot points that somehow manage to make the minutiae of political strategy seem like a life-and-death situation.

Oh, and also sometimes major characters get pushed in front of trains. It’s a real emotional rollercoaster.  As I sink into the most recent series, I can feel the increasing pressure to manipulate/ scheme/ rise to my natural place in the White House again. But, with statistics that show bingeing TV shows can correlate with poor mental and physical wellbeing, I’ve come to see that manipulation and murder are not the most tactical way to function in society. Unless, after a tumultuous yet entertaining rise to power, I become president of the United States. In which case, best not to cross me.  

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist