thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

House of Cards, The Bachelor, and the Villainesses of TV

In reality TV, The Bachelor on March 9, 2015 at 4:52 pm

Melissa Sexton

On the surface, the two shows I have been watching this month don’t have much in common with each other. The Bachelor and House of Cards seem pitched to very different audiences and to engage in very different kinds of story-telling. House of Cards is a surprise innovation, the product of the new age of media that goes straight to viewers through Netflix’s online streaming platform. The Bachelor represents all the excesses of big studio television plus the excesses of reality television: expensive mansions, helicopter rides to exotic locations, and petty in-fighting highlighted by studio editing. House of Cards seems pitched to savvy viewers, male and female alike, with a longing for complex motivations and a streak of skepticism towards “the establishment.” The Bachelor, on the other hand, is a show unabashedly aimed at a certain imagined type of women. It simultaneously mocks and exults in drunk, emotional engagement, hosting live viewing parties and even crashing some viewing parties in LA.

Given all these differences, I would never have thought to draw any connections between these shows if not for the overlap in their airing: Season 19 of The Bachelor just wrapped up last week, while Season 3 of House of Cards was released [for real, this time] during the last week of February. And yet, watching these shows back to back, I noticed a striking similarity in how these narratives depict women. In both shows, women’s power is ultimately equated with emotional manipulation. But even when such manipulation gets the women what they want, the audience is encouraged to condemn these characters as villains. Such a morality tale is unsurprising in the world of The Bachelor. But in the shadowy, cruel world of House of Cards, Claire Underwood’s oscillation between a will to power and self-doubt is a striking contrast to the unrepentant manipulation of her husband Frank. Why, I asked myself, in such a dark world, is our central female character still under a kind of narrative pressure to be genuine – or, more particularly, why is she still pressured to be truly “nice” to the women who stand in the way of her goals?

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This double-bind of female friendship and female competition is pretty much a staple of reality television programming. Think of all the cold, aspiring models, season after season, who announced their entrance into America’s Next Top Model by insisting, “I’m not here to make friends.” Long-time fans of the show can guess with some certainty that the editorial inclusion of such footage signals a young woman’s villainization; such ambition, even within a competition, inevitably suggests a woman who will become a “drama queen” or a “bitch” and find herself cut from the running.

In this way, female-centric reality television programming often relies on the dramatization of tensions built into our present-day ideals for all women. As I’ve written about before, women’s competing needs to be each others’ best friends and most successful rivals can make any female friendship fraught. In the artificial world of reality TV competition, this tension provides a great deal of the drama. Somehow, in America’s Next Top Model, women are supposed to compete for a single modeling contract but be nice to each other in the house. Similarly, in The Bachelor, women are overtly competing for one man’s attention and time while under mutually imposed expectations to be nice and friendly. The women who want the same guy pour their hearts out to each other over ever-full glasses of wine, then break down into tears and accusations when the political maneuvering begins.

Consider the major tensions of this season of The Bachelor. First, the women grew increasingly suspicious that Kelsey was faking her panic attacks and disingenuously capitalizing on her husband’s death in hopes of gaining Chris’s sympathy. The public seized on Kelsey as the season’s emergent villain, focusing specifically on her manipulative fakeness. Or consider the recent showdown between Britt and Carly, which centered entirely around who was the most dishonest: is it worse to lie to the man you’re dating about what you want for your future, or to pretend to be another woman’s friend only to expose her?

BrittCarly

The drama around Carly and Britt’s relationship involves their failure to fulfill the simultaneous mandates of genuineness and niceness. Britt was nice, but fake; Carly was mean, but honest. Their tension with each other thus weirdly reproduces the impossible binds of female identity in our competitive culture. To be a good friend and a good woman, we have to be genuine, compassionate, and kind. To be a successful woman and get the prizes we are after, we have to compete, which can lead to undermining and combativeness. Either way you play, you’re going to lose.

Obviously, The Bachelor is a highly artificial world which exacerbates tensions between women. It would be easy to simply dismiss its melodrama as irrelevant to daily life. But I believe reality shows’ representations of success and identity do hold a mirror up to some cultural ideals. Within our capitalistic society, success inevitably relies upon competition — either competition for high-powered, high-earning jobs in America’s Next Top Model or for high-powered, high-earning men in The Bachelor. But niceness becomes a way of disguising competition, of making it pretty and palatable.  

In calling out The Bachelor’s weird relationship to female identity and competition, I’m not advocating dishonesty, nor saying that we should hope for representations of women actively undermining and betraying each others’ trust. But as viewers, maybe it’s not enough for us to simply condemn women who break the rules of feminine competition, becoming too mean or too phony. Maybe we should use these shows as opportunities to expose the ridiculousness of definitions that frame romantic love or success as zero-sum games that only put one woman “on top,” in the words of the Top Model theme song. Maybe we could talk about these shows differently, not only seeing them as exposing individual women as crazy villains, mean girls, or phonies, but also thinking about how they expose the impossible demands most women face to be simultaneously powerful and nice, successful and genuine.

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The similarity I’ve seen between House of Cards and The Bachelor hinges on such paradoxes.  In an utterly competitive world, a woman has to find a way to compete ruthlessly while being nice and genuine to those around her. While reveling in the Underwoods’ rise to power, House of Cards also weirdly punishes Claire Underwood whenever she is emotionally manipulative, depicting her as agonized and uncertain.

Frank Underwood, by contrast, is the quintessential Shakespearean villain. We are given few glimpses of any redeeming qualities in him; yet whether we’re rooting for him to succeed or fail, we enjoy the pageantry and bombast of his manipulations. That’s why all the comparisons to Richard III seem spot on to me. I saw the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Richard III this year, and while I was horrified by the mad king’s brutality, I also never wanted him to leave the stage. Male characters are allowed that kind of glittering villainy. They are allowed to be someone we can genuinely hate. They are allowed an unapologetic thirst for power. They are allowed to use people and discard them, without a flicker of conscience to slow their rush towards either total victory or utter destruction.

But while Claire has been compared to Lady Macbeth, her vengeful moments are tempered by the times when she seems to regret her emotional games. While Frank throws lovers in front of trains and kills former political allies without blinking, Claire becomes sad and pensive when she lies to her lovers or emotionally betrays her female allies. For instance, Claire manipulates the First Lady into getting marriage counseling, in a move worthy of The Bachelor, and she later breaks down weeping when the First Lady insists she really is a “good person.”

ClaireWeeps

“Good person.” It’s a phrase that gets tossed around on The Bachelor a lot, too. When women want to convince Chris to let another woman go, they conflate her fakeness with “not being a good person.” A bad person lies about her intentions, manipulates others, and acts fake. Claire is a horrible person, by such standards, pretending to be the First Lady’s best friend, all the while helping to expose her and her husband to eventual media scrutiny.

But these definitions of “goodness” and of “badness” are so very, very gendered in these shows. Lying is par for the course in the Washington of House of Cards, but the men don’t seem similarly bound to protect each other’s emotional vulnerabilities. Frank helped an addict out of recovery, then led him right back into addiction when it was politically expedient. But while her husband opts to be a powerful rather than a good person, Claire can’t shake the imperative to be both. She can never be a true villain, because her femininity demands emotional work that her male colleagues seem able to escape.

On the one hand, this depiction of Claire’s struggle could be read as a nuanced representation of the difficulties women face when navigating politics. It could be read as the exact kind of analysis I suggested above: a representation of the impossibilities facing women in power. Women cannot be as ruthless as men; they are expected to be nicer and to have social skills that successful men need not have. We all saw this with the Jill Abramson firing: women have to cultivate emotional connection as well as respect to be good at their jobs.

But I still wish House of Cards could imagine female ambition as ruthless as Frank’s. I’m delighted that, in Season 3, this seems to be happening, as Claire increasingly seizes power while Frank grows vulnerable to his own occasional fits of conscience. I believe that our culture could be enriched by more visions of female villains who are not hampered by the tired double-binds of niceness and girl power. Whether we’re talking about Claire’s niceness to the First Lady or Britt’s niceness to Chris, “niceness” in these cases only serves to hide women’s competition and does nothing to challenge the goals or the means of such struggle. Maybe it would be interesting to see women who aren’t punished for being honest about what they want. And maybe the only way to begin imagining such power when we can’t imagine women who aren’t nice is to focus on female villains we could love to hate.

After all… that’s the fun in male villains, too. They exaggerate and expose the built-in evils of the system. None of us really aspires to be like Frank Underwood. But his grandiosity captures something of the darkness of power, the ruthlessness that part of us knows is the shadow-side of unfettered ambition. Similarly unrepentant female villains could expose the impossibility of being both successful and nice, leading us to ask what true love or true power might look like outside of reductive competitive framings.

*****

Seen this way, both The Bachelor and House of Cards tell alternative versions of the story that I started to tell with my discussion of Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”: they reveal the way women are simultaneously expected to be ruthless competitors in a capitalist space that rewards backstabbing, excess, and selling out AND genuine companions and role-models that lift each other up through solidarity. Just as I don’t think women should have to sexualize themselves to succeed as artists, I don’t think women should have to compete and backstab in order to loving relationships or gain political power.  But when we only criticize and villainize individual women who fail to simultaneously embody conflicting demands, we miss the point: that these demands are insane to begin with.

In the way that Nicki’s excessive characters expose the impossible demands of sexualization and success, female villains who embrace their darkness can help us imagine the impossibility of always being both genuine and nice, or of both succeeding at any cost and fostering solidarity. Perhaps that’s why I love the ruthless women over on Scandal – from Milly, who has made niceness into the ultimate weapon of political conquest, to Maya Lewis, who can turn even motherly affection into a maneuver. I don’t like such women; I would not want to emulate them. But their cruelty gives us a little imaginative respite from the strange demand that we as women, competing with and for men, find a way to win without hurting any feelings.

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