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?
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.