Tuesday, March 11, 2014
March 11, 2014: AmericanStudying House of Cards: Linda and Gillian
[To balance out that series on non-favorites, here’s a series inspired by my recent viewing of Season 1 of a new favorite show, House of Cards. Spoilers for that first season, but not for the recently released Season 2, follow! Please add your thoughts on this complex and compelling show, ahead of a special weekend Guest Post!]
On my mixed feelings about the show’s two most prominent ethnic women.
House of Cards seems to subscribe, in its general worldview, to an extreme version of Trip’s (Denzel Washington’s) famous lines from Glory: “And we all caught up in it, too. Ain’t nobody clean.” The show’s deep-seated cynicism makes it very difficult to see any character as fundamentally good, as separate from the lies and deceptions and backstabbings and connivings that drive most of the plot threads. But if I had to identify characters who seem closest to honorable in this dishonorable world, at or near the top of the list would be Linda Vasquez (the President’s dedicated Chief of Staff, played by Sakina Jaffrey) and Gillian Cole (the founder of a nonprofit company seeking to solve the world’s water shortages, played by Sandrine Holt; true, Cole ends the season suing Robin Wright’s character for discrimination based on partly false claims, but Wright deserves it and has more or less forced Cole into that position).
Vasquez and Cole have a couple other interesting elements in common: they are the show’s two most prominent ethnic female characters, and are quickly and overtly identified as such (Kevin Spacey calls Vasquez, in one of the first episode’s opening lines, “a Latina”; Cole calls herself a “token Asian” in her second scene); and they are both closely linked to Stanford University (Cole is repeatedly referred to as an alum and valedictorian; Vasquez has an ongoing plotline about trying to get her son Reuben into the university despite his less than perfect transcript and application). Because of those elements, and because of that aforementioned cynical worldview, it’s very hard for me not to see both characters as at least partly commentaries—and troubling ones at that—on diversity and affirmative action; not because they aren’t portrayed as capable and impressive, but because so much emphasis is placed on both their ethnicity and their ties to a university famously associated with far-left liberalism and identity politics and the like.
It would even be possible to read the two women’s relative goodness (at least compared, again, to most of their fellow characters) as related to those potential connections to affirmative action narratives: to read them, that is, as naïve and out of their league amidst the bigger and more ruthless (and potentially more deserving of success) Washington fish. (To be clear, those bigger fish are not always white—one of the most ruthless of all is African American lobbyist Remy Danton, played by Mahershala Ali.) But on the other hand, both women have achieved tremendous success in their respective worlds, and by the end of Season 1, despite setbacks, both are fighting hard to maintain their positions and power, and perhaps even make the world a better place (even if, as with Cole’s lawsuit, they have to do so by bending the rules more than they’re used to). In the world of House of Cards, such sustained success is nothing short of admirable, and as a result it’d be far too easy (either in that world or as viewers of it) to dismiss Linda and Gillian.
Next House analyses tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?