Representation | Gender in American TV Dramas

The extract I am going to analyse is taken from Season 1, Episode 1 of the Netflix original series House of Cards, directed by David Fincher. This is an American drama that first aired in 2013.

Although it is barely a 4-minute extract, it shows 3 women in different positions: a self-confident, powerful woman who supports her husband in his career, a 20-something year old tomboy (girl who exhibits characteristics or behaviors considered typical of a boy), and a secretary who takes her position as a sex object seriously and accepts it.

The extract begins with a two shot of a man (played by Kevin Spacey) and his wife. They both sit on the backseat of a luxurious car which is crusing the streets at night. The woman gives the man fashion recommendations and gives him approval for his choices. Stereotypically, it is considered unusual for a woman to exert power over a man, but this scene breaks that stereotype. The two are seen as equal as they hold hands romantically. Piano music starts playing at that moment, which is a non-diegetic sound.

The scene that follows takes place in the newsroom of the Washington Herald. After showing two men in the office break room / kitchenette, there is a wide panning shot of a young, short woman (Zoe) as she heads towards the aforementioned break room. String music is playing throughout the beginning of this scene. Zoe waits for her boss, Mr Hammerschmidt, to walk out of the room to seem as though she unintentionally bumped into him. He doesn’t even remember her name, although she had been working there for some time. The other man, Lucas, bows his head, ashamed by the situation. Zoe proceeds to ask him, who also appears to be one of her superiors, whether or not Mr Hammerschmidt remembered his name at first: “Did it take him a year to remember your name?” Lucas disproved another gender stereotype when he answered “Longer.” People would stereotypically think that a boss who is so condescending would be more demeaning to women, perhaps not even acknowledging their existence, but the fact that he acts the same towards both genders put Zoe and Lucas on an equal ground.

However, Lucas still is Zoe’s superior, so when she asks to be given a different assignment, Lucas refuses bluntly. During their dialogue, some low-angle shots show Lucas in a position of power. This technique might be used to show that women cannot be powerful, which has always been a common stereotype in society. The fact that she speaks up for herself, demanding to be put on a higher level (to be moved to the online department of the publication – “my own blog, first person, subjective, 500 words”), together wth the strong language she uses at the end of the dialogue, shows that she is not satisfied with her current status and she wants her career to advance. Other than the low-angle shots, some medium close-ups are used throughout the dialogue.

The third and final scene of the extract is about a man, who appears to be a politician – or at least involved in a political party – and his relationship with his secretary. In the beginning, the man, who is tall and bald, walks into his office with his jacket and briefcase in his hand, and is greeted by his secretary with some papers. He is informed that he has an important guest, Mr Chapman, in his office and proceeds to greet him. This is all shot from waist level, with some panning used as the man walks, and some ambiental music is playing (non-diegetic). Mr Chapman seems angry that the man did not comply with some of his requests, while the latter is very calm and friendly during their conversation. Over-the-shoulder shots are used in the dialogue after the man sits down. His secretary calls and he excuses himself to take the call. He acts as if the President-elect was calling, news that change the expression of Mr Chapman from anger to respect. His secretary, on the end of the call, is sensual and sounds like she is sexually turned on, telling him that she “wants” him and describing sexual activities. A close-up shot is used when the woman is shown talking. Stereotypically, secretaries are frequently seen as sex objects, but usually men (their bosses) throw sexual advances at them, not the other way around. Therefore, this is not an entirely stereotypical scene and, once again, shows a woman being in control.

In conclusion, this extract from House of Cards is not a traditional display of stereotypes, but uses some distorted versions of gender stereotypes about women, twisting them so that they might as well be disapproved.