WARNING – The article below contains spoilers for all three seasons of the show.
As those of you who wish Cambridge awarded degrees in Netflix analysis will in no doubt be aware, this week saw the release of the third season of the popular Netflix original series House of Cards. While it might not have the obvious queer appeal of that other Netflix classic, Orange Is The New Black, amidst the plots, betrayals and violence, House of Cards presents some of the best queer characters in mainstream fiction.
The show follows the fortunes of scheming congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Frank is manipulative, ruthless and charming. He will stop at nothing to get what he wants, and what he wants is power. He also happens to be bisexual. This fact is not revealed until about halfway through the first season – make no mistake, this is not a story about sexuality. Yet this is what makes it so important.
Too often interesting, well developed queer characters are confined to shows which are explicitly about their sexuality and sexual relationships. Whilst I understand the importance of these shows and I do relish stories which are aimed at the LGBT+ community, it is also vital that we see queer characters in mainstream narratives. Like most of us, Frank’s sexuality does not stop him from leading a complex, interesting life: making laws, manipulating congressmen and throwing people in front of trains – just like everyone else.
Some of the moments in House of Cards are pretty ground breaking. For a popular, mainstream American programme to explicitly show a gay kiss involving a man who soon after becomes President of the United States is a pretty big deal. And yet, watching the show, the gender of the characters seems utterly incidental.
House of Cards doesn’t seem inclined to label sexuality. When another character, Rachel – a former sex worker who has hitherto only been presented sexually with men – falls in love with a woman, the gender of her new lover is hardly commented on. Although in some circumstances labels can be useful and empowering, in this case I find it refreshing to see a show representing same sex relationships without making a fuss about it, presenting the fluidly and dynamism of sexuality without embracing tried tropes or falling into tokenism.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the show is the relationship between Frank and his wife, Claire (Robin Wright). Their devotion to each other is clear from the start, and to see two utterly selfish individuals share such an intense bond is intriguing. Their marriage is consensually, though quietly, polyamorous: both have other lovers and, though they are not immune to jealousy, it is clear throughout that they will always return to each other in the end. Again the show skilfully avoids obvious tropes: Frank is not presented as the stereotypical sex-crazed bisexual, he is a human whose sex drive is one of his many desires and motivations. The polyamorous nature of their relationship is not a tool to manipulate or oppress Claire: both parties are presented as both accepting and jealous at different times.
Of course, House of Cards is set in a fairly realistic version of the modern world and does not attempt to present a sexually liberated utopia. If the voting public were outraged by Claire’s admission that she had had an abortion, I imagine that the revelation that he and the first lady are having threesomes with a male member of their security team wouldn’t do much for the new President’s popularity. It remains to be seen whether this potential vulnerability will be exploited for a plot device later on, but I for one hope that the writers continue to handle Frank’s sexuality with the light touch that has been so notable so far.
House of Cards presents queer characters who are not defined by their sexuality. It shows people having relationships which are fascinating and damaging and creepy, in which the gender of the participants seems almost irrelevant. Long may that continue.
Hannah Graham (GR. Culture Writer)