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Making history: 'House of Cards' season six and the 2018 midterm elections

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The sixth season of "House of Cards" premiered on Netflix Nov. 2 and was the first season without Kevin Spacey.
The sixth season of "House of Cards" premiered on Netflix Nov. 2 and was the first season without Kevin Spacey.

Every president of the United States has been a man. But history was made in the final season of "House of Cards."

Released on Nov. 2, the finale of Netflix’s first original show, "House of Cards," calls into question how women can pursue careers in politics — especially the leader of the free world — which have been historically dominated by older white men. The conflict of men and women is at the heart of season six, with Claire Hale — formerly Claire Underwood — serving as the United States’ first woman president and living in the shadow of the former president, her late husband Francis Underwood. 

"House of Cards" has always been in tune with the current political climate, as season five was eerily reminiscent of the Trump administration and the trailer for season six was released as Hale’s “presidential alert,” parodying that of Trump. Given how temporally significant the release of the show has been, consider it no coincidence that season six closely preceded the 2018 midterm elections.

With a record number of women elected to the 116th Congress, how the audience assesses Hale’s presidency is analogous to how the public will now view women serving in Congress, an institution entrenched in gender roles. The objective of season six is to cause viewers to question whether or not the current political climate is ready for women to be powerful leaders. 

As evidenced by the dramatic tensions in the show, it seems its directors think women are going to have to continue to fight quite hard in order to obtain equality. The show uses two main devices to demonstrate this tension: the trope of using violence to demonstrate how severe the gender conflict is and employing flashbacks of Hale at a young age to show how she defied gender inequalities at a young age, when she would have been most innocent and vulnerable.

The first scene of season six puts the dramatized violence at the forefront, as Vice President Mark Usher reveals that Hale had received four times as many death threats since she has taken office and twice that amount since Underwood died. Because of the threats, Hale is advised to take the day off – the Fourth of July – from speaking to new military recruits. 

“The first female president of the United States is not going to keep her mouth shut on the Fourth of f**king July,” Hale said.

When shaking the hands of recruits at the end of the event, Hale meets a black woman recruit. The president reassures her of her commitment to women’s rights by adding that she will make sure that the Equal Rights Amendment is passed. The recruit surprisingly counters, “Do you even have a plan? One that won’t get us all killed?” But, Hale is the one who emerges with the most provoking inquiry.

“Would you have asked me that if I were a man?” Hale asked.

A woman serving as commander of chief is the pinnacle of normative gender conflict. However, because of a record number of women veterans to serve in the 116th Congress, the American public might be stepping outside of the framing similar to the skeptical recruit in the show.

A power broker family, the Shepherds, challenge Hale’s strength as the leader of the free world by attempting to control her presidency. One of the most insistent efforts is for Hale to follow up on Underwood’s promise to pass the FUTURE Act, a regulation bill. Hale initially balked at the bill, but when she seemingly acquiesces to sign it, Bill Shepherd guides her hand to do so. 

Hale later describes this act as “emasculating,” which is ironic given that she is not a man. However, this is key to how Hale approaches gender inequality. On one hand, there is no feminine equivalent in the English language that captures the same meaning. On the other, Hale is asserting herself like Underwood would, seeking revenge. 

How Hale later maintained control over impeachment prospects is a classic replication of Underwood’s manipulation. With evidence that Hale was unfit for office, the Shepherds initiated the idea of impeachment, and they got a majority of the cabinet on board. Little did they know that this was what the sitting president wanted all along.

Much to their chagrin, Hale fired every member of her cabinet and unveiled a new one composed of all women. This tactic furthers how Hale is weaponizing her femininity because she is well aware of the magnitude of her making history in a political environment that is so ingrained in the patriarchy, making her and her all-woman cabinet are untouchable.

But, what does this mean for women holding political offices? Does this empower women or are the cabinet members mere tokens of Hale’s next move to challenge conceptions of the presidency? Perhaps with 121 women in the 116th Congress our framing of women in the political sphere will change and women’s interests will be higher on the political agenda.

An all-woman cabinet is not the only portentous connection to the 2018 elections: Comparable to how Hale served as president while pregnant, a woman ran for New York attorney general while pregnant. 

Duke alum Zephyr Teachout, M.A. and J.D. ‘99, ran for New York attorney general pregnant and even had an advertisement of her getting an ultrasound. In light of the youngest person to be elected to Congress, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, being a woman at 29 years old, it is now inevitable that women might have to campaign and serve their offices pregnant. And, that’s a challenge that women in both House of Cards and in the 2018 election cycle accepted.

“We’re on the verge of a big change here," Teachout said to Time Magazine. "If women are going to be running in their 30s and 40s, they’re going to be running pregnant. You can’t change that.”

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