Fifty Shades of Zoe Barnes: Why I Identify With The Female "House of Cards" Villain

There was no actual course called "Faustian Bargains 101" at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. So I improvised.
Publish date:
February 22, 2013
media, house of cards, zoe barnes

(WARNING: This is written with knowledge of all 13 episodes. There are no spoilers, but references to series specifics are made.)

A while back, I emailed Richard Johnson, the most powerful man in gossip, asking him for Dave Zinczenko's contact information for a story. Richard emailed me the contact card shortly there after (as I had provided enough deposits in the Page Six favor bank to earn his respect) and then he added coyly, "But by now you've probably already spent a weekend in the Hamptons with him."


A veteran in the industry, Richard Johnson saw my Zoe Barnes coloring clear as day.

However, unlike Zoe Barnes, the formidable 29-year-old anti-hero in the most brilliant TV series available right now -- not just on Netflix, but anywhere, I am not Generation Y.

I am rather like the rose-dew-depleted and desperately adapting 30-something media figures portrayed in "House of Cards" at The Washington Herald, struggling somewhere between the old empires of respectable journalism and trying to adapt to the rapid-fire ruthless pace of blogging and tweeting which currently -- undeniably -- have an unbeatable stranglehold on models of old.

But it is not the 30somethings who I most identify with, but instead Zoe -- evil, slutty, ruthless, endlessly ambitious Zoe -- who I feel has more ownership, more collegial kinship with my soul.

There are 50 shades of Zoe to be fair. At one end of the spectrum, consider the actual 26-year-old female reporter who I know for a fact slept with an older lobbyist 30 years her senior to secure a job and for access in D.C. And I know this -- because I slept with him, too.

And then there is me. Thirty-seven, but with the maturity and the career hunger of someone just entering the game.

When I was given a second chance at newspapers -- after leaving them, after a stint at The Washingon Post (the obvious model for The Washington Herald in "House of Cards") to give love and marriage and romance a try, approaching that with the same misguided voracity I did an actual career -- the stage was already set for me to make Faustian bargains.

Why? Well, because the reporting job I was returning to was nowhere close to The Washington Post, where I began my career straight out of Northwestern's journalism school.

The job I was returning to was at The New York Fucking Post.

During my time there, I have seen colleagues sleep with sources. I have heard editors say to reporters struggling over ethical dilemmas, "Well, you just need to get over it." I have seen reporters cry when asked to compromise a source or a relationship or a value. And I have also been on the first-person end of these adorable anecdotes. Multiple times.

There's an impolite truth that most people do not want to articulate about the modern state of newspapers. And that is this. There is an almost palpable flopsweat permeating the modern media environment. It smells like the stench of abject fear accented largely by the rust-covered relevance of an archaic skill set amongst its top leadership. Read any shitty little recap of the latest foible of Tina Brown on Gawker to get up to speed there. But one does not dare say this aloud. Do you say to the cocktail waitress with the new pair of fake tits and a much older gentleman on her arm, "Wise investment. The transactional relationship really seems to be paying off."

Of course you don't.

Well, unless you are me.

Last night I did a HuffPost Live interview (since I write about sex and dating and relationships -- the poor man's politics), and I was in full take-no-prisoners mode. There are times, like when I did "Dr. Drew," where I will ass-lick the appropriate parties' egos involved as expected and play along with the rules of the game because of the access being granted (to a wide, wide, powerful national audience), and then there are times, like right this minute or last night, when I find it much more fun to release grenades.

I was approached by a booker last minute to do the spot. I agreed. I laid around in my bed, sucking on an electronic cigarette like a crack pipe and trying to find the will to put on makeup and see the point of doing anything. I was perhaps having one of those Mrs. Francis Underwood-like realizations when it suddenly hits that her life might actually be one of largely crass and prurient and fleeting gamesmanship -- with no real substance at all. Finally, 10 minutes before the segment began, I smeared on enough Bare Minerals powder and JBF-style lipstick to look somewhat the part. You know the one. The vaguely fuckable Carrie Bradshaw mutant-offspring eager talking head ready for her daily 15 minute feeding fix of pseudo-relevance and fantasy camp fame.

A life well lived.

The segment soon started, and it came time to do the show-and-tell anecdotal two-step for the hard-hitting topic of the day, which was about having met men in "shady" places, like Craigslist Casual Encounters, and how some relationships had transpired from this dubious start. An attractive Chicago-based pundit hopeful (who was happily available for the booking) was branded the relationship expert for the piece. When the host turned to her, this woman tsk-tsked me and said my choice landed me in "Skanksville." Or something equally precious and hilarious.

Oh goodie. I then said my usual line that most of the people I had met off of this seedy little site were lawyers, doctors, investment bankers and in one case, a man doing the CMS consulting for The New York Post's new Web site infrastructure. But I added, there is of course, the occasional serial killer and prostitute thrown in for good measure. I'm sure. Or so I've heard.

The host then began to say something along the lines of, "Wow! So if you were to meet These People out at a bar, you'd almost think they were normal --"

Yes. These People. Love. It.

I responded to the bitterly sarcastic tune of, "Oh exactly. You'd ALMOST think they were normal. When really they are societal outcasts and sexual deviants, amirite?" Smile.

Later in the segment, I brought up the well-bandied, time-tested, much-beloved term of "slut-shaming" as I wanted to appear as much of a caricature as possible.

So, you might ask, why did I do the segment at all? Just ask Zoe Barnes. It's all about parlaying.

In "House of Cards" premiere episode, Zoe parlays the shot of an agape Underwood (a la President Obama's famous ass-checking-out shot) snapped on camera ogling her rear. Her bright little brain knew to parlay it into access. She is playing long game. Had she done the short, she would have thrown him under the bus for a one-off story perhaps providing a single news cycle of embarrassment.

For my silly HuffPost segment, it was its own brand of access and outreach. Did I know I was going to be shame-shamed? Sure. Whatever. At a certain point, the very obliteration of your Google search results becomes part of the fun. Who could forget that hilarious moment when my first autocomplete was "prostitute." Yeah. That was a family favorite.

Parlaying dictates most of my decisions. When it doesn't, I fall into an uncomfortable sweat of vulnerability. Like when Zoe Barnes has the nakedly real moment of scrubbing fast food dripping on to her floor, looks around and sees the widespread contamination of not just her apartment -- but her life.

And then she makes changes. She adapts. She seeks out what the new brutal rules of life seem to guide her to do. To deplore or to judge or to tsk-tsk these type of decisions on her part, I'm afraid, is to oppose reality. I am a fan. I am fan of reality. I love Noam Chomsky, but I am a fan of reality.

To be clear, I do not think I am an actual villain -- by any stretch. I don't think Zoe is either. I think she is a realist. And I think she operates within the laws of the world that the polite do not dare articulate, but the savvy recognize exist, guide and ultimately, rule.

I mentioned the ugly truth about problematic newsroom leadership skill set disparity that hangs like food in the teeth no one can dare mention in the industry. This truth permeates the incredibly uncomfortable tension between Zoe Barnes and her largely male superiors on "House of Cards." Modern media no longer thrives in the gravy train world of luxurious personality profiles delivered a few weeks in. I get chided if I do not write every day for this site. Every day. Every goddamned day. This is real talk. This is the world we live in now.

But over at The New York Post, they are still living in the past. For many in leadership positions over there, the long game for them is to perpetually remain in the good graces of their genteel artistic benefactor Rupert Murdoch. This has very expensive results.

Because sycophantic long game to an octogenarian means no one would dare tell him his multi-million-dollar investment failure "The Daily," the first iPad-specific news publication, was a terrible fucking idea by an old man out of touch with technology.

No one dares tell Murdoch his tweets make him look like a bumbling old man.

No one fucking dares.

Instead the leadership snickers privately (if they even have the technological capacity to understand and are not cowed by fear of the daunting feat of learning how to navigate, say, Twitter).

This sad brutal reality is where innovation goes to die -- because sycophants are playing to win.

Full to practically overflowing disclosure? I tried like a motherfucker to get a job at The Daily because I was so miserable at The Post when that TFI (terrible fucking idea) first launched. I think I practically did offer to suck off any editor who might jump at the prospect of hiring me away from my misery at The Post. Obviously phrased in more delicate terms. And obviously, I mean metaphorically. Through my work. Not IRL.


But I also knew, as is so well-articulated in the Steve Jobs biography, that you cannot create a product that people do not need or want and then tell them they must now need or want it. It's basic tech psychology. If the demand doesn't exist, you have a helluva time creating one. Oh goodie, a news publication updated a few times daily for iPad? That is great because that is exactly what no one was requesting.

What a fantastic idea.

In 1998.

This is something that my soul, my heart, my alterego Zoe Barnes might say. Because she is such a ruthless little bitch. A "cunt," as she is branded later as episodes go on.

I mean, does she even gift-horse-staring-contest want the White House Correspondent job at The Washington Herald that many would covet? Nope. Maybe when she was in the 9th grade, she says. Oh Zoe, you darling, darling C.

She knows full well, as any smart woman her age and many older do too, we are living in the Age of Transparency. Lack of ethics is not the failure of society. It's in many ways, an advancement of the honesty of society.

For centuries people have been trading on sex (or even implied sex) for power and access. Doing unethical deeds. It's part and parcel of life. Show me a person in a position of true power and influence, and I will show you a litany of their sins. Not bad people, mind you. Not devilish. Not evil. But people. Real human beings. We are simply more honest and acutely aware and vocal about what the fuck really happens -- including in our scripted episodic dramatic series.

The only difference is that nowadays there are less old white men controlling the narrative.

Nowadays there are less old white men beating us over the head with the idea that human beings acting as human beings does not happen or exist and Camelot Camelot Camelot Cronkite Cronkite Cronkite.

Fuck the idea of speaking truth to stupid.

I much prefer speaking truth to fairytales that never existed in the first place.

The world is not and never has been black and white.

It is 50 shades of Zoe Barnes.


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