House of Cards Creator Beau Willimon on Zoe Barnes: ‘Ambition is Gender-Blind’

Zoe Barnes, the blogger we all love to hate. (Netflix)

Zoe Barnes, the blogger we all love to hate. (Netflix)

Just in time for the second season of the second season of House of Cards (Friday, what what!), The Observer was able to speak to showrunner Beau Willimon on everyone’s favorite love-to-hate-her journalist, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). As the young reporter from whom “in bed with the press” isn’t just a turn a phrase, Zoe is a particularly tough nut to crack. We want to hate her because she allows herself to be used as a tool for sinister Congressman Frank Underwood in exchange for exclusives and scoops; on the other, she’s demonstrated her independence from traditional media institutions when she turned down a cushy gig at The Washington Herald to work at the blog Slugline.com.

“It’s too easy and unfair to simply condemn Zoe’s behavior,” wrote Allison Willmore at Indiewire, but many have, including Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post, who claimed her character was what “ultimately led (him) to walk away from the show.”

We asked Mr. Willimon–the 36-year-old screenwriter and playwright whose next project will be The Breathing Time at the Faultline Theatre (March 21 – April 13)–to help explain the genesis of TV’s most divisive journalist character.

NYO: How did your time working on the campaigns of Chuck Schumer, Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton inform your idea of what Zoe Barnes would look like as a new media blogger?

Beau Willimon: When I was working on my first campaign, the Schumer campaign, the Internet was in its infancy. That was in ’98. There was very little thought put to the Internet as a campaigning tool. I remember on the Dean campaign,  Joe Trippi was the major architect of this, we instituted a wireless bubble for the press bus. That seems par the course now, but in 2004 it was really extraordinary. We had full-time bloggers who were writing about these events in real time. Now we always have people writing in real time, people are tweeting about events, taking photos of them, and the media has to compensate. I remember as an advance guy for Dean, one of my major jobs was trucking around Iowa making sure we had a T1 line everywhere we went so our reporters would have somewhere to file. People were typing out stories on Blackberries and over emails.

This is what we were thinking about, how to dramatize the media in House of Cards, as the BBC version couldn’t be used. The template had changed. In the 90s, the big print organs still ruled the day. And they still do, people still look at The Times, The Observer, The Post, The Tribune, as a place to localize the discussion, what is important. But we were interested in a journalist who felt much more comfortable in this new, instantaneous, fast-paced age. Who felt no allegiances, either through nostalgia or prestige, to the old way things were being done. And Zoe Barnes was the perfect opportunity to explore that.

Because Zoe Barnes’ story is one ultimately of ambition. We’re not telling the story of Woodward and Bernstein. We’re not telling the story of a noble journalist whose only desire is to tell the truth. She wants access and influence, and she chooses the most efficient path to that. She gets access through Francis, but ultimately she turns that access into influence, dispensing with the Herald altogether and moving into an environment where she could have impact and she’s not bound to the limitations that a print journalist in a prestigious publication would be.

NYO: So is Zoe actually a good journalist, or a good reporter? Is there a difference?

BW: That’s debatable. Let me just ask you, out of curiosity, what do you think constitutes a good journalist?

NYO: Well, you definitely need a sense of ethics to be a good journalist. For a reporter…well, what’s odd about Zoe’s character is that if she’s so ambitious, why is she content for so long to only have this one source?

BW: Well, that’s not entirely true. In season one, you see her go to Francis and say “It was your wife who tanked the Watershed Bill. I’ve spoken to two people on your staff.” We don’t see her doing a lot of  the legwork, because honestly the legwork can not be the most dramatic thing to put onscreen.

NYO: So why isn’t Zoe sleeping with more Congressmen or aides, the way Janine admitted to doing early on in her career, in order to get access? Why isn’t she cultivating those relationships?

BW: Well, whenever you are telling a story, you have to focus your dramatic energies on one character. So if we spent a lot of dramatic real estate showing her courting other congressmen, that’s less time we’re spending on her time with Francis, which is where we want to spend on our time.

NYO: But going back to the question, is Zoe a good journalist?

BW: I don’t think the terms “good” and “bad” apply to her. It’s like when people ask whether Francis is good or bad. He is a man who doesn’t operate on the same spectrum of ethics that a lot of other people do. He doesn’t entertain the notion of good and evil. He finds them limiting, because they are a prescription for human behavior, that doesn’t allow you any flexibility. The notion that’s worth asking, and maybe this show does, isn’t whether Zoe is a good journalist, but whether there’s such a thing as objective journalism.

The idea of objective journalism is a concept that’s less than a century old. The entire history of humanity was agenda-based, in the way that language was used, the way that facts were organized and presented to the world, the ways that lies were presented and organized to the world. The choice of what facts to report, what facts not to report. It automatically is biased. What you choose to put on the front page of The New York Observer is a choice. You’re saying, this is something we’re saying is important.

NYO: Is Zoe representative of a certain brand of DC journalist or new media journalist? Is she a critique on the lapse of standards in the modern journalism arena?

BW: Look, I don’t think one show, no one story can fully encapsulate American media, that’s not our aim. She’s not meant to be representative, in a general way, of the media landscape in Washington. Often when I’ve gotten pushback from journalists about Zoe, it’s assumed that we’re trying to posit her as the archetype of what a D.C. journalist is, or what a D.C. journalist of her generation is. I think that that’s reductive.

I don’t think that most journalists in D.C. operates in the way that Zoe Barnes does, just like I don’t think politicians operate the way Francis does. We’re exploring characters with deep, unbridled ambition, and her story is not there to paint a portrait of the media. Her story is there to explore the nature of youthful ambition.

I guess if there’s one thing that cuts across the entire show, it’s how ambition and power cut across all sorts of different worlds. In the halls of Congress, in the White House, in the media and in personal relationships. So her boss, Hammerschmidt, does not operate like Zoe at all. In fact, he loses his job in part because he’s not willing to bend to the times, and he has an idea of what good journalism is. But the fact is, that’s not selling papers.

NYO: There’s been a lot of criticism about Zoe from women in the media, the most recent that comes to mind is Robyn Doolittle, who wrote the Rob Ford book, who said during an interview that the “Zoe Barnes stuff… has done a great disservice to young female journalists.” Being a woman who gets compared to Zoe Barnes, just because she is one the most prominent fictional portrayals of female journalists in popular culture, is insulting. How would you respond to critics who say that Zoe is a sexist portrayal?

BW: Well let me ask you a question. Can we agree that in the 21st century, women are still seen through the lens of their sexuality?

NYO: Can we agree on that? Yes? Is this a trick question?

BW: (Laughs) Can we also agree that deeply ambitious people, of any gender, will do anything to get ahead?

NYO: But what about Robin Wright’s character, who is deeply ambitious, but her sexuality isn’t a tool that she uses? When she has an affair, it’s not a power-grab.

BW: She has that tool, just because she doesn’t employ it doesn’t mean it’s not available to her. (White House Chief of Staff) Linda Vasquez doesn’t use that as a tool. All I am saying is that it’s a tool that Zoe has available to her, and which she prides.

You see it when she showed up at Francis Underwood’s house, and she takes off her scarf. And he looks at her askance. He laughs at her. He says, “That is juvenile. I have no interest in that sort of tactic. That does not impress me.” The reason she gets access is that she’s able to put together that the president wants to put together an education agenda, and she surmises that Francis is stunned that he was not nominated for Secretary of State. At that point Francis starts to get interested. He’s thinking, “Here’s someone who’s formable, who has intellect. Here’s someone I can use to my advantage.” It’s not until the fourth episode that we see them actually sleep together. And that comes not out of “If we don’t sleep together, I won’t be your source…”

NYO: Though that does come up later…

BW: Yes, it does come up later, because ultimately their relationship is about power. And it is, from the very beginning, transactional, which she calls him out on. So does Janine, in fact, when she says (to Zoe), “This is not a pathway up to the summit.”

NYO: “Don’t fuck your way to the middle.”

BW: So look, we’re calling all these things into question. But it is not our job to portray a character that everyone is going to condone. A lot of the focus on the media does come from Zoe Barnes, because they do feel assaulted. They don’t want to admit that there are Zoe Barnes in their midst, or they resent that there are. It’s abhorrent to them. And they should be, that’s fine. It is absolutely your right to say that our portrayal of Zoe Barnes is sexist. That is within your right. But I think that ambition is gender-blind. Like one of my favorite authors is Balzac. In all of his novels,  the women are all as conniving and ruthless as the men. Why shouldn’t they be in House of Cards?

NYO: A trend I’ve noticed is that in TV, journalists are almost never the good guys, unless it’s a show about journalists. They’re more a plot device, an issue that needs to be “managed.” You don’t get the Woodrow and Bernstein kind of reporters on shows like Scandal or Law & Order, they’re never portrayed positively.

BW: Do you think we show the world of politics positively? Or the world of non-profits? We’re being just as ruthless with every world that we show. If anything, we’re just saying the media’s world is no different.