Is Claire Underwood Human? House of Cards

* * * Spoiler Alert * * *

The new made-for-and-by-Netflix TV series House of Cards is definitely TV worth watching. Since watching all 13 episodes in series 1, I’ve been brooding about how the show portrays women, especially the lead character Claire Underwood played by Robin Wright. She is a shrewd business woman who uses all of her connections and assets to develop her career and power. Married to Francis Underwood, the House Majority Whip in the US House of Representatives, she runs CWI, a non-profit that advocates for clean drinking water. The lengths to which she is willing to go in order to preserve her public reputation parallel her husband’s. Some recognize in her character shades of Lady Macbeth.

The first question I’ve been pondering is about what her character tells us about the shifting frontiers of the feminist movement. Wright is familiar to many of us from the movie The Princess Bride (released 26 years ago in 1987) in which she played a young, beautiful damsel whose future is dependent on a young man. Claire Underwood is more than a grown-up version of this young damsel / princess; she is an independent woman who needs little except cooperation from the people closest to her and consent from her husband to allow her to operate independently. Finally we have a modern heroine who is upright and seated next to her partner. She knows how to be supportive and how to ask for help, but the last things he needs is to be rescued.

Secondly, I’ve been secretly asking myself how I could be more like her. Fierce. Tough as nails, yet still somehow feminine. Unwavering and unapologetic. As distorted as this might sound, I think she might be a hero for working women. Or at least she might be a fantasy of what the rest of us in the trenches imagine as the Machiavellian Princessa.

As awesome as these qualities might be, her cruelty knows few bounds. For example, her severe decision to dismiss half of her staff casts her as as shrewd business woman. That round of dismissals was quickly followed by her decision to hire a young activist with international experience in order to grow that dimension of her non-profit business. Employees are just capital in her system—they come and go—in the same way that major donations come and go. Loosing one isn’t devastating; it’s just a fact, a thing that happens or doesn’t happen, a thing that changes other things, but not how she feels about her business. She is determined to succeed at all costs.

Or at least she might be a fantasy of what the rest of us in the trenches imagine as the Machiavellian Princessa.

Other aspects of her character reinforce this unfeeling quality. (Really, all of the central female characters are ruthless.) Her commitment to exercise leads her to run inconsiderately through a graveyard. On one trip through the graveyard another woman tending the grave of a loved one gets Claire’s attention and reprimands her for desecrating the place by running. This disturbs her enough to change her running route and almost enough to make her want to share this detail with her husband. Her middle-of-the-night-running wearing all black reinforces her comfort in isolation and shadows.

The same critiques of being too shrill, shrewd, or sharp have been levelled against many other women in leadership. Hillary Clinton’s political campaigns come to mind. Perhaps women are held to a double-standard, but if so, that’s hardly new. If we saw Claire going through feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, or fear would we think her more feminine? One may mistakenly interpret the scene where she asks Francis’ advice about which dress to wear for her meeting with a famous photographer as indecision and dependence on him. But the scene is about the exact opposite thing: it’s is about her willingness to manipulate others. By suggesting the black dress Frances is giving her permission to be intimate with the photographer she is planning to meet.

There is some difference between her self-interest and her husband’s narcissism. Claire’s ambitions are hardly grandiose and she doesn’t push Francis or Gillian, her employee, or anyone else to express admiration for her. Perhaps if she became a parent her child would inherit her legacy. Her decision to hire Gillian, a young, beautiful woman who brings her own successes to the table suggests Claire is attempting to find a successor who can take the mantle of her business and make her name even bigger. Claire soon discovers that she cannot control Gillian which leads to a fundamental conflict between these women. Gillian is too ethical for Claire’s pragmatic compromises.

The women in this show, especially Claire, are complex individuals who do not hide behind a mask of being good. Rather, they are determined to take risks in order to succeed. Is she human? Does her humanitarian work make up for her ruthless manipulations? She may control many aspects of her husband’s political career and vulnerabilities, but she is not a god. She may also navigate through the spinning wheels of running her business, but she is not a machine. And, she may seem cruel in her devious, snake-like treachery, but she is not an animal. But is Claire human?

…despite the build up of her strength and power, Francis makes it clear that he does not view her as his equal. Her work is not as important as his. No, there is no real formal equality…

Where does this character fit into the matrix of feminism and post-feminism? Does she identify with the powerlessness of women? Or is she an equal? By the end of series one, despite the build up of her strength and power, Francis makes it clear that he does not view her as his equal. Her work is not as important as his. No, there is no real formal equality between them. Her ambition may scare us, but her devious spouse makes sure to attempt to put her in her place. He asks for her acquiescence and her passivity.

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