House of Cards' Claire Underwood is a multi-faceted character. As Robin Wright portrays her, Claire can occasionally play nice — but mostly she's the cold and reserved, a counterpoint to the passionate and manipulative Frank Underwood. In the recently released season two, many, including this website, have used the word "feminist" to describe Claire. And, per usual, that leads us to yet another debate about whether something — this time a fictional character — is feminist or not.
(Spoiler alert, duh.)
The conversation surrounding Claire’s place in the canon of on-screen feminists begins with her first big solo CNN interview. Pressured by the interviewer to explain why she had an abortion, Claire shares that she was raped by a college boyfriend who has since ascended to become a general. The truth is, Claire calculatingly steered a conversation that could’ve been about how she had three abortions into one that targeted her attacker and made her abortion a moot point.
And while Claire lied, she did deliver long-awaited justice to her attacker — so that’s a win for her and for feminism, right? Well, according to Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, what about all the other horrible shit Claire does on a regular basis? Here’s his list:
- She illegally cancels the health insurance of a former employee to deprive her of the medicine her fetus needs, using the maneuver as leverage in making her wrongful-termination lawsuit go away. Claire says, "I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required."
- She knows and does not object to the fact that her husband is sleeping with a 22-year-old reporter, partly in order to wield psychological control over her; she is fine with his plan to destroy the young reporter; and the show strongly implies that she looks the other way when her husband murders the reporter.
- An ambitious female assistant to the president is fired when Claire disingenuously implies to the first lady that she is having an affair with the president. Claire pretends to befriend the first lady and manipulates her into going to marriage counseling in order to facilitate her husband's downfall as president.
- While working on an anti-sexual assault bill, Claire pressures another woman who was raped by the same general—and who struggles with suicidal thoughts—to come forward, insisting the political payoff will be worth the significant personal sacrifice. But later, after the younger woman comes forward and suffers, it turns out that continuing to push the bill would have a political cost for Claire, at which point she opportunistically drops the legislation.
Women need Claire as a feminist ally like a fish needs a wood-chopper.
Friedersdorf suggests that Claire is actually not a feminist at all, she’s just a ruthless pragmatist like her husband Francis. Rearranging and conflating her rape and abortion stories just worked for her in the moment. She might cry on the stairs after visiting the woman she basically pushed to the point of suicide, you know, she sucks it up and returns to her other plan of dismantling the President’s marriage via his wife. Claire don’t care. But Friedersdorf thinks we as viewers want her to be redeemable because she’s powerful, almost as if we have to find an excuse to allow ourselves to like she because she’s such an awful person.
In contrast, the impulse to celebrate Claire Underwood as a feminist, or to romanticize her Season Two persona, perfectly illustrates our problematic attitudes toward the powerful, which is to say, our inclination toward power worship and ignoring abuses.
He goes on with a litany of other female characters who are good people but go down in flames — the first lady, the president’s chief of staff Linda Vasquez, the imprisoned call girl's christian girlfriend — noting that the audience isn’t really encouraged to root for any of them. Except for Jackie Sharp, because after selling out the man who helped and bankrolled her career, she casts him into the fire on her path to success.
Maybe Claire is too evil for the audience to like in good conscience, and perhaps her feminism was opportunistic — but there’s no denying the vulnerability with which Wright plays her character. An antihero can be as evil as they want but it is vulnerability that draws us in as viewers. The messiness that allows us to relate, and that is what makes Claire so fun to watch and a feminist favorite during her abortion conundrum. As Tracie wrote on Jezebel earlier this week, Claire "knew she'd never be able to actually explain the real circumstances" of her abortion; this is the sort of problem that pro-choice feminists rail against. It's the idea that personal decisions like abortion shouldn't be at the mercy of the public or the court of public opinion. Fighting that is a feminist act.
If we refer to the simplest definition of feminism and rope in Claire, that just means that she supports "the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men" — but that doesn't mean she's going to be a sweetheart about it. In a show rooted in "ruthless pragamatism," if another female character started climbing the ladder, I'm sure Claire would be more than supportive. So long as it served the Underwoods grand scheme, anyhow.
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