If you’ve been watching Netflix’s political drama House of Cards as if it was weekly-released (and not binge watching all 13 episodes in one weekend… not that I did that), the show would be on its 10th episode.
Master manipulator Frank Underwood has embarrassed the secretary of state nominee who took his promised position out of office, plotted to help an indebted representative elected to governor of Pennsylvania, and, most recently, watched a bill he put all his efforts into passing fail by two lousy votes.
This comes after weeks of planning, pulling in favors, planting news stories. How could Washington’s puppet master be undermined in such a way? Because behind every great man is an even greater woman, poised with a knife to stab him in the back, in this case, Claire Underwood, Frank’s wife.
But is that really what happened? Can you boil down the politics of a marriage down to an act of defiance outside the home? We previously discussed how House of Cards dismantled the credibility of women, journalists, and female journalists through the character of Zoe Barnes. Now, we take a look at Claire, played by Golden Globe nominee Robin Wright.
As we continue watching “House of Cards,” Frank Underwood’s politically correct, all-American façade fades to show the cruel and twisted man beneath his relationships with key players in Washington. The exact opposite is true of his wife. From her blunt blonde bob to her immaculately pressed pantsuits, Claire Underwood screams, “ice bitch” in a way Hilary Clinton haters can only dream of.
Which is strange, given her profession: Claire is a philanthropist, the director of the nonprofit Clean Water Initiative, which obviously aims to bring clean water to Third World and war-torn nations.
Whereas celebrity philanthropists take compassion to new heights to advance their goals, Claire’s efforts are calculating. Take Angelina Jolie, recently named special envoy for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. She’s opened an all-girls school in Afghanistan, visited Syrian refugees in Jordan, not to mention bringing her work home through the adoption of three children from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam.
Claire literally fires everyone in her employ to bring on fresh faces of philanthropy, which even her potential new hires – who will have far more resources to do good than ever before while working with the Clean Water Initiative – find incredibly shady. One such charitable superstar is Gillian Cole, the organizer of Charity Well, which has made a name for itself despite limited funding. Claire hangs beautiful black and white photographs in her office of the poor and unfortunate souls her company provides for, which Gillian calls out as tacky for their flagrant exploitation.
Claire counters that the sale of just one of these exploitive photos can bring in enough cash to fund the kind of work Gillian could only dream of as a grassroots organizer, and in the end, Gillian agrees to come onboard.
Claire is the very definition of the ends justifying the means: Firing her 60-year-old secretary, who had been with the Clean Water Initiative since the beginning, is worth being able to pay a few new up-and-comers who may look better to potential donors.
Which brings us back to Frank’s bill. One of the bill’s dissenters, lobbyist Remy Danton, promises Claire enough money to hire back her old staff, plus move forward with a Clean Water project stalled due to customs regulations, if she kills the bill. When Claire is first presented with Remy’s offer, she asks Frank’s permission to take the bait. Like any husband controlling the family purse strings, he says no. But he offers to help her find a way to through her work dilemmas … just as soon as he sorts out all of his own problems.
While Frank and Claire seem to have a marriage of love (or at least deep caring), it’s also a marriage of convenience. After a fellow politician suffers health complications, Claire buys Frank an exercise machine and tries to get him to join her on daily runs. They also work together on campaigning, fundraising benefits, and media stunts. Claire KNOWS her husband can be a sack of shit, but she still goes along with all of his underhanded schemes, until the bill.
While it’s refreshing to see a female character in House of Cards, as well as countless other series, who isn’t flaunting her sexuality as her only weapon against the patriarchy that surrounds her, the same traits that Frank, and even the real-life male-dominated field of politicians, is lauded for make Claire the villain.
Claire runs away to be with a former lover in New York (remember those exploitive photos? Claire is screwing the photographer), and just as she knew about Frank’s affair with reporter Zoe Barnes, Frank is well aware of her liaison with photographer Adam. But there is something almost dirtier about Claire and Adam’s relationship than Frank and Zoe’s sex-for-stories trade: Claire and Adam have genuine feelings for one another, and in another life could have possibly been more than an occasional dalliance.
Not only is Claire making Frank a cuckold, she’s also a sexist! Gillian, who has been silently fuming about Claire’s less-than-pious philanthropy, announces she’s not cool with Claire’s business practices, and she’s pregnant. Perhaps because Claire has had it up to here with no one ever being satisfied with her efforts to save the world one water well at a time, or perhaps because we soon discover that Claire has had three abortions due to differing views with Frank on the matter of raising a family, Claire fires Gillian, who hits back with a discrimination lawsuit.
So, what? Frank can quite literally KILL on his quest to power, but Claire, who has given up almost all her agency in an effort to advance her husband’s political agenda, can’t make business decisions without backstabbing her husband, running into the arms of another man, or perpetuating girl hate? Claire is clearly an intelligent, capable woman running a successful non-profit and political marriage, but unable to stand up for herself with the same compassion she has for the Third World? Frank may be ruthless, but as a man, that only propels his career ambitions. Claire, like Hilary Clinton, will continue to suffer insults of anti-femininity.
I’ll look at one final female character in House of Cards in part three of this series. Read part one discussing the character of Zoe Barnes here.
Written by Lauren Slavin