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Feminspire | April 23, 2014

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Claire Underwood: The Ice Bitch of Netflix’s “House of Cards”

Claire Underwood: The Ice Bitch of Netflix’s “House of Cards”

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.

[Spoilers ahead!]

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.

Claire and Frank Underwood

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

  • Scott

    It is a stretch to say that Frank is ‘lauded’ for his behaviour. I would say that both he and Claire present a ‘politically correct’ exterior, but their deeply flawed moral characters are quickly revealed. Both characters are presented as duplicitous, calculating and ruthless. I think you are too quick to interpret this show through a lens of sexism. Don’t you think it is appropriate that Frank Underwood would be paired with a woman who is equally ambitious and sociopathic, someone with whom he can conspire?

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  • Mario Gp

    Thank you for that. We all love empowered people. We love someone like Gillian.
    Is this article supposed to make us see that Claire wanted to bring water to the poor? Come on!
    Have you seen the same show and the two Underwoods’ agenda??
    She’s horrible (delightfully so, but still horrible) and it’s not because she is a woman. She and her husband are the same. But in her case (for me, at least) it seems more hypocritical given that she is out there “saving the world” (And I love to see that new approach of the NGOs, by the way).

    And after watching the first episode of the second season and seeing what she’s able to do to another pregnant woman with conviction, are we still supposed to root for her just because she is a woman with power?

    • Lauren Slavin

      Because Claire doesn’t break the fourth wall as Frank does, which lets us know how cold he is, all we see is how she is viewed by those who understand her motivations (her husband) and those who don’t (Gillian, for example).

      I never argue that Claire is horrible for being a woman — merely that “House of Cards” proves the double standard men and women face in reality.

      Frank leaks a college newspaper editorial *maybe* written by the secretary of state appointed over him to have him replaced with someone who now “owes him” for the recommendation (which we see him follow through with in the second season). No one but Zoe (and the viewer) knows that Frank was in control of that situation, so no one can call him on it. Michael Kern never gets to tell Frank “You don’t give a fuck” about Israeli relations.

      But when Claire fires her secretary, that’s what Evelyn says to her. Claire had explained why she is letting most of her staff go (a calculated decision). Her secretary tells her its a bad idea, and Claire tells her she’s doing it anyway. And she gets the full brunt of honest anger when she also fires Evelyn.

      She and Frank have an agenda, but for most of the first season, only Claire is called on it.

  • Lauren Slavin

    The point I argue in relation to Frank in season one is that he is the master of manipulation on the Hill. Take, for example, his leaking of the first draft of fellow Representative Donald Blythe. Underwood uses Blythe’s commitment to education reform to use him, and after Underwood leaks the proposed legislation, Blythe *himself* asks Frank to take over the bill! Why would Blythe give him that opportunity to get on the president’s good side if he knew it was not for the good of the people he serves, but his own self interests?

    It isn’t until much later in the season that people like labor union leader Marty Spinella call him on his BS, and Frank lets the facade (again, the facade he keeps up as a politician) fall to say things like “I’ve got a dead, underprivileged kid in my pocket” not to the viewer (who, like you say, know how terrible he is), but to show how ruthless he is willing to be to get his way. Frank wouldn’t have nearly as much political capital as he does if his fellow politicians saw him as the scumbag the viewers know him to be.

  • Nefer Iman

    While I agree overall with the assessment of Claire Underwood, I am disappointed by your rearrangement of story facts to support it. Gillian was not fired because she was pregnant, and not even because she didn’t agree with Claire. She had to go because Claire realized she would never be able to cooperate with the dirty side of CWI, which is that it takes dirty corporate money and favors. That is to say, you could have drawn an insightful comparison to Zoe and the show’s overall display of female manipulation.

    Also the three abortions are never explained. I personally would assume at least one or two were in college or right after, not all three of them being a sacrifice she made for the marriage. I’m sure you believe it’s all the same, but details are important and probably would have allowed you to right a more airtight and insightful argument.