This guest post written by Abby Norman originally appeared at her blog on Medium and an edited version appears here as part of our theme week on Unpopular Opinions. It is cross-posted with permission.
From the beginning of House of Cards, Claire was the most compelling character for me — and I say this as a lifelong Kevin Spacey fan. But as much as Frank Underwood is an engaging protagonist, it’s never quite as interesting for me to see the inner workings of a bloodthirsty, power-hungry male character. As the seasons progressed, I found myself wishing that we were watching all of these events unfold not through Frank’s perspective, but Claire’s.
It may well be that she thinks much along the same lines as he does, so maybe the plot wouldn’t have been at all different — but if we want to watch upper-class, white, male politicians who lack empathy and engage in acts of greed and deceit, we just have to turn on CNN.
To me, Claire’s dichotomy, her struggle — her essence — is what has kept me watching the show season after season, even when certain elements of the plot grew stale. Within our culture, fictional and real, Claire Underwood should not be a heroine, she shouldn’t be likable or a character that we sympathize with. We shouldn’t logically be rooting for either of the Underwoods to succeed. They are at their cores very bad people. They are violent, ruthless, callous.
I can’t help but be captivated by Claire Underwood, and it has troubled me to the point where I’m writing a think piece about it. I should not want to emulate any aspect of her personality, no matter how successful she is. I should not covet her wardrobe, her marriage of power, her profession, her curiously unfeeling attitude toward other women.
I should not want to be anything like Claire Underwood.
The internet has been quick to call Claire a feminist, but I think she’s kind of the anti-feminist. Claire isn’t interested in women succeeding, she’s only interested in her own success. She’s not trailblazing for other women necessarily; if she’s shattered any glass it’s not been thoughtfully. Claire isn’t in the game for anyone but herself — and maybe Frank? But that’s unclear.
One thing I’m rather ashamed to admit I like about Claire is that while she’s selfish, she’s very clear and intentional about it. It’s not that she’s against what good may come out of her success for other people, she’s just not motivated by it. If, through her quest for power, the groundwork is laid for other women, so be it.
There’s something about Claire’s selfishness that I yearn for; it seems odd to say, I suppose, but I have this strange admiration for her because she’s just so unapologetically concerned with herself. I think, deep down, I’ve been guilty of that intense self-focus when it comes to my career, and some might argue that very quality is what brought me a modicum of success.
Still — I feel ulcerously guilty about it.
There’s always the caveat that by being a successful woman, you’re inevitably making some kind of personal sacrifice. Whether it be your marriage, or raising a family, or other relationships — invariably, you are pitied because you don’t have it all if you have a career of that magnitude. That formula presiding, it’s quite jarring when you realize that Claire Underwood has never given us any indication that she doesn’t think she’s got it all with what she has. That certitude is bewitching to me.
This is one of my favorite exchanges in House of Cards, like, ever.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve flinched at this type of question. How I’ve never known how to retort, because I’ve always been made to feel as though I’m wrong. That I’m being pitied — or in some scenarios — being looked down upon because of my lack of maternal goals. Claire doesn’t even flinch when it comes to volleying this question back to the asker, and to me, this is really the only response necessary. First of all, it’s a very personal question to ask a woman — not in the least because many women are infertile, and are not choosing childlessness. Second, because it levels the playing field — if Claire can (if I can) be assumed to regret not having children, shouldn’t it be equally as possible for a woman to regret having them?
For those who choose to be child-free, there’s a constant barrage of, “Oh, you’ll change your mind!” — as if to say that we will, eventually, succumb to our biology, even if it doesn’t fit into our lifestyle — that somehow, motherhood is an inescapable reality for a woman and to actively side-step it makes you an unsympathetic, unfeeling, callous woman. If you choose to elevate anything above parenthood, you’re despicably selfish. Sometimes I’ve had these conversations with women and I’ve gotten the distinct feeling that the reason they continuously inquire about my decision about children is because they want me to be just as miserable as they are. They resent my freedom, my sense of self, and the success that I’ve achieved. They are, perhaps, second-guessing their choice but feel they cannot admit it without being perceived as a bad mother, a bad person.
I, however, could change my mind only to be lauded for it. It’s then I realize that the conversation isn’t about me or my choices. It’s about theirs.
Obviously, this isn’t always the case; I have plenty of friends who are very happy and fulfilled being mothers, and in fact, these women rarely, if ever, ask me about children. If it comes up casually in a conversation, these women are satisfied with my answer, because they recognize that it has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on them. What I do — or do not do — with my uterus doesn’t define them at all.
When it comes to men, to marriage, Claire goes beyond demanding equality; she wants more power than Frank. She has never been content to be the woman behind the man, because his success is not particularly valuable to her unless it benefits her agenda. Or, occasionally, their shared agenda. The self-possessed mercenary Frank Underwood and his clan of political marauders have figured out, after four seasons, that they must keep Claire close not because she is an asset but rather, because she’s an adversary. Claire Underwood could don those savage black leather gloves and destroy this entire game in one fell swoop. If House of Cards was about Claire, and her power, this show could have started and ended in a single episode.
The magnetic sexual energy that is the undercurrent between not just Claire and Frank — but Claire, Frank, and any number of other characters — is the singular, inescapable human foible that humanizes them. Her marriage to Frank is, in many ways, an abusive, detestable, festering hazard. The volatile core of their union is exemplified when they’re separated, but blisteringly magnified when they are reunited. They could, and do, succeed separately but together they are dynamic, unstoppable — and what they love about the other partner is what they can aggrandize in each other.
The Underwoods are not so much married to one another as they are married to themselves, and it’s a terrifyingly brilliant match. Still, we are given subtle signs over the seasons, that culminate with Frank’s physical weakness in season four, that Claire has a certain power over him. With a spine-tingling sensuality, she is the only person who calls him Francis rather than Frank, and while you could construe this as intimacy, it feels more possessive than affectionate. And something tells me that Frank actually finds this enduringly arousing.
Much of what makes besmirching Claire Underwood villainous is also what I can’t help but find admirable about her — and at first, this made me question myself. Do I have sociopathic tendencies? Am I, at my core, a heartless, ruthless shrew? But then I thought, perhaps, it could be possible that we’ve vilified every aspect of Claire Underwood because our culture is inherently threatened by her.
She’s the personification of what a patriarchal society is most fearful of, so, in characterizing her firstly as this strong, successful, indurated woman she must also, therefore, be a remorseless murderer too. Because God forbid she’s a career-climbing, child-free, influential, and tenacious woman without also being an unambiguously horrible person, devoid of a conscience; a heart. If women find themselves gravitating toward Claire Underwood, coveting everything from her wardrobe to her regency, it’s not because we’re all veiled villains or people who lack a conscience — it’s because we’re fascinated by the mating of power and evil, especially in a woman who should inherently and historically be neither powerful or corrupt.
The female archetype is perceived as naive, gentle, and kind. It’s classically warm and maternal, soft and practically soundless. So when a woman is smart and savvy, when she’s firm, tough, edgy, and cold, when she thwarts her feminine nature by being child-free, when she makes her voice heard, she becomes BAD because she is the antithesis of this widely held exemplar. She is no longer the opposite of man. She no longer complements him.
Claire Underwood has to be a villain because we aren’t ready for a world where she’s a heroine.
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Abby Norman is a journalist and writer. She’s currently working on a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured in The Rumpus, The Establishment, Medium, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen Magazine, The Independent, Quartz, Bustle, and others. She lives in New England with her dog, Whimsy, and wishes Gilda Radner would haunt her apartment. She’s represented by Tisse Takagi in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @abbymnorman.