I just came across this piece in the The Atlantic entitled "Feminism, Depravity and Power in House of Cards" that I think gives a very nuanced view of the reasons why labeling Claire Underwood a feminist after the season two release of House of Cards might be a contentious pronouncement. I have to say, I really like it. It manages to articulate the nuances of the conflicting things I feel about Claire's character in a very good way, and it makes some great points that hadn't even occurred to me as I was parsing the issue on my own. One of the quotes that really stuck out to me was this one:
Several observers go even farther, arguing that Claire isn't a feminist so much as a right-wing caricature of a feminist: a ruthless, calculating, power-hungry career woman who stabs other women in the back and uses abortion as birth control. Cognizant of the way that she uses the sexual-assault bill to raise her political profile, only to abandon it when doing so is useful political leverage, Mollie Hemingway writes that "it’s sort of like House of Cards is running the Democratic playbook’s ‘War on Women’ as a major storyline," except without the mainstream-media filter, "we get to see how calculated and manipulative it really is.”
Emphasis mine. Now this hadn't really occurred to be in the course of thinking through this, but I actually think this might be a pretty accurate assessment. The basic tenets of feminism are there; she's pro-choice, against sexual assault, a rape survivor who is able to get respite from her rapist, she champions a bill to combat sexual assault in the military. And yet, the way she treats the other women in the show, as the piece notes, is also quite illuminating. As the author notes:
"Women need Claire as a feminist ally like a fish needs a wood-chopper."
I laughed, but he has a point. Female solidarity is largely non-existent to Claire. Her loyalties are to her husband. She may help you, if your agenda aligns with hers, but as we see with the young private who risks her reputation and her mental health to come forward to corroborate Claire's story that her rapist is, in fact a rapist, she will abandon you the second your motives diverge from hers. And heaven help you if manage to find yourself in her crosshairs like poor Gillian did.
This quote also stood out to me as a good way to look at why people really want Claire to be a feminist. The ingredients, after all, are all there:
"House of Cards contains elements this season that have understandable appeal to feminists, and that appeal to me for many of the same reasons. Rape and sexual assault in the military are major problems that merit wider attention and reforms. Compelling female characters on popular television shows are still too rare. Seeing Claire's rapist get his comeuppance was a rare moment when a villain on the show got what was coming to him, and the writers handled the scene where Frank discovered the identity of Claire's rapist deftly, preserving her empowered attitude in a way that was totally consistent with her character. "She didn’t let Frank be the vengeful husband," Leigh Kolb astutely observes. "She stopped him, and then kept her power by talking about the assault. It wasn’t presented as if her sexuality was Frank’s to protect; the experience was hers. She wants to let her husband in, but she doesn’t want him to avenge her honor. That’s her job."
And it's true. While I despise the "rape as backstory" trope in general, those scenes did stand out to me as ones in which a rape survivor was able to deal with her assault on her own terms. I personally think the second scene in particular (where Claire discusses the assault with Frank while they are in bed) primes us to be much more sympathetic of her fabrication during the interview. By then, we know what she's been through and how it has affected her, and because we so desperately want her to win, we are more than willing to forgive her indiscretion as an example that "the ends justify the means." Don't we all wish we could have been so clever as to gain political sympathy and avenge an injustice in one fell swoop?
The Atlantic piece touches on a number of other points that I think really support the idea that she is essentially, amoral; driven solely by self-interest. Her values change to suit the climate. She, like her husband, is a political chameleon, easily able to switch loyalties when the situation demands it. She is the Lady Macbeth to Frank's Iago.
In the end, I think that our ambiguous moral reaction to Claire is a reflection of the way we are meant to react to the show in totality. We make excuses for Claire because we want to like her, which means she has to be redeemable in our minds, in the same way that we make excuses for Frank even though his body counts stands at two, and by the end of the season he's conned his way into the presidency. But when it comes to Claire specifically, I think the author gets it right about her relationship to feminist viewers:
"In real life, it's easy to find excuses for the shortcomings of our leaders, especially those who echo our beliefs and might plausibly advance our preferred policies. Seeming depravity by a powerful person who agrees with us? Why, they're just playing by the rules of a corrupt system, unlike those people on the other side!"
It's a morbid view, sure, but if the plot had called for the sexual assault bill to be passed, would we even be having this conversation? (Ok, probably, given her other morally objectionable decisions, but you get the point!)
Personally, I love the show, and I love Claire's character, but I don't think she's a feminist. I do think however, that the existence of a character like Claire is very feminist. We've completely saturated the male anti-hero market with our Walter Whites and our Don Drapers. To have a prominent female character created to be every bit as conniving, manipulative and beguiling as the men around her means that we're opening up to the idea that women are unique creatures with complex personalities, and we're not all smiling blandly beside our men.
Editor's Note: Trudy of Gradient Lair wrote an amazing response piece to my essay entitled "Olivia Pope," "Clair Underwood" And The Desire For Feminist Female Characters On Television. Definitely head over there and check it out for an even more full picture of Claire Underwood and her relationship to feminism.