Feminism, Depravity, and Power in House of Cards

Claire Underwood and the seductive appeal of ruthless winners

House of Cards, which recently released its second season on Netflix, is a series "intent on congratulating the viewer for being suspicious of politicians," says TV critic Todd VanDerWerff, "but it’s not particularly interested in examining root causes for political corruption." Is that so? My reaction to the show is different. As Ian Crouch argued in The New Yorker, its dark vision of Washington "expresses an implicit contempt for the American public," since we are the ones "who tolerate and thus perpetuate" its "real-life theatre of venality and aggression." The polity's attitude toward power is one root cause of D.C. corruption. 

How many House of Cards viewers root for Frank Underwood's rise, or at least condone his moral code of "ruthless pragmatism"? The show is certainly tempting us to do so, just as Breaking Bad's writers tempted us to root for Walter White. Pondering that show, Ross Douthat wrote that it challenges audiences to actually justify their moral norms: "Why is it so wrong to kill strangers—often dangerous strangers!—so that your own family can survive and prosper? Why is it wrong to exploit people you don’t see or care about for the sake of those inside your circle? Why is Walter White’s empire-building—carried out with boldness, brilliance and guile—not an achievement to be admired?"

House of Cards raises similar questions. Why is Vice President Underwood's "ruthless pragmatism" wrong? An interesting column could perhaps be written about his apologists. Yet the more interesting questions the series raises in its second season actually involve his wife, Claire, played with cold, hard brilliance by Robin Wright. In Season One, she was her husband's ruthless co-conspirator in advancing his career. As Season Two is reviewed and discussed, no character has been more polarizing—or so I gather from the most provocative assertions made in recent House of Cards responses: that Claire is a "feminist warrior anti-hero," as Tracy Egan Morrissey argues at Jezebel, and that, according to Amanda Marcotte's related theory, "the show has abruptly shifted into one of TV's most feminist offerings." 

A Quick, Spoiler-Filled Plot Summary

A bit of background is useful here. Early in Season Two, viewers learn that Claire was raped as a college student by a classmate who later became a high-ranking general—in fact, Claire's husband, in his role as vice president, is charged with pinning a military decoration on the rapist. Claire insists that Frank discharge his duties as planned, but the commissioning ceremony brings back painful memories and sets the stage for a key scene.

In that scene, Frank and Claire are supposed to appear together for a live, nationally televised interview, but an anthrax scare leaves Frank trapped at the U.S. Capitol. Claire decides to do the interview alone. CNN's Ashleigh Banfield presses her to explain why she has never had children, and raises an old rumor that she had an abortion during one of her husband's first political campaigns—a rumor that is actually true. In fact, House of Cards viewers know that Claire has had three abortions: As she puts it to an aide, she cannot reveal the truth about them because "the first two I was a teenager, and I was reckless," while she and Frank agreed to terminate the third pregnancy in its 16th week "because we were focused on the campaign."

Here's how the interview played out:

Interviewer: He suggested that in order to keep your husband's political career on track ... He claimed that you may have been pregnant during the campaign. Was there a pregnancy? Have you ever been pregnant?

Claire: Yes.

Interviewer: During the campaign?

Claire: Before.

Interviewer: Was it a miscarriage?

Claire: No. 

Interviewer: Did you terminate the pregnancy?

Claire: If I said yes, my husband's political career would be in jeopardy. My faith would be questioned. Likely my life would be threatened. But I won't feel ashamed.

Yes, I was pregnant, and yes, I had an abortion. 

After a brief break, the interviewer asks if Claire is willing to discuss the circumstances of her abortion, and she replies that she was raped and impregnated. 

Claire: It was college. A classmate. We were dating. And it happened—we had a fight. And he forced himself on me.

Interviewer: Did you tell anybody about it? Was he charged?

Claire: No, because at the time I thought I was somehow at fault. I knew I wasn't. But I just didn't want to be stared at. I didn't want to be known as the girl who got raped. And when I became pregnant I wasn't going to drop out of school. I wasn't going to let this man ruin my life. So I made a choice. I ended it.

Interviewer: But if you never told anybody about it the assailant could still be out there. Can you tell us anything about him?

Claire: I saw him for the first time in almost 30 years just a few months ago ... at a commissioning ceremony that Francis and I attended. 

Interviewer: Did you speak to him?

Claire: Briefly. Francis pinned stars on him. 

Interviewer: He was being commissioned?

Claire: General Dalton McGuinness.

She named the man who actually raped her, but lied about being impregnated by the rape, the timing of her third pregnancy, and her real reason for terminating it: political ambition.

The Case for Claire Underwood as Feminist

Writing on the abortion-reveal scene at Jezebel, Tracy Egan Morrissey extols Claire's strategy, arguing that she was in a tough spot and managed to lie in a way that did good:

... she knew that she'd never be able to actually explain the real circumstances—that she and Frank didn't have the time or emotional means to care for a child. What she knew is that she wasn't ashamed of her choices, and wouldn't be made to feel that way. So she needed to think quickly, in order to maintain the integrity of her convictions, but not rub people the wrong way with her truth.

So she came up with a version of the truth that also touched on a deeper injustice in Claire's life... The supposed pregnancy was a moot point; the rape is the real reveal. And with a small, maybe irrelevant falsehood, Claire was able to expose a greater, far more important truth: A decorated military general was a rapist. In the context of House of Cards' amoral, political spin machine, the end justifies the means.

Amanda Marcotte points to the same scene to argue that House of Cards "has abruptly shifted into one of TV's most feminist offerings ... channeling its cult status into an opportunity to tell rich, honest stories about women's lives without having to kowtow to the tender sensibilities of the conservatives in the audience." Impressed that Claire shifts the interview to rape in the military, she writes:

Granted, Claire's story isn't exactly true. Yes, she's had an abortion (three, it turns out), and yes, she was raped by this man. It's just that none of her pregnancies were caused by this rape, and one of Claire's abortions happened because she and her husband chose together not to have a baby. Claire is a character who is frequently portrayed as a scheming, immoral liar, but for once, her truth-fudging comes across as entirely sympathetic. The implication is that the American public will forgive aborting a rape-caused pregnancy but would never forgive someone who rebels against the expectation that she must have children with her husband. To protect herself from the intrusive condemnation of people she's never met, she pretty much has to lie. 

Interestingly, no anti-choicers protest or threaten Claire until after the tabloid press starts a rumor that she is an adulteress. This decision on the part of the show ends up driving home the idea that anti-abortion sentiment stems mainly from a desire to control female sexuality. Once the infidelity rumor gets out, Claire's house is constantly bombarded; she's even put under security lockdown because of the threats. Her confinement seriously cramps her ability to drum up support for an anti-rape bill that is working its way through Congress. In one scene, she's meeting a fellow rape victim to discuss the bill, and they have to talk over the din from the protesters outside. The symbolism is striking: two women, trying to do something to stop violence against women, hemmed in by people who are singularly obsessed with exerting control. Sexual violence, bullying, and anti-choice ideology are presented as part of a whole cloth, a mass of injustice that women have to push back against. It's an excellent rendering of how the war on women feels.

Claire Underwood's Detractors

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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