Feminism, Depravity, and Power in House of Cards

By Conor Friedersdorf

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

Judging by their online musings, Claire Underwood detractors have reached a dramatically different conclusion about whether she is feminist or, if she is a feminist, what that says about feminism. These detractors mostly agree, as do I, that Claire's interviewer was guilty of unseemly prying into her personal life; that public figures shouldn't be forced to answer questions about why they opted against having children; and that it's awfully satisfying to see Claire out her rapist. There are, in addition, no real objections to the merits of the reform bill that Claire urges, which would aim to reduce sex crimes in the military, in part by imposing civilian oversight when allegations of rape or sexual assault are made. 

What Claire's detractors can't stomach are sympathetic assessments of her character—especially sympathetic takes labeling her a feminist—given her sociopathic behavior, and especially the terrible things she does to other female characters:

  • She illegally cancels the health insurance of a former employee to deprive her of the medicine her fetus needs, using the maneuver as leverage in making her wrongful-termination lawsuit go away. Claire says, "I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required."
  • She knows and does not object to the fact that her husband is sleeping with a 22-year-old reporter, partly in order to wield psychological control over her; she is fine with his plan to destroy the young reporter; and the show strongly implies that she looks the other way when her husband murders the reporter.
  • An ambitious female assistant to the president is fired when Claire disingenuously implies to the first lady that she is having an affair with the president.
  • Claire pretends to befriend the first lady and manipulates her into going to marriage counseling in order to facilitate her husband's downfall as president.
  • While working on an anti-sexual assault bill, Claire pressures another woman who was raped by the same general—and who struggles with suicidal thoughts—to come forward, insisting the political payoff will be worth the significant personal sacrifice. But later, after the younger woman comes forward and suffers, it turns out that continuing to push the bill would have a political cost for Claire, at which point she opportunistically drops the legislation.

Women need Claire as a feminist ally like a fish needs a wood-chopper.

More generally, Claire's behavior suggests that what motivates her, far more than any other factor, is power-seeking. She seeks to advance her husband's political career at all costs, and to empower herself by extension of his position. As one commenter at Jezebel described her, "She is willing to do anything, lie, destroy lives, end the life of a woman's fetus, destroy careers, drive people to suicide, and probably look the other way while murders are committed to advance her and her husband's plans for power. She is not a feminist hero. She is the most devastatingly self serving, amoral, and reptilian female character I can recall from any TV show ... She feels occasional guilt, but continues with her evil ways."

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.”

The Temptation of Ruthless Pragmatism 

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."

When Claire was pretending that passing the sexual-assault bill was her priority, she expressed all sorts of noble sentiments. "They’re loud," she said of the protesters shouting outside her house and the Capitol, "but I think we need to be louder." And while I don't think that "anti-abortion sentiment stems mainly from a desire to control female sexuality," as Marcotte argues, she is certainly right that some Americans are, in fact, intent on controlling female sexuality, and that their sense of entitlement is related to sexual assault and rape. 

There is, finally, the fact that Claire Underwood, like most feminists who have praised parts of her Season Two persona, is a pro-choice Democrat. It's only natural that other pro-choice Democrats would like that. For all these reasons, I see why feminists would celebrate House of Cards, even as Will Rahn, whose focus and interpretations are different, has declared it "The Most Tea Party Show Ever" in a Daily Caller review. A plausible case can be made for both of those readings and many others.

In contrast, the impulse to celebrate Claire Underwood as a feminist, or to romanticize her Season Two persona, perfectly illustrates our problematic attitudes toward the powerful, which is to say, our inclination toward power worship and ignoring abuses. House of Cards has a number of non-sociopathic female characters. The well-intentioned first lady does her best to stand up for herself and her marriage. Linda Vasquez, the president's chief of staff, is a capable, well-meaning professional whose sage advice is ignored. The churchgoing woman who befriends Rachel, the former escort in hiding, is kind, self-confident, and strong. And the woman suing Claire is a talented, successful single-mother-to-be who helps impoverished kids. Yet Claire Underwood is held up as the promising sign for feminism.

Why? 

Candice Frederick hits on the reason in her glowing assessment of Claire's character. "While she is unethical at times, without a doubt a homage to the realities of inside political culture,* she is within bounds and has compassion for others and honor for herself" she writes. "She's not a likable character ... not someone I would ... invite to my next movie night at home. But she's definitely someone I would want in my rolodex, someone who could give me free life coach sessions ... Whether you think of her as a hero, villain or antihero, Claire is winning." 

Political elites will never be angels. But America is in deep trouble if the prevailing reaction to a ruthless, self-serving, power-hungry sociopath is to assess her political effectiveness, see if her policy positions accord with ours, and only then decide whether to reject her or, if she is "a winner," to embrace her as long as she stays one. Every moral judgment would quickly becomes suspect. Does the House of Cards audience really hate General McGuinness because he's a rapist—or is it because he is a disgraced loser? Forgive me for wondering about the subset of the audience that cheers Claire for destroying him, then in the very next scene cheers Claire's political partner, the guy who threw Zoe in front of a subway car. 

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!

David Brooks is always reassuring us about how well-meaning our elites are. In fairness to his perspective, benefits of the doubt aren't always wasted on the undeserving. Yet House of Cards reveals our alarming inability to resist or condemn the powerful even when their depravity is revealed to us in the most unambiguous terms. If any human beings are evil, then Frank and Claire Underwood are evil. A root cause of political corruption is our aversion to treating them as we would less powerful people who are equally evil. We need a Hank Schrader.

 

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*Notice how Frank and Claire are always characterized as succumbing to the realities of the political culture. Who creates and perpetuates that culture if not them?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/02/feminism-depravity-and-power-in-em-house-of-cards-em/283960/