Claire Underwood, Sole Survivor

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On Facebook, reader Mike Safar argues that my story on Claire Underwood’s shoes “misses the point.” House of Cards, he explains, “is based on Richard III / Shakespeare. Claire’s heels are analogous to her sword, and she’s always on the attack and would never leave her sword too far away. It’s allegorical.”

And: Certainly. The show definitely takes its cues from Elizabethan tragedy. (I’d say more Macbeth than Richard III, but the beauty of a show like this is that it is expansive enough to accommodate many, many interpretations.) As I note in my article, Claire’s shoes, indeed, do have a (symbolically) martial purpose: They function, for her, as a kind of armor. I agree that Claire’s shoes are, in their way, weaponized. (“Stiletto,” after all, comes from the Italian for “dagger.”)

But to say that a metaphor is all the shoes are is also, I think, to miss another point. Claire isn’t simply an allegory, any more than any House of Cards character is. To call her that, I think—really, to dismiss her as that—undermines House of Cards as a work of literature. What makes any show like HoC artistically powerful is its ability to present characters who can operate seamlessly on several levels of meaning and implication—who are believable as people, essentially, as well as symbols. Claire, I think, for all the soap operatics (and, yes, for all the symbolism) her show has foisted upon her, has been fundamentally believable. That is what has made her such a good character.

But, as I said in my story: Omni-present heels, in a character who is also meant to function as a human woman, are simply not believable. They are glaringly, strikingly unrealistic. Mike might not have ever spent hours walking around in stilettos; he might not have flung them off in relief the moment he’s arrived home. He’ll have to trust me, then, when I assure him that—as I said in the story—no woman would just hang out around her house wearing them. Even when that woman is Claire Underwood.

Her perma-pumps might well have been a silly oversight on the part of House of Cards’s producers; I’d rather, though, give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that, with their choice of footwear, they were adding to Claire’s character rather than detracting from it. The shoes are making a point, I think, about Claire’s relationship with Francis and her relationship with her government and her relationship with herself. So I’d agree with Mike that Claire’s shoes are serving as symbols; I’d also say, however, that they’re doing much, much more than that.