Claire Underwood obliterates the conventional 'Strong Female Character' trope, and it’s about time
The sixth and final season of House of Cards opens with President Claire Underwood being briefed on a long list of disturbing and violent threats made against her on social media platforms. Given that these threats range from calling the president the c-word to fantasizing about chopping up her body parts, the vice president and Secret Service pressure Underwood to cancel an upcoming public appearance. In response, Claire declares: “The first female president of the United States is not going to keep her mouth shut on the Fourth of fucking July.”
This scene sets the tone for the entire season. Claire has a lot of adversity to contend with. She’s besieged by advisors who certainly don’t have her best interests in mind, a nefarious family who expect absolute obedience from her in exchange for a deal they made with Frank Underwood — her late husband and preceding president — and a war started by him. Claire clearly has an opportunity to transcend Frank’s murderous scheming and set a more uplifting example by preserving American democracy and empowering women in the process. And, early on in the series, it seems like she may take this route: Claire appoints an all-female cabinet. But as the women take the oath, Claire stares into the camera and declares: “I do solemnly swear...to take no prisoners.” From this point on, Claire truly comes into her own, forcefully pushing back against obstacles in her way and continuing to fight for power at any expense.
Claire’s choice will probably surprise viewers who are accustomed to watching heroines adhere to an unfair, sexist standard of perfection. On-screen heroines not only have to fight to save the world, but must also advance the cause of female empowerment while doing so. They are strong, but never stronger than their love interests; powerful, but not power-hungry. In 2017, we witnessed Wonder Woman take on the superhero mantle, but never demand recognition for doing so and falling in love with the male lead, who heroically sacrifices himself for the cause in the process. Before her vanilla challenge to patriarchal norms, Katniss Everdeen, after a life of society-saving, life-threatening battles, chose to yield her place in the revolution and retreat to a quiet life with her soulmate — after she spent three film installments agonizing over which man was the right choice, no less. Again and again, we confine strong female characters to narrow, predictable, feel-good standards of behavior.
Claire Underwood breaks the rules and does ugly things. She’s not there to convince men that powerful women aren’t scary, that their rise is somehow good for everybody. She’s there to take what she believes to be rightfully hers and she does not apologize. She goes from manipulating her acting attorney general to leak the story of her press secretary’s affair in order to protect herself to orchestrating the murders of two of the most remarkable and influential female characters on the show because they know too much. And she uses a midseason surprise pregnancy to exploit everyone around her.
None of these actions are a good look for the Strong Female Character, as some critics have warned viewers. For example, Bustle warned viewers that Claire’s cabinet “might not be as feminist as it looks,” while Glamour similarly cautioned that House of Cards is about women gaining power at the expense of other women. The criticism is warranted. But Claire’s ruthlessness, her ambition, her willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve power are also the same qualities that Frank Underwood, the original protagonist of the show, embodied as he turned the show into a cultural phenomenon in 2013. But because Claire is a woman, she can’t simply carry on the Frank’s legacy, but must also serve as a positive role model, a utopian vision of the measured female leadership that permeates our political narrative. Women, on TV and in real life, are punished for embodying the full spectrum of human emotions, including impatience, cruelty, and anger. One careless remark (“basket of deplorables,” anyone?) will unfailingly cost a woman who says it more than it would an ambitious man.
Instead of perpetuating this cycle that confines women to a narrow set of behaviors, fiction should present us with a world of alternatives, where anger is not stifled, and ambition is not a mortal sin. And that’s precisely what Claire Hale does for female viewers when she takes back her maiden name, remodels Frank’s bedroom, and threatens to posthumously indict him for his crimes. It’s this fiction that women can turn to as we grow increasingly tired of playing nice and accommodating men’s feelings. Claire holds up a mirror to this female exhaustion and rage, signaling that female representation is no longer about cajoling men into supporting us, but about allowing women to be actual humans rather than smiling moralistic robots. It’s time to recognize that women are not just capable of being strong, empowering, and considerate, but also enraged and power-hungry—just like men are and have long been allowed to be.
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