Wednesday 20 March 2019

Is House of Cards' Claire Underwood TV's greatest ever female character?

Could Claire Underwood in 'House of Cards' become TV's greatest-ever female character, asks Celia Walden

Robin Wright stars as Claire Underwood, the scheming First Lady in Netflix drama, ‘House of Cards’
Robin Wright stars as Claire Underwood, the scheming First Lady in Netflix drama, ‘House of Cards’
Claire with husband Frank — now President of the United States — played by Kevin Spacey

Celia Walden

Disappointed House of Cards fans who have already devoured the 10 hours and 55 minutes of Netflix's third series of the Washington DC drama have taken to the internet to ask: is Kevin Spacey's scheming anti-hero, Frank Underwood, losing his evil appeal?

They needn't worry, because Underwood's wife, Claire, is happy to take the mantle. For all the niggling let-downs with the latest series - no spoilers here - its leading lady, played by Robin Wright, is now not only the show's star, she has emerged as the First Lady of TV drama.

This series' tagline is: "Behind every great man is a woman with blood on her hands."

Those who have followed David Fincher's award-winning drama from its inception will know that Claire Underwood hasn't been washing the giblets in preparation for Frank's dinner. The blood on her hands may have been spilled by her murderous husband but, as the driving force in their marriage and a modern-day Lady Macbeth, she is in no hurry to wash it off.

When she stares into the camera, her eyes slit, her handsome jaw set, the planes of her face turn as hard, sculpted and unyielding as Mount Rushmore.

With all the stately grandeur of a Classical heroine coupled with the resolve of female dictators such as Cleopatra and Catherine the Great, Underwood, rather than appal female viewers, inspires admiration - even, chillingly, a desire to emulate her methods. After all, who doesn't yearn to have Claire's control over her husband?

House of Cards writer Beau Willimon hints that Underwood becoming the sociopathic star of the show was intended all along. "I have zero interest in likeability," he says. "I think it's horseshit. I'm only interested in attraction, and I don't just mean sexual attraction. I mean that a character is so compelling that, whatever you might think of them, you cannot take your eyes off them - and that's what I aim for with Claire: that mix of entrancement and horror.

"In many ways, I see Claire and Frank as the same animal: two people who are liberated in so far as they don't bind themselves to any ideology or ethical standards.

"As people who do not feel they have to play by the rules, they really are completely self-serving - and they think that's OK."

The audience comes to believe this, too, since together this heathen pair have managed to achieve everything they set out to do without incurring any punishment.

House of Cards' third series opened with Frank as US President, having worked his way up from Democratic congressman and House of Representatives Majority Whip through a series of double-crossings, cheatings and murders. When he urinates on his father's grave, the press corps is kept just far enough away to believe that he is, touchingly, paying his respects.

But as the new power-dressing First Lady, Claire certainly isn't playing second fiddle to her husband. In the first series, Frank, with his trademark emotionless delivery, points out that "power is a lot like real estate. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value".

"Claire now can't get any closer," Willimon tells me. "Is her new role more one of support? Maybe - but then, the amount of influence she wields, the proximity she has, is huge. Like the Empress Theodora, the most powerful woman in Byzantine history, or, in American history, Edith Wilson, who successfully took over the White House after Woodrow Wilson had a stroke, Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton: these women don't confine themselves to whispering in their husband's ear. They have extraordinary accomplishments in their own right."

That much is true. Yet, in many ways, today's tough TV heroines run against the feminist ideologies of our time, their agendas being almost entirely constructed around their men. And Claire Underwood has much more invested in her husband's career than her own.

"There's a fine balance to be struck by the writers of these dramas," says screenwriter and academic Dr Helen Jacey, author of The Woman in the Story.

"If they were single and not defined by a romantic relationship with a man, you would get accusations that the 'kick-ass' female character who doesn't need anyone is too male, so it's about making them believable."

Claire may be completely in control, but she is not without traditional female vulnerabilities, which only add to her charisma. "In the pilot," says Dr Jacey, "the series opens with Claire feeling acutely threatened that she is losing control of Frank because he hasn't phoned her for eight hours. Similarly, the sexual abuse and subsequent abortions we discover Claire went through in Season Two give her emotional wounds that somehow legitimise the defence mechanisms and strategies that make up her mask."

Even these wounds, however, are used and manipulated by Underwood. In pursuit of a higher goal, she leads people to believe that she only aborted her child because it was the product of a rape by a decorated military general. Just a few episodes earlier, she cuts off health insurance to a disgruntled and pregnant former employee with the words: "I'm willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that's what's required." Her morals may not be defined by any feminist ideology, but her lack of maternal impulse is pleasing to feminists who see a happy state of childlessness in our fictional heroines as being the last taboo.

"Because Claire is not a mother," says Dr Jacey, "it keeps the possibilities going and the drama turning. She knows exactly who she is. She may not be having it all, in the conventional sense, but she is certainly not juggling, which makes her pretty unique."

What draws us to tough TV leading ladies such as Underwood, explains media psychologist Dr Pamela Rutledge, is that we are never entirely sure whether they are "bad" or not. "Research shows that women who demonstrate 'aggressive' and competent social behaviours (speaking up first, making demands, etc) are judged by different standards of behaviour than men are."

Only, crucially, Underwood does not waste time judging herself. She would be alienatingly self-disciplined - with her long midnight runs in the rain - if it weren't for the smoking she does privately, deliberately and with restraint, out of her dining room window. Like everything else in her life, and unlike many of House of Cards' male characters, who are more vulnerable to their vices, she is controlled and contained.

"There may be a wider truth to that issue of control," says Dr Jacey. "The vulnerabilities in male characters rise in time. But because men have such a head start on women in terms of having it all," she says, "it may only be in 10 or 15 years' time that we really see women like Claire start to unravel. But at the moment, the female audience is being nicely wooed and fed - and long may it continue."

The third series of 'House of Cards' is available on demand from Netflix, see netflix.com

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