Claire Underwood (House of Cards, Netflix Original)
Meet Claire Underwood. The 46th First Lady of the United States, and is currently running for Vice President under the Democratic Party for the upcoming election. She has held positions such as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and has run non-profit organizations like the Clean Water Initiative. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Health and Chemistry from Radcliffe College, and received her Masters Degree in Public Health from Harvard. Her husband, President Frank Underwood, is the main character of the popular Netflix Original series, “House of Cards”. “House of Cards” is a Netflix political drama set in modern time, following the story of Francis J. Underwood, a Democrat from South Carolina working his way up the political ladder.
The best way to start an analysis on Claire Underwood is by defining her relationship with her husband. They have an interesting dynamic in their love life, feeding off each other strengths and weaknesses in an almost unnatural synergy. One of the first episodes shows Frank (at the time he was only the Majority Whip in Congress) having relations with a journalist named Zoe Barnes. He walks back into the house and Claire is aware of the situation. She does not care, for the simple reason of power. She recognizes that by him sleeping with a journalist, they can make EXTREME power moves in congress based off of media presence. She craves power. She loves her husband, but the two of them together is a power trip on steroids.
Claire is the epitome of a strong and powerful woman. She is cunning, intelligent, and bold. She has the power to be blunt and manipulative in order to push herself up above the rest. Her goal is to get as much power and influence as she can with the partnership she has formed with Frank. In terms of how her character is portrayed, she is an ultra-confident and in charge personality that can take control of any room she walks in. For a majority of the first three seasons, she is an obvious equal to Frank, playing off each other like building blocks. She doesn’t take anything other than respect from anyone, no matter who it is. She even had a point where she felt disrespected by the President of Russia, specifically a statement where he accused Frank of “pimping her out”, as a method of seduction to make visiting diplomats feel more comfortable in making deals with the United States. Instead of reacting harshly, or turning to Frank to do something as the president, she made her toast at dinner, to President Petrov and “his little pickle.” This was a pun off of a pickle related ritual he had just completed after having everyone at the party taking a shot of Russia’s finest vodka. She is not afraid to play with the “Big Boys”. After sitting around as the First Lady, she put her name in the hat to run for the Ambassador position at the United Nations. She is not afraid of a challenge, and after seeing the show 5 times over, I am unaware of a time where confidence left her side.
One of the frameworks I am going to talk about in the analysis of Claire is feminist criticism. I have mostly pulled from Toril Moi’s reading, “Feminist, Female, Feminine”, in talking about the feminist criticism in media. Feminist Criticism, as described by Moi, refers to the following;
“specific kind of political discourse; a critical and theoretical practice committed to the struggle against patriarchy and sexism, not simply a concern for gender in literature, at least not if the latter is presented as no more than another interesting critical approach on a par with a concern for sea-imagery or metaphors of war in medieval poetry. It is my view that, provided they are compatible with her politics, a feminist critic can use whichever methods or theories she likes” (Moi page 3).
In modern media, the debate over the representation of women has become a hot topic. With “House of Cards”, Claire seems to be one defying the odds of what has been thrown at her. When one of the top searched items to go along with Claire Underwood is “feminist moments”, it gives a good look into how she is fighting back against the patriarchy set up against females. Patriarchy can be defined as “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” This really means that feminist critiques, are people looking from the outside of the margins of society, outsiders who are critiquing the social norm that’s occurring on the inside of the world. I believe that Claire goes against the norm by being so prevalent and involved with politics just like her husband. There are multiple points of the show where she openly steals the spotlight right out from under him, showing how she is the one to “wear the pants” in the relationship.
One of these points is an episode from season 2, where Claire is supposed to be having an interview with CNN, talking about the Underwood family now that Frank had been promoted to Vice President. Frank is stuck at the Capital due to a chemical threat. Claire has to decide to either do the interview by herself, or not at all. She chooses to go on alone, and encounters what comes off as an extremely personal attack on her character. The interviewer starts asking questions regarding the possibility of Claire being pregnant during one of Frank’s campaigns, accusing her of aborting the child. At this time, Frank had to sit in the capital building and just watch. He had to hope for his own reputation and career, that she would pick the correct choices and phrasing to ensure that they ended up on top. Claire moved forward, saying that the child was aborted, but it was due to a sexual assault that had happened to her. She shifted the conversation from one that was targeting her and her husband, following their choices to avoid having children, to a topic of sexual assault, prompting her to start writing bills on behalf of sexual assault. Although it wasn’t the truth (she was sexually assaulted, referred to two episodes earlier), she made a decision to keep herself and Frank on the path to stay in power and in good graces. It was not a good decision for the exterior, but it was a good strategical decision for the Underwood’s.
Although Claire never directly puts her views out on the topic of feminism or civil rights in general (not really covered through the show), but the way she carries herself shows how she will never let anyone ever put her down, or treat her differently than others because of her being a woman.
The second framework I’m analyzing in relation to Claire would be structuralism. Structuralism refers to the hero’s journey laid out by Joseph Campbell in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. The two specific portions of this hero’s journey that I am going to cover in relation to Claire are “The Road of Trials”, and the “Temptress”. The road of trials refers to the issues and battles that a hero/heroine will have to engage in in order to fully embark on their journey. Claire has to face a different struggle each and every day, simply by being in the spotlight and being associated with Frank. She has had to watch her back at every turn, losing privacy in their lives, as well as having to sacrifice different things she loved to do in order to stay compliant to what goes on in the life of the president and first lady. One simple example of this is her runs. They usually were smaller scenes, but Claire would go for runs to clear her head, usually allowing the viewers to get an inside look into her process, showing her at what some would consider her most vulnerable. Once she became the first lady, she was unable to go on a run by herself, thus ruining the point of her clearing her head. This is a smaller example, but it was still something important to her nonetheless.
A bigger example would be when she was an ambassador in the United Nations. She dealt with issues regarding peace negotiations between the United States and Russia. One of these negotiations was around a United States citizen who was arrested in Russia for simply being gay. Claire had to move to make arrangements for him to be released, as well as making arrangements for the two countries to come to peace over a dispute in the Middle East. As part of the deal, Frank and Claire fly to Russia. Frank and President Petrov start to work on negotiations for the Middle Eastern Crisis, while Claire is brought to the holding cell of the American citizen, Michael. She talks with him for a while, learning about his story and trying to convince him to read the public apology to Russia, written by both the US and Russian Foreign Affairs. He refuses, and she falls asleep. When she is awakened, she finds Michael, hanging from the window bars of his cell. He felt that it was a better answer and way out than publicly stating that being homosexual is a crime/sin. That was a huge blow for Claire, even pushing her to lose her cool on international television, saying “shame on you Mr. President” referring to Petrov. This incident led to more foul interactions with Russia, ultimately using Claire as a pawn because she was a woman, which to Petrov, was not worth the time that he could be using to work directly to work with the president.
The temptress is a shorter and more simple piece to Claire’s journey. As referred to in the introduction, Frank had extramarital affairs, in order to keep pushing them forward as a political power couple. Claire had similar temptations. One of these was shown in the first and second seasons, a former lover of Claire’s named Adam. Adam was a famous photographer, who regularly helped out Claire by selling his art to raise money for her non profit. He was rewarded with her time and thoughts of something more with her. Eventually, the Underwoods take a hit in the media because of a photo that was leaked, showing Claire in the shower, a photo taken by Adam. It creates a PR nightmare, and they eventually throw Adam under the bus, ruining his reputation as an artist. This is also touched upon in the 3rd and 4th seasons, where Frank is having a writer starting a book about his time as president. He gives Claire the attention and love that she can’t get from Frank, who seems to always be caught up with, I don’t know, running the country? It is still an ongoing affair, leading to a strong emotional bond that will continue into season 5.
Claire is independent. She works heavily with her husband in order to achieve the success and power that they have always craved as a couple. They work together to feed off each other to get what they need. In some ways, she could be considered an anti-heroine, causing more problems than good, fighting for her own values and benefits, versus the moral values of society. She almost has a cover to be fake and fight for things because of the good press that it could get for her and Frank. On the other hand, her character, being as strong and bold as she is, can push the limits on what used to be a smaller role. She is showing that she is a character to be messed with, and is not someone who is just going to sit back and enjoy the ride. She wants to and continues to be a front facing woman, who represents what is going wrong in current day America. She fights the fight, making sure that people are not just looking in on the patriarchy that is our government from the margins of society.