The presence of male antiheroes on our screens is widespread: from Tony Soprano to Walter White, morally questionable characters that we can’t help but root for are commonplace, despite their misdeeds. The female equivalent, however, is scarce: in that respect, Netflix’s searing political drama House of Cards is a godsend. In giving us Claire Underwood, Netflix has given us that compelling and important rarity: a power-hungry, brutal female antihero who gets our attention and, in many ways – perhaps against our better judgment - we find ourselves championing.
Underwood, played by Robin Wright, and her husband Frank (Kevin Spacey) are an occasionally uneasy alliance, held together by mutual respect and a voracious desire for absolute political domination: they are equally manipulative, self-serving and ruthless. For both characters, the ends justify the means, and the series sees them working both in symbiosis, and warring against each other if need be, in an all-encompassing effort to achieve their goals at whatever the cost.
Over the course of Netflix’s wildly successful original series, we see Underwood irreparably destroying lives and careers, threatening a former employee’s unborn child (“I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside of you if that’s what’s required”), possibly turning a blind eye to murder and finally, through a callous manipulation of the president and his wife, securing her husband’s rise to the Oval Office. Underwood is a character whose actions are openly disturbing and repellent; not a role model by any means. But why do we need her to be?
As a society, we allow male antiheroes to exist without placing any expectation or pressure on them to behave or think in a certain way, or even for them to seek out redemption. They parade across our screens in all their violent and amoral glory, often gaining an audience’s respect along the way.
Yet female characters who are deemed to be - at the very least - unsympathetic, come under much harsher scrutiny. They are seen as dislikable and are abstracted. They fall foul to critique simply because they are expected, somehow, to serve as representative of all women and instead fall short through their inability to portray ‘feminine’ ideals by traditional standards. The proliferation of ‘think pieces’ out there vilifying Claire Underwood’s actions, and the marked minority of reviews doing the same for her husband, is a clear testament to this double standard.
What makes us expect female characters to conform to such a rigid – and let’s face it, monumentally dull - ideal? In rejecting unpalatable female characters and branding them under many negative headers, while simultaneously accepting their male counterparts and often rooting for them, we’re discrediting art’s potential to explore the complete scope of our hidden truths: every dark and awful impulse, every terrifying and twisted possibility. Television needs to wake up and make room for the terrible women with a frightening lack of empathy, for the lethal women willing to do the unutterable; we need more portraits of women who are fascinating and compassionless and deadly. After all, these women exist. Let’s stop pretending there’s not a little bit of Claire Underwood in us all.
Words: Catherine Karellis
Image Source: Netflix