Character Conceptualization: Claire Underwood from House of Cards

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Within Netflix’s hit political drama House of Cards, congressman Francis Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire Underwood (played by Robin Wright) undergo six exciting seasons of Machiavellian maneuvering to reach the zenith of power in American politics. Claire’s journey of transitioning from being a politician’s wife to the leader of the free world (president of the United States) was plagued with unique challenges related to her sex and perceived gender roles in society. She was consistently and thematically subordinated at the hands of men in her life and had to make unfair sacrifices that compromised her status, reputation, and mental health. 

Season six takes us through numerous flashbacks of Claire’s childhood where we can see why she chose to marry Francis. In Chapter 68 we learn that Claire had a number of male suitors but chose Francis because she shared his ambition for doing great things in life. Claire’s ambition was not supported by her parents, who wanted her to fit the stereotypical wife role. This prompted Claire to run away from a ballet when she was in her teens (Willimon, 2018). During season 4, Claire entertained running for public office herself in Texas, only to be discouraged by her mother. Indeed, her mother lamented that Claire should “smile more” and frown less (Willimon, 2018). One can clearly see that from an early age Claire sought to reach high places and was discouraged by her parents as a result of her gender.

Claire’s husband subordinated her priorities in favor of his throughout the entire series. In season 1, Claire made sacrifices like firing half of her non-profit staff, refusing beneficial financing from a donor, and the like. At one juncture Claire even lamented to her husband by saying “I feel like I’m standing behind you, not next to you” (Willimon, 2018). This precise quote illustrates much of the entirety of the series, climaxing with a shocking scene in season three, episode 13. In this exchange, Frank explains that her entire worth is based on his success while violently grabbing her by the neck. He reinforces that Claire is his wife before she is anything else. 

Claire’s tumultuous sexist experiences also included society and other characters. In season six Claire was mourning the loss of her husband while serving as president only to be hailed by the media as weak, emotional, and unfit to serve the office. Pictures circulated of her crying with mascara running to perpetuate this stereotype (S6). The media (and her political opponents) also took advantage of Claire’s status as a rape victim and woman who had a previous abortion by threatening to “out” her in seasons three and five. Her husband’s own Chief of Staff (Doug) indicated he didn’t respect her and sought to undermine her until the end of the series (season six, episode eight) when Claire was forced to kill him in self-defense.

Feminist Theory Overview

Feminist theory is an appropriate and powerful lens with which to analyze Claire because of it’s focus on egalitarian relationships, empowering the oppressed, and re-writing narratives to focus on strengths. The basis of feminist theory is the understanding that there are different forms of power in society, and women are cultured into a trance of powerlessness through messages conveyed by society and enforced by the dominant patriarchal group (Brown, 2019). As with any hierarchy, power differences and conflict are inevitable. Feminist theory recognizes this reality and first evaluates the important role of history and society. Feminist theory places emphasis on socio-cultural actors such as parents, friends, and the media. These actors, together, impact a person’s upbringing and enforces stereotypes that are set by dominant groups in society. Unfortunately, history shows us that women have not been part of the dominant group, and this is the reason that many therapists focus on patriarchy as a core cause of oppression (Brown, 2009). 

It’s also important to note that feminist theory is not solely limited to the domain of women; instead, feminist theory applies to anyone that is subjected to standards or powerlessness at the hands of a dominant group. Feminist theory serves multicultural persons as well as men; for example, men often suppress and try to negate emotional affect because it is not fitting of a stereotypical (and toxic) model of male identity. Because empowerment is a core tenet of this theory, it relevantly serves everyone in some capacity.

Feminist theory relies on empowerment and egalitarianism as a remedy to oppression. As Brown (2009) noted, “at the heart of feminist theory lies the egalitarian relationship” (p. 38). The dynamics of this relationship highlight the importance of equality and fairness among people when there is a systemic and social gap in power. Consequently, the goal of feminist therapy is to work with the client to close the gap and reduce the power imbalance so that it’s as small as possible (Brown, 2009). Doing so requires taking a systemic approach focused on the person’s attitudes, cognitions, beliefs, and ultimately behaviors. 

Feminist therapists use situational analysis and empowerment as a treatment to clients. The exchange begins as an “invitation for transformation” that denotes a willingness to work with the therapist and a non-demeaning approach to the person’s previous behaviors and coping mechanisms (Brown, 2009, p. 43). The metaphor of an invitation is a fitting one as therapy tends to focus on evaluating the client’s past narratives (often negative) while highlighting strengths and advantages. Within context of a treatment program, power and privilege is an important aspect of understanding the nature of a person’s unique experiences and challenges too.

Claire’s Challenges from the Feminist Perspective

Claire experiences duress and conflict in her life and career due largely to her female gender, role as a wife and aspiring politician, and the systemic oppression that comes as a result of the intersection of these identities. Like her husband, Claire has spent her life working hard to acquire and exercise power. However, Claire’s experience (unlike her husband’s) is burdened with the additional challenge of power imbalance as highlighted by feminist theory. Claire does not have an egalitarian relationship with her husband and she was continually subjugated to compromising for her husband’s benefit. We saw evidence of this with the number of favors and career decisions she made that benefited her husband while lowering her status. Francis did not treat her as an equal and the anxious panic attacks she suffered throughout the series were not pathological; rather, they were as Brown (2009) noted distress and behavior dysfunction due to powerlessness women face through gender socialization. It seems like Claire may be a good candidate for therapy on account of the behavioral dysfunction she suffers from working in such a male-dominated and oppressive context.

The marriage-related nature of Claire’s problems would also make her and Francis a good fit for couples therapy within the feminist perspective. In most of the violent or demeaning 1-on-1 scenes Claire had with Francis, he exercised a clear and inappropriate abuse of his physical and social power. Because Claire has a lack of power in the physical context (compared to Francis), they would both benefit from having a mediator that confronts this power imbalance and gives Claire the voice she deserves to be heard. Brown (2009) argued that oppression tends to silence and invalidate the feelings and perspectives of less dominant groups, and Claire’s experience surely supports that narrative. The institution of marriage itself is rooted in oppression and suffering for women, and this stain coupled with the fact that both Francis and Claire grew up in southern states (North Carolina and Texas, respectively). These geographic locations are dominated by a culture that leans towards traditional stereotypes and roles for women. Consequently, Claire faces a difficult power imbalance rooted in her gender, marital status, and local culture (that’s a lot to deal with before taking into account any behavioral factors).

Another source of distress and concern for Claire that feminist theory accounts for well is the fact that she gets treated differently by the media and society, even in the same position as her husband. When Claire became the Commander in Chief in season six, we noted how the media berated her as being weak, emotional, and lacking power over her faculties. Not only do these attacks indicate a lack of fitness, but they also enforce our understanding of how society makes the experience of women more difficult when compared to men. Dubravka Zarkov (2017) noted in her feminist analysis of European politics how women are usually portrayed in the media under negative circumstances: making mistakes, acting improperly, being naked, being brainwashed, being criticized, or criticizing someone. Zarkov noted how it is a rarity to see women involved in politics shown in anything other than a negative light. This double-standard both demonstrates how oppressive systemic sexism is for women with career aspirations and provides validation that Claire would benefit from a feminist therapy approach. 

Finally, it’s worthy to note the intersectional nature of Claire’s identity and the complex interplay of gender, race, marital status, and sexual orientation this results in. In season four, Claire’s past abortion was used as political leverage by a political opponent that was also a white woman (Heather Dunbar). This seeming betrayal of women by women highlights the important role of power and privilege within feminist theory. As a white affluent woman, Dunbar politically attacked Francis by using Claire’s womanhood as an instrument of exploitation. Claire felt obvious duress because another woman would use this personal information as political ammunition. Suzana Walters (2018), a feminist theorist, echoed analysis of similar circumstances when she broke down the fact that 61% of affluent white women voted for Donald J. Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In her article, she noted how class, race, and gender present a unique intersection of identities that results in schism among parties that seemingly share common interests and experiences. In relation, feminist theory explains such examples and illustrates how power and privilege across the spectrum can get lost. Reconciling painful experiences and understanding the causes is something that Claire can surely get from feminist therapy.

Treatment Approaches

Claire would benefit greatly from feminist-centered therapy on an individual level and both her and her husband would benefit from couples therapy. At the root of Claire’s marriage and personal struggles in her profession is a theme of power imbalance, perceived powerlessness, and a pattern of oppression. The treatment approach would therefore set the stage for helping Claire recognize this theme on a conscious level, address it with the use of tools when it comes up, and then reflect on it for future guidance. As a couple, a feminist-focused approach would bring to light the different forms of violence that Francis inflicts upon his wife. Additionally, it would give Claire a voice within a context that is safe for her to express herself, ideally paving the way for a more egalitarian and fruitful relationship that benefits both equally.

As Brown (2009) highlights, effective feminist therapy involves consistent empowerment by rewriting narratives to focus on positive strengths. A direct example of this would be breaking down the negative images she sees of herself in the media and asking her to think about the situation from a strengths perspective. Effective execution of rewriting narratives would hopefully result in a different perspective on the matter—a perspective that doesn’t cause further distress. Another treatment strategy would be to leave Claire with the tools she needs to cope with the harsh reality of working in an oppressive patriarchal system (politics). Effective treatment for Claire would include giving her clear strategies for optimizing her strengths so she can manifest courage and vigor when being confronted with stressful professional situations. In short, feminist-centered therapy would help Claire stick up for herself to level the playing field.

Couples therapy for both Francis and Claire would involve addressing the serious problems that Francis has when he interacts with his wife. As an example, a common scenario in the House of Cards series was Claire being supportive of her husband without reciprocal treatment. Instead, Francis would invalidate Claire’s feelings and she would ultimately apologize. A couples therapy session would likely prompt Claire to re-assess why she apologized and whether that was necessary in the first place. By seeing how these two interact through moderated sessions, Claire would come to realize that she indeed has a valid voice and concern over how her interests are being met. Similar to the YouTube video of Patricia Robertson (2012) engaging in family therapy with Lea, engaging in positive dialogue regarding how these events make Claire feel would likely educate Francis about the negative impact of his actions. Ultimately, a couples therapy session would yield insight about how Claire’s perspective is consistently being minimized and neglected from a relationship standpoint.

Additionally, a positive therapy interaction would likely address Claire’s interpersonal challenges as well as the intrapersonal ones she faces. Claire is uniquely challenged by the fact that she is consistently being attacked while holding a high-profile public office position. The never-ending barrage of personal attacks and plots from her husband, political party, and opponents likely wear down at her self-esteem. Moreover, her resilience is not only important to her mental health, but also to the nation that she leads (including impressionable young people). Consequently, any treatment approach that Claire would undertake would need to include addressing the context of her whole environment. This holistic approach to Claire’s entire context would thus include the various complex social structures that Neville & Mobley (2001) argued impact a given person’s behavioral outcomes.

If I were Claire’s therapist, I would likely struggle to empathize with the severity of her oppression, and the power that the dominant actors in her life have over her. For example, I may dismiss and invalidate Claire’s anxiety by indicating that politics is a tough business that one must be aware of before engaging in. Such an action wouldn’t be beneficial for Claire because it would be a form of microaggression and likely compromise the development of a working alliance, which is important according to Gelso (2013). Indeed, if I didn’t adjust my outlook and wasn’t sensitive, it’s possible that Claire would become timid and apologetic in the form of transference from her earlier relationships with men—now projected onto me as yet another oppressive male figure in her life.

Finally, it’s important to understand the vital opportunity for social justice advocacy with regards to treating Claire. Knowing what I learned from Vasquez (2007) and her work on social justice advocacy, I would come to realize that Claire herself represents a whole population of women that are dramatically underrepresented in the decision and policy making process in the nation. I would recognize that Claire has the power and authority to potentially impact policy that could create a better and more inclusive future for not just women, but people of all non-dominant groups (such as racial minorities, LGBTQ people, and others). Indeed, working with Claire on her individual therapeutic needs would be a threefold opportunity: for her individually, for her husband and marriage, and for the country as a whole since she is the Commander in Chief. My work with Claire from a feminist-centered approach would therefore extend beyond her and into the hearts and minds of millions of other oppressed Americans who struggle with similar issues.

References

Brown, L. (2009). Chapter 3. Feminist therapy, 29-76.

Gelso, C. (2013). A tripartite model of the therapeutic relationship: Theory, research, and practice. Psychotherapy Research,24(2), 117-131. doi:10.1080/10503307.2013.845920

Neville, H. A., & Mobley, M. (2001). Social Identities in Contexts. The Counseling Psychologist,29(4), 471-486. doi:10.1177/0011000001294001

Robertson, P. (2012, August 01). Feminist Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuFmc3y72Nw

Vasquez, M. J. (2012). Psychology and Social Justice: Why We Do What We Do. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e692142011-001

Walters, S. D. (2018). Feminist Key Concepts and Controversies: In Defense of Identity Politics. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, (43)2, 473-488.

Willimon, B., Paterson, I., Franklin, C., Foley, J., Coles, J. D., Foster, J., Cain, B., ... Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (Firm),. (2018). House of cards: The complete collection.

Zarkov, D. (2017). Women, Feminism, and Politics. European Journal of Women’s Studies, (24)1, 3-6.