On two diametrically opposed ways to read the show’s female lead.
My weekend Guest Poster is going to focus on Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood, Frank Underwood’s wife, founder and director of the non-profit Clean Water Initiative, and one of the more compelling characters in recent TV history. She’ll be writing about issues of gender and identity, family and motherhood, career and ambition, so I’ll leave those themes in her capable hands and request that you make sure to visit on Saturday or Sunday (or both!) to read her take. Today, I want to analyze how Claire reflects—and indeed in many ways exemplifies—how open to interpretation the show’s characters are, and more exactly how possible it is to interpret many of them (with Claire at the top of this list) in contrasting and even opposed ways.
Probably the more obvious of the two opposed ways to read Claire is to think of her as Lady Macbeth, not only wedded to the scheming ambitious Frank (he of the controversial Shakespearean asides to the audience), but entirely supportive of—if not indeed the force behind—his ploys and plans. The show provides multiple pieces of evidence in support of this interpretation, including one of its most consistent motifs (Claire and Frank smoking and plotting together at their window) and the incredibly creepy scene in which Claire reveals why she accepted Frank’s marriage proposal. Seen in this light, Claire’s lifelong work at CWI isn’t about water or the environment, but instead offers her a vehicle through to complement Frank’s Congressional efforts and help advance their shared ambitions as a result (which would explain why she’s so intent on tying CWI to the sleazy and uber-powerful energy company for which Remy Danton lobbies, SanCorp).
But I think it’s equally possible to flip that script, and that paragraph, on its head—to begin an interpretation of Claire with those lifelong efforts at CWI, and to read her as willing to do whatever it takes in order to advance her company’s environmental objectives (she says as much to the more idealistic activist Gillian Cole, arguing that they want the same thing but are trying to pursue it in very distinct ways). Chief among the pieces of evidence for this interpretation would be Claire’s apparently long-term and evolving relationship with British photographer Adam Galloway (played by Ben Daniels), a thoughtful artistic type who sees (and seems to bring out) something far different in Claire than Frank ever has. Claire tells Galloway that she could never be with him for life—but neither can she seem to leave him or deny their connection. No more, that is, than she can leave Frank—suggesting, as with so many things on House of Cards, that both opposing interpretations are somehow inseparably true.
Last House analyses of mine tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think?
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