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Claire, Daenerys & The 'Unhinged Leader' Arc

I just finished watching House of Cards' sixth and final season, the one that does well to exclude Kevin Spacey – who plays the series' protagonist, Frank Underwood – in light of the sexual assault allegations levelled against him by Anthony Rapp and Spacey's faux apology that attempted to use his struggle with his sexual identity as an excuse for his sexual assault of the, then, minor.

Instead, the multiple award-winning series brought its leading lady to the fore, with Claire Underwood (played by Robin Wright) entering the Oval Office as the United States' first Madam President. I was pretty excited to watch (though not excited enough to watch it at the time, I can't remember why). I was glad I didn't have to see Spacey but could still watch the world Frank Underwood left in his wake. I was also excited for my feminist agenda to once again take to the big screen, but, as I have come to be of popular feminist productions, I was also critical (I have previously written about my disappointment with Wonder Woman, to give you some sort of indication why I am not entirely confident with how mainstream media write their leading women – not just in terms of the actors lading the show but also their characters being leaders in the shows). But none of my "this might not be the best portrayal of a woman in power" pep-talk-chants could have prepared me for the disappointment I felt as I raced through Season 6.

It reminded me of Season 8.

For the few who might not know to what I'm referring, that's Game of Thrones Season 8. I am still extremely traumatised but I will try to provide a brief summary (of the bit relevant to this ramble) for those who might not be familiar with the story. Exiled Queen Daenerys Targaryen finally invades Westeros, her army coming up against Queen Cersei's. Cersei is slow to admit defeat but eventually rings the bells of surrender mid-attack. Daenerys hears the surrender but in blind uncharacteristic rage proceeds to set the Capital on fire anyway and then her lover kills her for it. Her loyal dragon then picks him, her murderer, up and they fly into the distance (until the next episode where more bullshit ensues).

In House of Cards Season 6, a newly appointed (not elected, she was Vice President to her husband, Frank, but he died) President Underwood kicks off her term by killing everyone. Old friends, old foes, Claire does not discriminate. Once she's done annihilating her enemies and potential threats, she then focusses her attention on becoming the most tyrannical president I've ever seen portrayed on television (pardon the exaggeration) – she fires everyone. Thankfully she hires only women to replace them but still... she is dictatorial.

The thing is, I absolutely loved seeing Claire Hale (she reverts to her maiden name mid-season) and Daenerys Targaryen fight for what they believed they deserved, and win. What I didn't love were the unchecked stripes they developed whilst doing so. Daenerys was known for her compassion, sure she was ruthless but she was definitely above killing innocent people in the name of... revenge(?). Claire, well Claire has always been a murderer, along with her husband Frank, but she was also pragmatic – not to mention House of Cards isn't a fantasy land, no one kills that many people and gets away with it.

In these depictions, women in power are portrayed as unhinged, unpredictable, callous about human life (even though Claire emerges with a miraculous pregnancy). I was just talking to the brains at about how a good few of the queer films she has watched depict borderline paedophilic homosexual relationships (a la Call Me By Your Name) and we speculated about who exactly it is writing this supposedly 'progressive' productions that actually present very problematic narratives. In the case of Game of Thrones we all know the two men responsible for that travesty, the infamous duo, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, and in the case of House of Cards the showrunners Wikipedia names are Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson.

For me, it is incredibly easy to see the failings of a script that has the potential to uplift women, but instead mocks feminism by portraying it as the one saving grace of a totalitarian leader (House of Cards). However, for the writers, it might not be so obvious how counterproductive Claire's feminist agenda was in promoting the movement. Or maybe it was, maybe it was an intentional and savvy critique. After all they wrote Annette Shepherd (the lead antagonist in this season) saying: "she's weaponised her feminism and its grown tiresome. 'I'm a mother. I'm a general.' [Annette mocks] Spare me."

What use is Claire's all-female cabinet when she shows no regard for their advice and fires them at whim? Where is the power in seeing a pregnant president when she's guilty of taking the lives of so many? Ironically, her pregnancy is announced in the same scene that she rallies off all her victims so far. I rooted for Claire, I wanted her to attain the power she was so often shut out from by her husband. I wanted Mark Usher and Bill and Annette Shepherd to stop telling her what to do. I wanted to see her win, shit I cheered as I watched her calculated win. But I absolutely hated her too, and that's the disaster of it all.

Claire's was a character we could have loved. Yes, it is House of Cards and the protagonists are meant to be sinister but she could have been that, the vicious, ruthless, even violent woman, without being unhinged. Daenerys was all that. She was ruthless, sometimes vicious, on occasion violent, but we loved her for it through all 7 seasons. Then they wrote her in a downward spiral, which she funnelled down to her death.

The point I'm landing at is this: there are many more ways to portray ruthlessness in women in positions of power than attaching it to mental instability. Yes, Claire has always been sociopathic, but she was meticulous, frighteningly logical in the face of disarray – even so in this season. So, the fact that this unnerving yet enticing aspect of her character was supplemented by an indiscriminately murderous spirit cries a huge injustice to Madam President. So unjust it revived memories of that hellish Season 8.


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