House Of Cards' Third Season Could Change Women In Politics Forever (Spoilers)

Photo: Courtesy Netflix.

Forget Russia. Forget unemployment. Forget the fraility of marriage and any other issue that may have cropped up in House of Cards' third season. For me, the dominating theme of the last 13 episodes was gender politics. (Hello, even feminist punk rockers Pussy Riot made a cameo.) And yes, things got ugly.

Season 2 ended with the Underwoods entering the Oval Office. Frank tried to share credit for his presidency with Claire, but she shrugged it off, urging him to take time some in his new office for himself. By the end of season 3, she's telling him flat-out that he's not enough, neither as a husband nor a leader, and that she's tired of having her own ambitions overshadowed. In an ugly confrontation, he grasps her face and lays down the law.

Come morning, her choice is clear: Suck it up and get on the plane to New Hampshire to support him in the primaries, or thumb her nose at her husband of 28 years one last time. She opts for the latter, leaving Frank gaping in shock as she strides out of 1600 Pennsylvania with her bag. The recently departed Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me" would have been the perfect parting anthem.

Let's back up, though. To get from the second-season finale to Claire's walk-out in the final seconds of season 3, you have to take stock of all that's happened in between. The season started off with Claire trying — and failing — to get appointed to the lofty post of U.N. ambassador. She gets the bad news while choosing Easter eggs as part of her First Lady duties, eventually handing a black egg to Frank (symbolism!), who sticks it in his desk drawer. Later, she celebrates his agreement to simply appoint her to the role by cracking and frying up two actual eggs.
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Alas, Ambassador Underwood soon winds up with proverbial egg on her face. Nobody takes her seriously, continuing to address her as the First Lady, constantly asking her what her husband thinks, and bypassing Secretary of State Catherine Durant, who should be in charge, entirely. Evil Russian president Petrov insults her to her face, saying he's heard she's a better First Lady than she is an ambassador. She fires back with a toast to his "little pickle," but that doesn't deter him from swinging her like a doll on the dance floor and smooching her directly on the mouth. Now, it's not just her being offended — it's Frank, too. But, alas, Frank misses his chance to push Petrov down the stairs while Claire and Durant bond over beer pong.

Claire's struggle to be taken seriously continues during a trip to Russia. Her battle to obtain freedom for imprisoned gay activist Michael Corrigan results in his suicide-by-pashmina. She lashes out at Petrov during a press conference, a move from which she won't quite recover. Though Claire inviting the Russian ambassador to talk shop in the ladies' room — and leaving her stall open as she did her business — was a highlight, Petrov and his cronies clearly aren't going to let this woman take them down. They demand her resignation, Frank concedes, and the next thing you know she's dyed her hair back to blonde — she'd briefly returned to her natural brown in celebration of her wedding vow renewal and the U.N. vote — and is making stump speeches to ladies who lunch.
It's easy to see why Claire would hit her breaking point, especially when all she hears is how voters love her more than Frank. On the flip side, it's hard to put all that scheming with Frank over cigarettes on a résumé and get the credit she deserves. Will season 4 see her running for office, or just simply running to a divorce lawyer?

The show's spotlight on sexism in politics couldn't have come at a more fitting time. Just last night at the Emily's List 30th Anniversary Gala, Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a speech asking, "Don't you suppose that one day, you'll want to see a woman run for president?”
Robin Wright, the actress who plays Claire Underwood, was asked that very question in a recent interview with The Telegraph. "Yeah, I think it's overdue," she replied.

The self-professed feminist also spoke about the "imbalance" she sees in U.S. politics.

"We have 21 members of Senate that are female, and apparently they solved a crisis together — they decided to sit around a table and come up with ideas together, and they mastered it in less than 90 minutes," Wright told the British paper. "They used this as a study in school. Women are very communal and the study showed that men are much more combative and egomaniacal and 'my way or the highway' in a group setting. And, that is why nothing fucking gets through Congress."
Ultimately, there's a reason why House of Cards is touching on these feminist issues, and why Wright is fielding questions about seeing a female president in office — we're closer than ever before to achieving that. The similarities between Clinton and Claire are also telling; each is/was a powerful, ambitious First Lady who wants to do more than pick out Easter eggs. Clinton has the experience, but Claire is far from the "Dallas debutante" she's portrayed as. It's not that far-fetched to believe that House of Cards writers are using Claire's storyline to track not only her character's journey, but also make a statement about the way women are treated in politics.

"Claire has always been extremely ambitious — the climb to the top hasn't been Frank's alone, it's been this couple," showrunner Beau Willimon told The Canadian Press last week. "The marriage between Frank and Claire has always been central to House of Cards. I would say it's the core of the story. That's something we'll be investigating. We've known from the beginning that Claire had a great deal of ambition, now they both find themselves in the White House. What are the outlets for that ambition?"

Photo: Courtesy Netflix.
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If not the U.N. ambassadorship, perhaps the White House, solo? There was no shortage of female presidential candidates this season, but are of them viable? Solicitor General Heather Dunbar had her own complicated battle with navigating the political waters. At first, she declined the chance to expose Claire's secret abortion to the media — she "could never do that to another woman" — but when the chips were down, she changed her mind. It's too late; Frank has destroyed all records of the abortion. Dunbar and Frank are both playing dirty, but the former's betrayal of "another woman" seemed to make her eventual primary loss in Iowa a bit easier to stomach.
We went into season 3 hoping Jackie Sharp would be the female presidential candidate who would shake things up, but she, too, floundered. She didn't flinch at the suggestion that a single woman couldn't run; she got married. Conceding that having two female candidates would split the vote, she agreed to be Frank's VP nominee. She tried to make a similar deal with Dunbar, to no avail; Dunbar didn't want to promise Sharp a position so early on. Thus it was Sharp firing shots at Dunbar on Frank's behalf during the Democratic primary debate. She said Dunbar was "sexist" for calling Claire inexperienced for the U.N. ambassador job, and half-heartedly tried to strike up a debate about gender equality.

The result was a debate between two female candidates during which they argued about gender politics while the third male candidate sat back and rubbed his palms, pleased because he orchestrated it all. In true Underwood style, he turned his back on his agreement with Sharp and fired off a critique that left her speechless on the debate floor. It effectively ended her campaign, and convinced her to throw her support behind Team Dunbar.

Between the Pussy Riot appearance and the focus on female characters, this might be the show's most feminist season ever. Will this pave the way for a more fired-up female presence next season? We're ready to see what a Frank-less Claire looks like.
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