Season 4 of ‘House of Cards’ came out on Netflix earlier this year and was gobbled up in a matter of weeks by its fans. The opening sequence will be familiar to them, a series of shimmering images of Washington DC, first in morning light and ending with the channels of motor traffic pulsing through the darkness of the city, like arteries through a body. The technique is called time-lapse, where a long period of time is replayed in a few seconds, creating effects such as clouds scudding across the sky as if borne on a speedy stream of water.
Beneath the clouds and inside the portentous buildings across whose facades the shadows eat away at the sunlight, the dirty business of politics takes place. The city of impassive classical architecture is sinister, devoid of real life, like an enormous timepiece that obeys its own rhythms with no regard for the humans trapped inside.
In a show that front-and-centres its soliloquies and its parallels with ‘Othello’, ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Macbeth’, the title sequence also evokes Shakespearean tragedy. The cosmic scale dwarfs the vain efforts of the mere mortals who strut the stage and whose merely human perception of things means they cannot escape what fate has in store for them. Chief among the mortals, puffed up with pride about their ability to control the future, are the charismatically likeable villain-hero, Frank Underwood, and his icily remote wife and running mate, Claire.
Who actually likes Claire Underwood? While a man wielding power seems to be fully a man, a woman with power is often judged unfeminine, tough and unlikeable. The Underwoods clearly conform to this paradigm. But ‘House of Cards’ dealt itself a challenging hand to play in the last season by making Claire the main character in naked pursuit of political power.
A nuanced and prominent female is a rare thing on screen, but, as in the real world, the price a woman pays is in the currency of likeability. The screenwriters seem to be aware of the problem. In Season 4, Claire’s estranged and difficult mother slowly dies in front of her eyes, but the payoff is not so much sympathy for her as much as astonishment at how she (Claire) seems not to suffer.
In May this year, the actress who plays Claire, Robin Wright, revealed in an interview that she was forced to insist that she and the leading man, Kevin Spacey, receive equal pay for their work. She told an interviewer, “I was looking at statistics and Claire Underwood’s character was more popular than [Frank’s] for a period of time. So I capitalised on that moment. I was like, ‘You better pay me or I’m going to go public.’ … And they did”.
The Hollywood rumour mill pegs their pay at somewhere between $500,000 and $1m dollars each per episode. So perhaps after all there are people who like Claire Underwood, if we take being ‘more popular’ as meaning the same thing. (Though, for example, Darth Vader is arguably more popular than Luke Skywalker, but not more likeable).
At any rate, this is clearly good news because Wright is breaking the kind of glass ceiling that stymies women in politics, women like Claire Underwood. Wright’s argument for equal pay displays the sure touch of a poll-sensitive politician. It also displays a politician’s knack for simultaneously controlling her own narrative and cornering her opponent – she threatened to go public with the studio’s unwillingness to pay her equally, and then went public with it anyway when they had coughed up. They won’t try that again.
The parallel between acting and politicking is notable too, and not only because public life is a kind of stage play. It is also notable because of the way that women politicians are obliged to act in public life. The norm is that a political leader is a man, and so a woman who occupies this position is perceived to be playing a man’s role. No matter how good a woman is at being a politician (Thatcher, Merkel, Albright, Harney, Indira Gandhi), she is nearly always judged to be performing the role, whereas men are simply being themselves.
An effect of this is the tendency to focus on female politicians as actors, performers, and on what they look like (their facial expressions, clothing and hair). Their appearances are scrutinised as usually failed efforts to pass as something else or to conceal some real aspect of themselves. In short, the merciless attention devoted to the appearance of female politicians is due to the fact that they are not considered to be authentic – not authentically women, and not authentically politicians either.
All of this is expressed in terms of likeability. When a male politician is unlikeable, it is connected to other, attractive qualities; for example, many Irish people do not like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage or Vladimir Putin, but they probably would credit these men as being strong-willed, independent and impervious to criticism. But when a woman is unlikeable, it is because she is perceived to be mannish, cold and hard.
The person most consistently hounded by the problem of unlikeability is Hillary Clinton, who does not compel the charisma and warmth dividends of the three men who have stood alongside her in different ways down the years: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and most recently, Bernie Sanders. More than ever, the Democrats have put a lot of effort into controlling her appearance in the current electoral cycle. So for the last two years at least, she has consistently worn a tunic-plus-trousers combination that varies only slightly in its colour, and this has taken some of the attention off her appearance. In other words, her clothes have become as invisible as a male politician’s standard dark suit.
It is difficult not to draw parallels between the Underwoods and the Clintons, the supreme real-life power-couple. Few people have walked the corridors of power longer than Hillary Clinton, as she now reaches for the presidency. Indeed, Obama’s June endorsement of her bid included the ever so slightly faint compliment “I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to hold this office”.
Clinton epitomises the Washington big-government operator so despised across the American political spectrum. Claire Underwood’s CV is not nearly as impressive, but she has also chalked up many years inside Washington power circles. And they both have histories of elided maiden names and of working in jobs created for them by their husbands, not to mention politically-conscious haircuts and makeovers.
‘House of Cards’ is undoubtedly to be admired for the relative prominence and visibility of its lead female, but the fact that it plays as a tragedy gives us little room for optimism that Claire Underwood will thrive, or even survive, when the show makes it so apparent that what Shakespeare calls ‘the affairs of men’ are subject to impersonal fate.
In lively contrast to this is ‘Veep’, now in its fifth season, which centres on the comical highs and lows of the cut-throat career politician Selina Meyer, who is trapped in the role of Vice President, never quite able to break through to the top job. Veep episodes are a fast-paced 28 minutes, stuffed with motor-mouthed barbs and repartee, totally unlike the self-conscious gravitas of ‘House of Cards’.
And in Selina Meyer we have another analogue for Hillary Clinton and Claire Underwood. Her clothing and make-up are of such central importance that they are practically the sole concern of another major character, Gary. She is inauthentic, selfish, vain and fully obsessed with her political career, even at her mother’s deathbed. What makes ‘Veep’ so much fresher is that these characteristics are what what make Selina Meyer so likeable.
How does this happen? At least in part because ‘Veep’ is a satire, while ‘House of Cards’ is a tragedy.
Satire thrives on outrage, in this case outrage that politics is so corrupt and politicians so craven. But this satirical outrage has its roots in a sense that things ought to be, should be, maybe even will be better someday down the line. Selina’s never-ending disappointments do not make us despair, because somebody like her is exactly the wrong kind of person to hold political office. ‘Veep’ makes an implicit promise that things will come out right in the end, but not for Selina.
As a tragedy, ‘House of Cards’ more or less guarantees that the Underwoods will go down in flames, and Claire’s achievements with them.
By Cormac Deane