20 September 2014

What Claire Underwood Makes Us Ask About Feminism

It’s not very timely, but I’d like to talk about Claire Underwood, a character from Netflix’s series House of Cards.  If you have not seen the first and second seasons of that show, this post will contain many spoilers for you.

So stop here if you intend to watch House of Cards, since the surprising plot twists are part of what make it such a compelling piece of programming.

For the rest of us, let’s take a moment to remember that Claire Underwood is a terrible person.  People of all ethical persuasions can probably agree on this fact.  Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic gave a good partial summary of Claire’s misdeeds in an article about her:

  • She illegally cancels the health insurance of a former employee to deprive her of the medicine her fetus needs, using the maneuver as leverage in making her wrongful-termination lawsuit go away. Claire says, "I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required."
  • She knows and does not object to the fact that her husband is sleeping with a 22-year-old reporter, partly in order to wield psychological control over her; she is fine with his plan to destroy the young reporter; and the show strongly implies that she looks the other way when her husband murders the reporter.
  • An ambitious female assistant to the president is fired when Claire disingenuously implies to the first lady that she is having an affair with the president.
  • Claire pretends to befriend the first lady and manipulates her into going to marriage counseling in order to facilitate her husband's downfall as president.
  • While working on an anti-sexual assault bill, Claire pressures another woman who was raped by the same general—and who struggles with suicidal thoughts—to come forward, insisting the political payoff will be worth the significant personal sacrifice. But later, after the younger woman comes forward and suffers, it turns out that continuing to push the bill would have a political cost for Claire, at which point she opportunistically drops the legislation.

Friedersdorf is musing on Claire as a feminist icon, a discussion that was widespread at one point.  He thinks that she should definitely not be celebrated as a feminist, punning on a famous Gloria Steinem quote to declare, “Women need Claire as a feminist ally like a fish needs a wood-chopper.”  He admits that she undertakes a variety of actions that gesture towards feminism, listing her fearless public outing of her rapist, her bold ownership of her choice to have an abortion, and her fight for reforms to stop sexual assault in the military.  But to Friedersdorf, her motivation disqualifies her. "The fact that observers are willing to forgive her numerous monstrous acts and still credit her as a strong feminist is a statement about “our inclination toward power worship and ignoring abuses,” Friedersdorf says.  He’s an eloquent defender of libertarianism, and rightly points out that our society is often far too quick to forgive her sort of ruthless immorality.  Uncompromising people are easy to admire, as the wisest person in Braveheart once said, but as Friedersdorf points out,
But America is in deep trouble if the prevailing reaction to a ruthless, self-serving, power-hungry sociopath is to assess her political effectiveness, see if her policy positions accord with ours, and only then decide whether to reject her or, if she is "a winner," to embrace her as long as she stays one. Every moral judgment would quickly becomes suspect. 
This is a good point, but I think it’s orthogonal to a more interesting thought: to what extent is general virtue complementary or necessary to more specific moral movements?  Can you be an evil feminist and still be a “true” feminist?

It’s not as simple a question as it appears.  We know this because there are at least two replies that are immediately obvious to one kind of person or another:

Yes, you can be a strong woman working towards the elimination of discrimination and misogyny as a central goal, while otherwise following a less reputable moral path.

and

No, a feminist cannot separate the pursuit of a general moral good (however they define it) from the specific pursuit of equal rights and equal opportunity.

Maybe only one of those appeals to you.  I find merit in both arguments, though.  And as is so often the case, I think that this is really just one more argument about definitions.

I’m going to pull out the dictionary, as tiresome as that might be, only to illustrate that it provides two somewhat conflicting definitions of the term.  Merriam-Webster gives us two primary definitions, saying that feminism is either “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” or “organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.”  I’m sure you see the distinction, and the problem.  It’s the same conflict found in my answers above: whether or not you think that one can be a villainous feminist - a ruthless Claire Underwood - depends largely on whether you believe that feminism strives towards larger principles of universal equality.

To avoid a false dilemma here, let me say that I think that the two alternative views are not the only possible interpretation, and they don’t even fully contradict each other.  For the most part, it’s possible to believe feminism to be both the advocacy of women’s rights and interests and the advocacy of equal rights and interests.  This is especially true when women are so generally disadvantaged that there is no practical difference, as is usually the case.  When women are always getting screwed over, working for equality is always going to amount to helping women.

Usually, we can be content to leave the distinction to philosophers, at least in this era.  When women are politically, economically, and socially equal to men, we can all fly to the Great Sky-Agora with our jetpacks, links up our brains to Brainomax, and hash out the issue of whether or not feminism means advocating for women or for equality.

So for the time being, conflict is evident only when it comes to “evil” feminists - people who personify the ideal of the strong, bold woman who is unafraid to assert her own power and who solves her own problems.  Claire Underwood doesn’t allow her husband to avenge her rape - she does it herself in a live interview.  And in the same interview, she deals with an intrusive journalist’s questions about children by taking positive ownership of her reproductive choices, scorning the insinuation that she should be somehow ashamed.  Claire advances her interests and her goals for her non-profit, and isn’t afraid to occasionally use her husband as a pawn, the same way he has used her.

In short, Claire is definitely a badass symbol of some key feminist ideas, and a fierce advocate for herself and her gender… while also being remarkably evil.  And whether or not you give her credit for being a feminist hero (or a feminist at all) depends on whether or not you think she is betraying the larger moral source of feminism’s moral authority.

There's no right answer here, just like there's no one correct definition of feminism.  Or at least, I wouldn't be the guy to make those sorts of pronouncements.  Not even the most well-intentioned dude should be purporting to define feminism.  But it's something to be aware of, and yet another lesson (as if we needed another) in how accurately defining the problem usually is half of solving it.


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