Although female representation in Congress is higher than ever, the gender gap is still a huge hurdle for many women seeking office. Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton may provide some hope that change is on the horizon, but still women face an entirely different set of challenges when navigating the Old Boy’s club that is United States Congress (including their own bodies.) Television isn’t always the most feminist of outlets, especially when politics is concerned. Rarely is there a moment that is feminine without having to simplify a women’s character down to “stubbornness” or “strength.” Too often, the term feminist seems to translate into “overtly masculine.” However House of Cards may have accomplished just that: a flawlessly feminist moment built on a woman’s merit and cleverness without blasting her ability to be feminine.
Throughout the series, Claire Underwood has shown to be a formidable character. She’s cool and calculating with refreshing bursts of empathy. So while she doesn’t flinch at the thought of stripping a pregnant woman of prenatal care, she also finds herself moved by the resolve of a gay rights activist. This complexity is rare for female characters, especially female characters steeped in their husband’s politics. It would have been very easy for the writers to simplify Claire as a doting wife and emotional wildcard, yet time and time again Claire is victoriously three dimensional and independent. But perhaps the series’ greatest contribution to the movement is the bathroom scene in episode five of season three.
The scene is intimidating and shocking: first, Claire has her staff invite the male Russian ambassador to the UN into the women’s restroom for a conversation. Slightly embarrassed, he enters to her applying makeup. She is articulate and precise in both her make up and her conversation, even occasionally asking his opinion on her application. He’s noticeably uncomfortable already, but then Claire enters a bathroom stall and continues the conversation through the partially open stall door as she relieves herself. Afterwards, having washed her hands and having gotten the response she wanted, she wraps up her show of intimidation by asking the ambassador for a hand towel. This scene is phenomenal not only in the smoothness of its execution, but in its implication for womankind. Claire’s actions are reminiscent of Lyndon B. Johnson’s intimidation tactics of dragging people into the bathroom with him- an action that, while crass, isn’t shocking– for a man, that is.
Women are taught to be quiet, gentle, and “ladylike.” So while LBJ was just “being a man,” Claire is being revolutionary. And effective. She brought her point home in an unflinching, unapologetic move. Her dominance over the situation was subtle while also startling, enough to throw her fellow ambassador off guard. Furthermore, this show of passive force proves that while she might be a recess appointment, she’s fully capable of handling the pressures associated with her new job. Claire is a supportive wife, but she’s also an ambassador, a powerful political actor, and a feminist icon to boot.