As far as I can tell, there’s a stark difference between a “feminist character” and a “character who is a feminist.” While there certainly can be overlap, there rarely ever seems to be, and I can’t understand why there seems to be so much confusion.
This post has been buzzing around my head since February’s season two debut of Netflix’s House of Cards, but somehow I haven’t been able to properly articulate what I’ve wanted to say until today.
The House of Cards premiere generated a lot of discussion regarding Claire Underwood’s “credentials” as a feminist, specifically in regard to a plot line wherein she gets revenge on (and supposedly justice from) the man who raped her in college, (now a decorated military man) by invoking him as the reason for her (several) abortions in a live television interview. In one fell swoop, Claire is able to forever demolish the reputation of her attacker, and deftly explains away her childless marriage in a way that secures sympathy for herself and her husband witin the political arena.
For this, Jezebel declared her a “feminist warrior anti-hero.”
If you’ve actually watched the show, you know different.
While the desire to hail Claire’s actions in that scenario as a kind of feminist triumph is completely understandable, (especially as it is the beginning of a longer story arc in which Claire attempts to tackle reforming the handling of sexual assault and reporting in the U.S. military), it too conveniently forgets that earlier in the same season, Claire threatens to revoke a pregnant former employee’s health care in a ploy to strong arm her into dropping a(n admittedly fraudulent) wrongful termination suit.
One finds it much harder to sell her as a paragon of feminism after that.
So where am I going with this? Claire Underwood the fictional person is in no way a feminist. Claire Underwood the character is as feminist as they come. And it’s a distinction that I think is critical to consuming pop culture through a feminist lens.
As I wrote back in February, Claire Underwood the fictional person is effectively amoral; she is driven by self-interest and her loyalties lie firmly with her husband. This is her in-world reality. In our world, as viewers on the outside looking in, watching the show in the context of the realities of our current society:
[…] the existence of a character like Claire is very feminist. We’ve completely saturated the male anti-hero market with our Walter Whites and our Don Drapers. To have a prominent female character created to be every bit as conniving, manipulative and beguiling as the men around her means that we’re opening up to the idea that women are unique creatures with complex personalities, and we’re not all smiling blandly beside our men.
Claire Underwood the fictional person is, (forgive my French) a cold-hearted, conniving, opportunistic bitch. Claire Underwood the character is a yardstick against which we can measure how far our understanding of the representation of women has progressed, and our ability as a society to see women not as impenetrable, mythical creatures, but as fully actualized people with elaborate inner lives, personal motivations and entire existences (both good and bad) outside the considerations of the men who happen to be in close proximity.
To me, the same applies to Olivia Pope.
As the first black female lead on a network television show in 17 years, Scandal’s protagonist was bound to court controversy regardless of how the plot panned out. But with Olivia’s progressive involvement in subverting the law, “stealing the Republic,” harbouring criminals, destroying an innocent man’s reputation and protecting murderers (including her married boyfriend!), Olivia Pope the fictional person is almost as far away from feminism as Claire.
However, in the larger context of a world which still routinely demonizes black women, heavily relying on damaging tropes like the “strong black woman,” the “jezebel,” the “sapphire,” and now confoundingly, the “negro bed wench” in various and unrelenting forms of visual media, a television show that depicts a black woman expressing and demonstrating her humanity is revolutionary. As Trudy over at Gradient Lair deftly demonstrates in her essay, “Olivia Pope,” Fear And Black Women’s Humanity Onscreen:
While “Olivia” has the standard external markers of the (class privileged, corporate) Strong Black Woman stereotype, such as power suits and great style, her own company, powerful meetings, a loyal staff and problem solving skills, she easily eschews this stereotype and presents a full human being with nuanced emotions with situations where she is confident and others where she is vulnerable. And a lot in between. Humor, […] empathy, […] sensuality and sexuality […].
One of the reasons that “Olivia Pope” presents a uniquely nuanced and powerful portrait of a Black woman on screen is because this character gets to experience fear but is not forced to keep it inside all of the time. There’s no relentless Strong Black Woman. She’s also not completely helpless where “damsel in distress” becomes an approved identity for Black women solely because it’s the opposite of how we are usually viewed. That identity is a facet of the construction of White womanhood, meant to be denied to Black women through the Strong Black Woman stereotype where the latter has actual consequences. Instead, “Olivia” acknowledged her fear, one that tears would not even articulate […] but because even tears are not sufficient. Are tears sufficient for you if Command was your father? It’s like…the fear and pain is past that. And she was comforted by Jake, as a vulnerable human being, not someone he had to save with zero agency. This nuance is new on screen but something that many Black women wish they could convey without being forced into a binary of Strong Black Woman versus “oh you’re ‘weak’ and acting like a White woman” whenever we aren’t performing strength. Simply complex humanity. And “Olivia” being able to be afraid but retain her humanity and all that it encompasses is revolutionary.
While I’d never want Olivia Pope for an ally, her characterization as a black woman who is permitted to access the full range of emotion, rather than be depicted as an unfeeling automaton who always has a witty comeback, a sassy put-down and a solution, gives us the viewing public an expression of black womanhood that is nuanced in both breadth and depth; a feminist endeavor if ever there was one.
The reason I think it so important to point out that though neither character is feminist, but rather that it is their existence in the landscape of pop culture that is feminist, is because the opposite and inverse is also true. There are many characters who are self-proclaimed feminists, who are anything but, when critically examined in the context of our culture.
These of course, are the straw feminists.
Have you seen the movie Legally Blonde? Remember the character Enid Wexlin, the lesbian law student who wanted to petition Harvard to change the word “semester” to “ovester” because the word “semen” is oppressive to women? Yeah…. that happened.
Now I dare you to find a real-live, living, breathing, self-identified feminist woman who is sincerely concerned with that kind of superficial bullshit.
You can stop looking now because they largely don’t exist. (White feminists excluded. Because that’s a whole other can of worms.)
Straw feminists in pop culture, (as Anita Sarkeesian explains in the video embeded above) exist to align the feminist movement with exaggerated and irrational notions of “female empowerment” in order to easily dismantle, undermine and discredit supposedly feminist tenets. They also serve to “separate female leads who are smart and strong and witty, […] from any association with feminism.”
As Anita states, these women only ever exist in post-feminist utopias where “everyone is already equal” rendering feminism unnecessary. After all, arguing for more diverse representation in a world where only 10% of films depict a gender balanced cast, and Hollywood remains painfully white, makes total sense. Arguing the same in a world where things are already equal makes you a hysterical harpie bent on ruling the world and bringing about the end of men through forced castration.
The thing is, it completely makes sense to want to see more feminist representation in media, but not every female character needs to come complete with a bright yellow “feminist” sticker included in order to engage with, challenge or uphold feminist ideals. Not every character need espouse feminist politics to be “acceptable.” The constant rush to label any specific character feminist or not, frankly misses the point, because in reality, that’s not how feminist praxis works. Feminists are not perfect people who are always on the right side of the issue and never misstep. Real, full human beings err on occasion; sometimes they get it wrong. That is part of the human experience, but the inevitable ideological misstep does not negate someone’s feminism.
To once again quote the incomparable Trudy, from her essay “Olivia Pope,” “Claire Underwood” And The Desire For Feminist Female Characters On Television:
I desire truth and humanity in characters more than feminist politics however relevant the latter is. Any show that’s a good show should be able to push my own thinking on feminist politics even if the show stands in polar opposite to feminism in fact, especially if it does. That’s how I know I am challenging my own womanism – when media overlaps it or stands in opposition to it and I can see it. This doesn’t meant that media should be exceptionally harmful or irresponsible. It means that it exists in a space of both entertainment and interrogation of the status quo – for me as a womanist – and that these can occur simultaneously.
So no, neither Claire Underwood or Olivia Pope is a feminist, but their existence bodes well for feminist representations and depictions of women in mainstream culture.