Warning: this post contains spoilers for “House of Cards” and “Breaking Bad.”
It’s tough being the wife of an anti-hero these days. Actually, it’s probably always tough being the wife of an anti-hero, given that anti-heroes aren’t, by definition, nice guys. What I’m talking about, though, is the audience reaction to women who don’t want to be behind the man who makes the meth, or women who don’t want to be further marginalized in their husband’s murderous reach for ever more power.
I just finished the third season of “House of Cards.” Watching it in a social media vacuum to avoid spoilers, I saw a Claire greatly diminished from the one in the first season. For anyone who hasn’t watched the American version of this show, Claire Underwood, portrayed by the always, always brilliant Robin Wright, is wife to Frank Underwood, opportunistic power-seizer brought to chilling life by Kevin Spacey. Together, they have schemed themselves into the White House, a slew of bodies — metaphorical and literal — cluttering the path behind them.
But in this season, Frank tightened his circle of power to just himself, leaving out even his most stalwart co-conspirator, Claire. She has gone from a strong, ruthless head of a non-profit organization to now nothing more than a haircut and a smile, wearing what she is told to wear, standing where she is told to stand, saying what she is told to say. Slowly she has come to realize that her husband doesn’t see her as an equal partner, and she can no longer be certain that he ever did. No, she is one of his pawns, manipulated, her worth to him measured in polling points.
So she leaves.
And the internet complained. People were “tired of Claire.” They blamed her for Frank’s mistakes, as Frank blamed her for his mistakes. They thought she was hindering him. The thought that her timing, leaving during the presidential primaries, was unforgivable.
It’s reminiscent of the treatment Anna Gunn’s Skylar got in “Breaking Bad” when she wanted to leave her terrifying, homicidal drug-kingpin husband. She became the problem, she became the obstacle, she became the villain.
It seems that a woman choosing self-preservation over the toxic man to whom she is married is the ultimate act of selfishness, the ultimate betrayal. It’s insane, if you think about how these scenarios would play in real life, how they would feel in real life.
We are talking about male characters who, at the point their wives want to go, have no redeeming qualities. We aren’t even supposed to be rooting for them at this point, as their flaws have taken over, leaving something far more sinister.
These men are calculating murderers. They are entirely self-involved, entirely willing to do absolutely anything to achieve their goals. And yet the women are worse than they are because they want to leave them.
When women are in abusive relationships, people often ask why they stay. With these shows, the disdainful question becomes why do they leave.
Women are not possessions. Women are not garnish, as Claire was for most of season 3. We have a right to decide how we will and will not live.
Even when we’re fictional.
Check out my full-length novels, Her Cousin Much Removed, The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!