Seeing women in powerful positions in fictional stories is important in enabling us to visualize what it would look and feel like if women were actually represented in government and perceived as leaders.
The new season of House of Cards was just released on Netflix. I’ve always been a fan of the show and was intrigued to see how the story was going to evolve, even before Kevin Spacey was taken down by his criminal behavior. At the end of last season, we saw Claire Underwood ascend to the Presidency, as the first woman President of the United States of America.
In Season 6, Episode 3, there’s a scene at about 41 minutes in that struck me. Three women are alone in the Oval Office, no men. Two of the women are archrivals; all are very powerful and ambitious. One is the President of the United States. The visual of the Oval Office inhabited by only women is striking.
In this scene, the famous question “What is Woman” is raised from Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist manifesto, The Second Sex. Patricia Clarkson utters in her beautiful voice “long-winded for sure” after Diane Lane’s Southern Belle character declares that she hated the book. Clarke’s character closes with “But you gotta admit, she was right about everything.”
Seminal words in the Oval Office, to be sure.
The portrayal of powerful, flawed, complex women in television and film is finally happening. Claire Underwood is a fascinating portrayal in ruthlessness, supreme intelligence, and control. If anything, she is more cutthroat, yet declares that she’s much more honest and empathetic than her dead husband. I’m not sure if I believe her yet.
Another Netflix show that portrays a number of flawed, fierce and powerful women is Ozark. Laura Linney’s’ sweet, steely, yet chilling lead character (she offers up her own children in the pursuit of wealth) Wendy Byrde is finely drawn and will be seared forever into my memory.
Linney’s supporting actors such as Julia Garner as the beleaguered, abused, yet strong Ruth, Janet McTeer as Helen Pierce and Lisa Emery as Darlene Snell are all incredibly unsettling portrayals of fierce, ruthless women, each one stronger and more merciless than the other. In particular, Lisa Emery’s Darlene Snell makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Her sucker of a husband was planning to murder her, only to discover as he lay dying at her hand that she was always two steps ahead of him.
We have been socialized to think of ourselves as passive, weak and incapable of strong, meaningful leadership. Society tells us that frailty is a feminine trait to be cultivated in order to maintain the systemic and often abusive patriarchy that so many do not question, or indeed, believe in strongly.
Perhaps by portraying women as the fierce, strong, fearless, flawed warriors that we have always been, we can finally encourage women to take action and lean into a new and much-needed version of womanhood.