by Annemarie McDaniel
I watch quite a bit of TV, from the classic one-episode-a-week shows on primetime television to newer habits of binge-watching an entire season on Netflix. The shows I watch are all wonderful in their own unique ways, but there are two shows in particular I can’t stop obsessing over: How To Get Away With Murder and House of Cards. It took me a while to realize why I am still so head-over-heels in love with these two shows. Yes, they’re written very well. Of course, the acting is phenomenal. Sure, maybe part of it is the pop-culture hype around them. But there was something more to How To Get Away With Murder and House of Cards.
It was the cunning, emotional, independent women protagonists that felt so fresh and exciting to me. The shows themselves were great, but it was actually Annalise Keating of How To Get Away With Murder and Claire Underwood of House of Cards that I couldn’t stop thinking about.
At first glance, what makes Claire and Annalise unique is how they act as villainous as other male characters on television. Both women have threatened, manipulated, seduced, lied, cheated, and practically killed their way to the top of the pecking order: Claire snagging the prize of being America’s First Lady, and Annalise winning the reputation of being a top lawyer and law school professor. Furthermore, although both women acknowledge they may have made some missteps along the way, neither show is about the characters are on the show to show their remorse for their often immoral actions. Just like the male characters, they did what they had to do to get to the top.
But it’s not that they’re Strong Female Characters, a phrase meant to describe women in any form of media who appear to be tough, boss ladies but are actually annoyingly one-dimensional. They have awesome skills like killing off five bad guys at once while wearing a tight leather bodysuit; but that’s it, that’s all they bring to the table. Typically the Strong Female Character ends up being totally irrelevant to the plot; she’s a tool for the male character’s storyline and serves more as eye-candy than world-saver.
Annalise Keating and Claire Underwood are definitely not generic Strong Female Characters.
Part of it is that HTGAWM and House of Cards show Annalise and Claire in real, dynamic romantic relationships. They both deal with marriage and infidelity; some mistakes are their own and some are their spouses’. The viewer witnesses intimate moments when the characters or their spouses experience personal breakdowns, and the honest love and intimacy within their relationships. So often Strong Female Characters tend to be physically or intellectually intimidating, able to out-fight or out-smart in a second, but rarely show any real romantic depth. While other male characters in the show start relationships, fall in love, or even just joke about their casual hook-ups, typically, women’s relationships remain a mystery. The viewer gets one or two lines about her relationship, whether it’s that she’s too career-driven to have successful relationships, that she’s a player hooking up with men left and right, that she’s in an unhappy relationship now, or that she went through a past painful breakup that scarred her. But that’s all the depth we get. It’s supposed to be a part of what makes them “strong;” they don’t need men or intimacy because Strong Female Characters aren’t overly emotional. And when a Strong Female Character does get more romantic depth, it’s often the male character teaching her how to be more intimate, trusting, passionate or generally more “soft.” It’s important to have women characters like that on TV since there are women like that in the world, but it gets irritating when every single lady on the show falls into the same “independent woman” trope.
Although Annalise and Claire know when to support, to forgive and to love their husbands, they also when it’s time to call them out, to snap them back into acceptable behavior, and if all else fails, when to leave them without apology. That’s part of what makes Annalise Keating of HTGAWM different from Olivia Pope of Scandal, another Shondaland show I watch religiously. Olivia Pope, like Annalise Keating, is a multi-faceted and interesting character: sharp but arrogant, driven but vicious, motivating but terrifying, realistic but cynical. However, where Scandal departs from HTGAWM is in their love lives. Unlike Scandal, HTGAWM (and similarly House of Cards) isn’t about falling devastatingly in love or out of love with men who are controlling, manipulative, and all-consuming. It’s become painful to watch four seasons of Olivia continuously stay on the emotional roller coaster her lovers create, with her lovers constantly obsessing over her every word and move (often using national intelligence resources to literally bug or track her). Annalise and Claire are married to controlling, sometimes abusive men as well, like Olivia, but their relationships aren’t their whole identity. Annalise and Claire define their personal value as more than just their ability to love and be loved, especially when the relationship becomes toxic. Annalise and Claire know when it’s time to try again to fix a marriage, and when it’s time to leave.
Lastly, HTGAWM and House of Cards are refreshing because Annalise and Claire aren’t the only complex female characters. Annalise’s law team includes Laurel, Michaela, and Bonnie, who are just as dynamic and imperfect as Annalise, not to mention their main client, Rebecca. Similarly, Claire and her husband Frank, who are handling his re-election campaign, face not one but two women opponents running for the presidency. Both Heather Dunbar and Jackie Sharp struggle with what it means to run for the Oval Office as a woman and how ruthless is too ruthless on the campaign trail, all while also juggling families and relationships.
If you haven’t caught up on HTGAWM or House of Cards yet, I’d suggest you block out the next day or two of your life to binge-watch these new classics. Just like their female characters, these shows are not perfect, but that’s half the fun of watching.