Is House of Cards' Claire Underwood a psychopath? Maybe...
In a previous post I discussed how a psychopath like the Joker can fly under the radar by playing crazy. I also mentioned that that isn’t the only way a psychopath can go unnoticed by the rest of society; they can also play subdued. This is how most function without notice, by appearing and behaving like the average, everyday, person. They have jobs, families, friends, and show the appropriate emotions at the appropriate times. Admittedly there are still moments they slip into their more cold, calculating, and ruthless nature, but those times are often dismissed as a single event (even when it’s a repeated one) or a quirk. …This seems to be what House of Cards’ main female protagonist — or will that be antagonist now? — Claire Underwood is able to do.
Claire's potential psychopathy is almost immediately dismissed in nearly every other discussion about her, which speaks to how well her psychopathy might be hidden. Of course it’s easy to hide when your husband — Frank Underwood — is a man who kills by hand without compunction and drawls out charming asides that sound right out of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Just because she’s not the most psychopathic doesn’t mean she’s not a psychopath. All one need do is go down Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist to see that, at the very least, Claire has a surprisingly high number of the traits.
There is no doubt that Claire can be very charming when she wishes to be. She is able to befriend those her husband can’t or shouldn’t for whatever reason and almost instantly become their best friend and closest confidante. By season three it’s said Claire is more popular with voters than Frank. The thing is, it’s all surface. Claire’s kindness, her gentle demeanor towards others, her one-on-one talks of apparent openness and honestly, are generally only done to aid in her and/or Frank’s benefit. She uses the secrets she’s told against the confessor and others and accumulates favors for herself and/or Frank through those friendships. Once a person no longer proves valuable Claire loses all interest in turning on the charm for them. (Please note that even if what she’s doing appears to benefit Frank more her mindset is consistently: what benefits Frank will ultimately benefit me.)
Grandiose Sense of Worth:
Others have suggested that Claire is actually a narcissist, which alone indicates that she has this trait. While not someone constantly boasting her greatness or needing reassurance that she’s fabulous, like an actual narcissist would, Claire certainly believes it herself. With no experience at all she insists Frank make her an ambassador — even when it means circumventing the standard Senate hearing — and is certain she’ll be great at the job. When she’s not Claire proceeds to blame others and outside circumstances for her failings throughout her time holding the position. When Frank later declares he never should have made her ambassador she counters: “I never should have made you president.” …True, she had a major part in his success, but so did he.
Need for Stimulation/Prone to Boredom:
When discussing Frank’s marriage proposal Claire quotes him as stating: “Claire, if all you want is happiness, say no. I'm not gonna give you a couple of kids and count the days until retirement. I promise you freedom from that. I promise you'll never be bored.” …For some that might not be the best way to go, but for Claire it was perfect. She never wanted the simple life, or even happiness if it meant that she wouldn't be living a stimulating life. Given the wording Frank’s proposal suggests that a boring life, or even just a simple one, was something Claire always worried she’d end up with; she needs excitement and stimulation.
Claire lies directly, by suggestion, or by omission whenever she thinks it’ll benefit her. She lied to the (previous) First Lady by suggesting that there was something untoward between her husband and a secretary to throw their marriage into turmoil, paving the way for Frank to take the presidency right from under them. She lied to the public about her relationship with another man, Adam, to cover a potentially scandalous affair — Frank knew and didn’t seem to care much, but both understandably doubted the American public’s capacity for acceptance. When the press discovered she’d had an abortion she claimed it was related to being raped and, from there, built an entire political movement concerning sexual abuse in the military. (She’d been raped, yes, but the abortion occurred as the result of different circumstances.) By the end of season three Claire even states that both she and Frank have been lying to themselves and each other…while not specific it’s easy to presume she’s referring to what each expected to get out of the other and their relationship on whole.
This one rather folds into the superficial charm previously discussed given charm is what is most often used by a psychopath in order to con and manipulate. Claire has no trouble using others to get what she wants and then dropping them when they are no longer useful. From coworkers to lovers Claire has manipulated many into doing her dirty work or taking the fall from grace for her before discarding them for the next person or organization that’ll be of use to her. Speaking of organizations I have a theory that her fierce dedication during the time she ran a non-profit aimed at building wells in African villages was all something of a long con…not only does it look good for her to have a life and career independent of her husband, but the better she does running such an organization the more she can promote her philanthropic success in future campaigns (for herself).
Lack of Remorse or Guilt:
One of the keys to spotting a psychopath is their lack of remorse for what they do. Frank is very clear in his lack of remorse, even if you suspect he has it he usually gives a snide aside to the camera to assure you he does not. Claire is not as obvious, in fact there are times when she does seem remorseful — like when gay activist, Corrigan, killed himself in Russia — but that doesn’t necessarily mean she is. What is read as remorse could also be a sense of defeat, frustration, or disappointment. The problem is Claire gets no talk-time with the audience so, unlike her husband, we honestly don’t know what she’s feeling.
What is known is that she’s capable of doing pretty terrible things without any problems. She’s not pushing people in front of trains, but she is pushing them to their emotional and mental limits…often times beyond. She destroys the lives of her former lover, the (previous) First Lady and President, and even a fellow rape survivor to get ahead without thinking twice or looking back. When a former employee at her non-profit dares to challenge her she cooly declares: “I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required. Am I really the sort of enemy you want to make?” The answer is no, she is not, and more than that anyone who doubts the validity of her threat(s) probably hasn’t been paying close enough attention to Mrs. Underwood.
Claire is known for her chilly demeanor so she certainly shares the flat affect that psychopaths are known for when they aren’t turning on the charm. Most find her even colder than Frank much of the time and even when speaking about traumatic aspects of her past (such as her rape in college) Claire’s not one to get all that emotionally expressive. Perhaps she would be more so if she got to break the fourth wall like Frank does, but it seems equally possible that she wouldn’t.
Callousness/Lack of Empathy:
Previously discussed traits such as her ability to manipulate and lack of remorse rather speak to her callousness and lack of empathy. If she were truly empathetic she wouldn’t be able to do those things. She’d feel too terrible as she shared the emotions of those she used, bullied, and ruined the lives of. Even when she might share an experience, theoretically know how the other person might feel, she’s still not empathetic enough to not use them to her advantage…like when Claire pushed a fellow rape victim into telling her story so she could make her own political progress.
This one’s a little tricky since Claire and Frank found one another while still young and, at least for much of the time, seemed to have a more symbiotic relationship. They fed off one another, but it was balanced so that neither was really parasitic with the other. Now that Claire’s discovered she’s no longer getting what she wants and/or needs from Frank and is leaving him we may see how she functions without a relationship like theirs.
Poor Behavioral Controls:
Frank is seen exploding in a rage more than a few times, but there are only two or three times total that Claire’s control over her behavior slips. The first is at the Senate hearing for her confirmation as ambassador when she is not allowed to speak and snaps at one of the senators. The second is her verbal slapping of Russian president, Petrov, for his upholding anti-gay laws in his country during a press conference. The third is more of an almost when, while giving blood, she rambles and comes just shy of revealing things about her marriage she probably shouldn’t. None of these are extreme and most are understandable — it’s easy to see anyone in her position doing the same things. For the most part Claire doesn’t really have this trait as she tends to express herself in more subtle ways — like shutting the door for even more privacy — and even when behaving somewhat impulsively there’s a measure of control to it, as we’ll discuss later.
I’m not a fan of this one in general for its vagueness as to what might constitute promiscuity. It can be seen as subjective and naturally brings up the classic what is promiscuous for a woman may not be considered promiscuous for a man issue. That being said it’s on the list so let’s tackle it. For a definition we’ll go with the Webster’s dictionary definition of not just “many” sexual partners, but picking those partners indiscriminately. It’s hard to say what she was like prior to meeting Frank, but even while with him the trait at least partially fits just as it fits Frank. One can argue she’s discriminating with her lover, Adam, given they appear to have enough of a history together she knows she can trust him. No one can really say that concerning the threesome with her husband and their bodyguard, Meechum, though — she knows less about Meechum than Frank and Frank really doesn’t know much. (It might also be of note that with both Adam and Meechum Claire seems capable of keeping emotionally detached so that, when no longer helpful, she can drop them without a thought, which does not necessarily qualify her as promiscuous, but may increase the likelihood that she is.)
Early Behavior Problems:
Given we don’t know much of Claire’s pre-Frank past it’s hard to say. She could’ve had troubles, but it’s also possible that she didn’t. It’s impossible to tell with the limited information we have.
Lack of Realistic Long-Term Goals:
Are any of us certain what Claire's long-term goals are? We presume that she wants to be president herself one day, but I’m not sure that’s so unrealistic…after all Frank did it. That being said, after all that’s occurred in Frank’s presidency thus far, it’s hard to imagine that the American public would vote either of them into office.
At first glance Claire doesn’t seem impulsive at all, but she does have her moments. One of the clearest examples is in the first season when she disappears to Adam’s apartment and stays for a period of time. While still a semi-calculated move (hence preventing it from qualifying for poor behavioral control) it’s not one she prepared for or told anyone about. Claire just did it. As mentioned previously Claire also impulsively went off-script at a press conference to condemn Russian president, Petrov.
Claire is responsible when she wants to be, when it benefits her, but otherwise she isn’t. When a vast majority of her staff at the non-profit needs to be let go Claire pawns the responsibility off on an employee…who she then fires. Once the focus of her responsibilities are for Frank’s benefit more than hers she sorta starts slacking. She’s less inclined to go through with promised campaign stops and, eventually, she stops altogether and without warning to anyone. She even stops taking her husband’s calls.
Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions:
There are probably multiple reasons why LGBT-rights activist Corrigan commits suicide, but the nonstop insistence by Claire that he read the statement prepared for him didn’t help things. It wasn’t all Claire’s fault, but it wasn’t entirely Petrov’s either although she certainly seemed to think it was. Same holds for the Senate hearing on her potential ambassadorship: some did attack her (even after saying they wouldn’t), but she wasn’t in any way prepared or experienced enough for the position either. What would be interesting to see is if Claire’s sense of responsibility will change now that she’s separating from Frank — will she still acknowledge the things she did during their time together or pass the blame off on Frank with claims of “I only did it for him”? ...Honestly, unless it suits her better to throw him under the bus, I doubt it.
Many Short-Term Marital Relationships:
Claire notes that she had many proposals, but as far as we’re aware Claire’s only ever been married to Frank so it would seem this aspect of a psychopath is not something she has. Whether that changes or not over time is impossible to say just yet.
Again, we don’t know enough about Claire as a young woman or child to speak with any authority on even the possibility of her having this trait or not.
Revocation of Conditional Release:
We’re not aware of her ever having been released from anywhere on any condition so this one’s probably a no.
While there’s no mention of Claire having a criminal record (expunged or otherwise) and none of the things she’s done have quite reached the level of being illegal she might still qualify. Many things she’s done have been amoral — lying, intimidation, using others, betraying those around her — and, under slightly different circumstances, could be viewed as criminal acts. She also likely knew about the murders of Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes, which would at least make her an accessory after the fact.
Because Claire is far more closed off and subtle than Frank it’s difficult to determine if she would qualify as a psychopath — she may be or she may fall just short of the official diagnosis. But House of Cards writer, Beau Willimon, was once quoted as saying: “In many ways, I see Claire and Frank as the same animal: two people who are liberated in so far as they don’t bind themselves to any ideology or ethical standards. As people who do not feel they have to play by the rules, they really are completely self-serving – and they think that’s OK.” …That statement heavily suggests that both Underwoods have the same potentially pathological psychology and, given many have (rightly) declared Frank a psychopath, then Claire would be one too.
...Perhaps this new season (released at the time of this posting) will give us further insight into Clarie's personality and potential psychological pathology...