What ‘House Of Cards’ Can Teach Us About Polyamory
Warning: spoilers ahead.
I cried literal tears of joy during episode 11 of the current House of Cards season.
As a purposely child-free, unconventionally partnered woman in my mid-30’s with an unapologetic sex drive who is open about my history of abuse, multiple sexual assaults, and decision to terminate a pregnancy, I am rarely reflected in the characters I watch on any visual platform. I’m not in movies or on TV. I may nod along to or appreciate a character’s complexity or conflicting desires — because I identify with the notion that we aren’t all inherently awesome or awful — but my life choices aren’t represented anywhere.
That is until I met Claire Underwood two years ago. (I got into House of Cards when the second season was released, streaming the first twenty-six episode almost without stopping.)
I first saw myself in Claire when her reaction to husband Frank possibly stepping out on their marriage was underwhelming by cultural and Hollywood standards. The depiction of her own on again, off again affair with a photographer lead to the revelation that she and Frank clearly had an unconventional marriage. The audience is left with the distinct impression that they might even be open about being open — or at least unconcerned about hiding — if they weren’t in the politics business. Their discretion is a public relations exercise demanding traditional family values of all candidates in both parties.
By the end of the first season Claire has openly discussed her sexual assault and we’ve discovered she’s had three abortions because the Underwoods had agreed not to have children. Yes, she’s conniving and vindictive and conspiring with her husband in power grab schemes while screwing over long-time employees at her non-profit and threatening anyone who can’t get on board with what she wants . . . and yet, I became hooked to this character, fully invested in seeing things work out for her. We watch because the inherent suspense in risky, evil plan making and the complex feelings we have rooting for characters who do very bad things.
Conniving aside, Claire is decidedly likeable — as is nearly every recurring character on the show, save maybe the Russian president. Which is why it matters that she is so unconventional. It is always easier to accept norm-challenging ideas and choices when they are exhibited by people we are invested in.
When asked if she ever regrets not having children by the wife of Republican presidential nominee New York Governor Will Conway, Claire hardly blinks. She gracefully picks up her coffee cup, looks the aspiring First Lady in the eye, and says with the calm, polite deep freeze of a southerner blessing your heart: “Do you ever regret having them?”
At this point in the series, Claire isn’t just First Lady, she’s the Vice Presidential candidate. It’s inconceivable that anyone of any gender or station would ask such a disrespectful, assumptive question of any of the men who have sought that office. Mrs. Conway offers an apology between asking the question and Claire’s response, but it’s not for assuming that the default station of a woman is to reproduce. Mrs. Conway backtracks with an awkward, “Oh, I’m sorry; that’s too personal” — indicating she and everyone else are decidedly judging Claire’s deviation from the norm, but shouldn’t have asked her to admit such a shamefully selfish life choice. Heaven forbid a woman with the means to care for a child elect not to have one.
I spent the latter part of my 20’s and first half of my 30’s on the receiving end of suggestive comments and concerned inquiries from “friends,” family, and complete strangers who couldn’t stand silently by as my reproductive years slipped away. My decision to terminate a pregnancy at 30 remained private for a while, but once I began talking about how immediate and easy my decision to choose an abortion was, people finally became uncomfortable enough to stop bringing up my potential children.
Because of that experience, I welcome any pop culture/on-screen character who is open about never having wanted kids. Typically, the childless women we see are portrayed as having had to choose a career over a family or not having met the right man or any other number of “it just never happened for her + sad sigh” life stories. Having children is still the default in our culture, not an active choice as it should be. This makes characters like Claire and Frank who always knew they didn’t want them — a shared choice that factored into their decision to marry — so rare I’m not sure I can name another well-known depiction.
Their decision not to have children helped bring them to a place where they could go “beyond marriage.” The final three episodes of season four pull together all the choices they’ve made over the course of their 30-year partnership, both together and individually. We hear Claire first use that phrase at a campaign stop in South Dakota as she delivers a speech written by Thomas Yates — a best-selling author turned Underwood staffer. Claire asks two supporters why they are outspoken despite being surrounded by Conway’s base in the heart of solid red country. Why aren’t they voting for the veteran who is married with two small children? The wife responds:
“When we saw you two at the convention, I don’t know — it just seemed like a real partnership.”
As Claire stands in their front yard explaining to the cameras that, of course, she and Frank would be on the ticket together — that she and her husband had been partners in policy and campaigning and life since they met, she owned the uniqueness of their relationship and unconventional life.
“We’re not just president and first lady or husband and wife; we have made a choice to tackle everything together,” she said. “We go beyond what’s pretty and perfect, beyond what’s scary, difficult and unknown. We’re not just partners on the ticket; we’re partners in life.”
Yes, they’re a straight white couple with plenty of privilege — nothing unconventional about that. But in this country, you are still seen as suspect if you don’t perform the hetero- and mono-normative scripts of coupling and life goals. Here was a First Lady and Vice Presidential nominee declaring that their being “beyond marriage” was not something to overlook; it was, in fact, a reason to vote for them.
I have finally begun to see the deviances in my life as assets, rather than drawbacks. Not wanting children to whom I’m a primary parent leaves me free to invest more in my nieces, my community, reproductive justice activism, creative expression, close friends who rely on me for support, and even electoral politics. I appreciated seeing Claire own her life choices rather than shying away from them or even stating them matter-of-factly the way so many do; she didn’t just happen to end up without children, she designed her life as she wanted it to be.
The most exciting thing about their marriage for me also happens to be the most unconventional, an element that largely remains hidden from public view: they have long been open with each other about having outside sexual partners. They even had a spontaneous threesome with Edward Meechum one evening after his shift protecting the Underwoods had ended. So when Thomas Yates accompanies Claire to Texas where her estranged mother was about to die, the audience isn’t surprised to see them spend the night together.
Claire and Tom only got together one more time (on camera, at least) before he tells her he should leave the campaign. When she begins to protest, he says tells her she doesn’t have to say anything.
How could Tom possibly know that this relationship was — or could be — sanctioned by his lover’s husband? We don’t have space for ethical non-monogamy in our culture because we don’t see examples of it anywhere. Poly families have to worry about exposure causing rifts with in-laws and best friends, potentially getting them fired (think teachers, for example), and losing custody of children they may share with mono-normative ex-partners. I didn’t realize it was an option until I was well into my 30’s, having suffered through years of feeling anxious and generally weird and alone. And I wasn’t trying to date the First Lady.
Tom also couldn’t possibly know that he would be treated with respect and kindness — and perhaps even love. While the tone of her voice and the look on her face when she speaks to Tom about Frank makes it clear she has room in her heart for both men — these two very different men. Without a model to suggest he could even imagine such an arrangement, he must have assumed he’d be used and eventually discarded; his insecurities are masked as common sense.
While some may be able to envision people wanting variety in their sex lives and maybe a “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement, the idea of being involved with someone who also loves someone else, seems unthinkable. Mono-normative people describe love as though it’s in limited supply: if you love your spouse, you have nothing left to give anyone else. Love has never worked that way in my life — platonic, familial, or romantic. It doesn’t work that way for other people either, but they hold up the romantic notion of The One, a fated love that’s all-consuming and burns so brightly it outshines everything and everyone else.
And so, because of all these understandable assumptions and cultural norms, Tom leaves. Then, something remarkable happens. (Queue my tears of joy.) Claire calls Frank to let him know that Tom has left the campaign and Frank seems surprised and concerned about whether or not she’s alright.
When Tom is shown pacing in Frank’s office (in the residence, not the Oval), I was anticipating what came next in a way that most of the audience likely wasn’t. As someone in a polyamorous relationship with a married man, I’m analogous to Tom in this scene — though I knew my partner was poly when we met. They hadn’t been open for that long when we went on our first date and there have been many bumps in the road, but their decision about their relationship had already been made.
Along the way I have learned why it is so important for people to know their metamours (the broad term for the partners of your partners); it sounds contentious to the mono-normative, but it’s most often reassuring to have confirmation that the relationship you’re in is not just sanctioned, but encouraged. When you know the metamour or two your partner is closest with, it can be easy to see what they find valuable about them — typically things that are different from you, things that are either not in your nature or not of interest to you.
Understanding what everyone brings to the table can be comforting and even lead to an appreciation and/or love for one’s metamours. When everyone’s needs are met, everyone is happier and many of us find true joy in our partners’ happiness whether or not we are always the ones inciting it.
Tom doesn’t know he’s about to have a meeting with a metamour, so when Frank asks “It was more than just a fling, wasn’t it?” he is, understandably, expecting anger to follow. Instead, Frank seems to be inquiring about Tom’s intentions towards his wife. Satisfied that they had a real connection — “Do you make Claire laugh?” he asks — Frank sends his former speechwriter home. The next day in the Oval Office — the symbol of their partnership and everything they’ve achieved together as a couple — Frank asks Claire if the South Dakota “beyond marriage” speech was Tom’s. My polyamorous heart skipped a beat. I couldn’t believe I was watching this conversation being depicted on such a stage.
“He should stay on — not as your speech writer,” Frank says. “Well, I mean, yes, for the rest of the world he could be our speech writer. But that’s not why he should stay on. He should stay on because he can give you things that I can’t.”
Right there, on the couch in the Oval Office, the president and the first lady decide to go full poly. Their conversation is perfect. They affirm their love for each other. Frank says that this isn’t about his permission — that isn’t his to give. He simply knows that she respects his feelings (at least when it comes to the romantic aspect of their marriage) and he wants her to know he more than understands; he wants her to be happy and fulfilled.
The value of having very different people who care about you is playing out in my own life; my boyfriend’s wife and I are very different. Though we’ve only met once (for now), I definitely like her and it’s easy to see how he could be drawn to both of us at the same time. As someone who never wants to be an anchor partner (the live-in/spouse role) because melding my living space with someone else is not in my nature, I am glad — relieved, really — that he has someone so excellent at daily relationship life and support.
And my sense from him is that both of them are glad that I came into their lives. My skill set and supportive style means she gets to share the emotional labor with someone she is — hopefully! — learning to trust. Much like Frank trusts Tom because Claire trusts him (it is Claire he asks first if they need to be concerned about Tom leaving the campaign with all the dirt he has on them), my metamour first made the choice to trust me, because she trusts her husband. This is often how it works and for some metamours that is the only bond they share; they may not love or even particularly like each other, but they each trust their shared partner and appreciate seeing them grow and be happy.
Ideally, poly connections are all about added value, not conceding time or emotion to someone else. Sitting next to his wife holding her hands, Frank makes a proposal that shows just how much he understands how poly families work.
“Look, Claire, we’ve been a great team. But one person — one person cannot give everything to another person . . . I don’t see you the way he sees you,” he says. “I mean, if we’re gonna go beyond marriage, let’s go beyond it.”
Once they decide to truly go beyond marriage, the poly aspects of their life are depicted in the deliciously mundane way most ethically non-monogamous households work — the way I picture my pre-work routine someday when I let my mind wander, considering the possibilities. The writers avoid sensationalism and conflict when most viewers are anticipating emotional drama. I know people were expecting drama because this is the exact sort of moment on the minds of those who ask me, “Yeah, but how does it work?” From now on, I’m just going to send them this perfectly-crafted scene:
We see the three of them at their first breakfast together following Tom’s first night in the White House. No one speaks (typical in many homes, poly or no); but no one avoids eye contact. Tom graciously watches where Frank and Claire sit to see which chair isn’t claimed. Claire smiles appreciatively at Frank after he passes the apples he’s sliced to Tom who has set plates in front of everyone. Frank delves into the newspaper as the scene fades to black.
As the theme music and credits started, I felt the warm calm of validation. I’d just seen my ideal life on screen — without sensationalism. Here’s hoping the plot continues.
Lead image: Facebook