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Mellie, Claire, and Hillary: The Ambitious First Ladies of Television

By Genevieve Burgess | Think Pieces | May 16, 2015 |


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This post contains spoilers for all aired seasons of Scandal and House of Cards, including Scandal’s recent season finale. Proceed with caution.

There’s not a lot you can say that House of Cards and Scandal have in common. One is a dark political thriller that strives to show the actual petty machinations behind the most powerful people in the country, and the other is a frothy night soap that focuses on a DC “fixer” and portrays politics mostly as people committing felonies. However, the past season on both shows featured two very similar plot points: a First Lady expressing her desire for her own political career, up to being President herself and a First Couple splitting up. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the writers involved with both shows were at least partially inspired by Hillary Clinton. But how inspired? Let’s break it down.

Background

Mellie: A law student who married Fitz in something of an arranged political marriage due to young Mr.Grant’s politically inconvenient preference for women of color. She gave up a career as a lawyer to act as the perfect political wife and mother, even though neither of those roles seems to really fulfill her. She also apparently gave up the chance to be with a man she really loved, but since he later turned out to be a back-stabbing schemer who attempted a coup that may be for the best.

Claire: Southern debutante who married Francis straight out of college. While she had many suitors, Francis was apparently the only one to recognize her ambition and offer her a partnership rather than a romance. She maintained her own career up until he became Vice President, but then pursued the position of UN ambassador and seems to have political aspirations above and beyond that.

Hillary: Had a thriving legal career in Arkansas prior to her husband’s time as governor. Once she became the First Lady of Arkansas she continued working on reforming the education system while sitting on the board of several major corporations. While she was First Lady of the United States, she continued to advocate for children with the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Adoption and Safe Families Act, and the Foster Care Independent Act. She began her own political career in 2000 when she was elected as New York state’s first female senator.

Style

Mellie: Traditional Republican wife, A-line dresses, skirts, cardigans, and big hair. And several memorable episodes where she was in mourning and lounged gloriously in sweat pants, Uggs, and fabulous robes. The overall image is that of an attractive mother, but not one who takes a lot of risk with her fashion. As she moves into her own position as Senator of Virgina, I expect we’ll be seeing some more professional dress out of her, but I don’t think that hair is coming down from Texas Beauty Queen levels anytime soon.

Claire: Sheath dresses, muted colors, short sensible hair, but sky-high heels. She wants you to know that she’s a very sexy woman, but she does it with taste. Her skin-tight skirts and constantly exposed upper arms may not work in a real office environment (if only because office A/C is kept around refrigerated levels and sleeves are your friend) but she looks elegant and that’s what matters for her public image.

Hillary: PANTSUITS FOR DAYS!! You know how sometimes you find that one perfect shirt or pair of pants or whatever and you buy a dozen of it? This is Hillary’s approach to fashion and I wholeheartedly approve. Let’s be honest, in the real world there’s no way to “win” no matter what she wears, so at least this technique results in less stress and mental energy on her part.

Crimes

Mellie: Rigging an election, assisting in permanently paralyzing a sitting Vice President, turning over the names of grand jurors to a shadowy government agent resulting in their death, knowing her Senate win was bought with the lives of two dozen strangers and celebrating it anyway.

Claire: Threatening the life of a former employee’s unborn child to force her to drop a lawsuit, being complicit in at least two murders if not directly involved, back channeling that may or may not have been illegal. Mostly, she is guilty of encouraging the many crimes of Francis and his staff, though her hands are less dirty than theirs.

Hillary: Uncertain, but she has a bad habit of hiding information even if it may not actually be illegal. Just super shady.

Partner

Mellie: Fitz is a pouty man child who’s been in love with Olivia Pope for the last several years, but the relationship can’t happen because everyone wants him to be President for reasons that are unclear. He has committed cold blooded murder with his bare hands remorselessly, but since he’s the romantic hero we’re supposed to shrug it off. Fitzgerald Grant alternates between angry, cold, and genuinely encouraging towards Mellie and honestly is kind of a tool no matter how he’s treating her. They’ve had a few nice moments, but honestly them breaking up would probably be the best thing to happen to Mellie if it weren’t for her shiny new job as a Senator. Or maybe even then.

Claire: Francis has a deep love and respect for Claire, but will let his own ambition cloud his commitment to her at times. In the latest season, the stress of trying desperately to hang on to the Presidency and push his jobs bill through an uncooperative legislature made him take his wife for granted to a certain extent. She literally bled for his campaign, and yet he seemed too distracted to recognize her growing unhappiness. She left him at the end of the season, but I think Francis needs her too much to let her get away.

Hillary: I have always maintained that the Clintons love each other a lot, regardless of Bill’s sexual infidelity. This is from accounts of people who have known them, but also the way they speak about each other, although it is impossible to know for certain. Bill Clinton is, by all accounts, an incredibly intelligent, ambitious, and charming man with a skirt chasing problem. At this point he seems devoted to the Clinton Foundation, his wife’s career, and his new grandchild.

Verdict: Claire definitely seems more reminiscent of Clinton overall, though Mellie’s Senate run show her having starting a career more similar to Clinton’s. I’m more interested in Claire’s future possibilities, but Mellie’s are generally more entertaining (if nonsensical) to watch. Both women are excellent and complex characters, and so I’m going with the politically savvy move of calling us all winners for having a healthy variety of ambitious women on TV right now.


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