May 4, 2016
Alicia Florrick, I can’t be ready for court without you.
As a feminist sociologist, I’ve lectured for decades now on the problematic world of television. It’s easily dissected as a tool of patriarchal social control, with the camera lens as a metaphor for the male gaze. As a kid who grew up on incredibly messed-up shows, like Three’s Company, there is plenty to talk about. And don’t get me started on the commercials that still run during daytime soaps. In this blog I’ve taken on current fare like The Bachelor and the short-lived NBC show, The Island. The Miss America beauty contest is still coming to a network near you.
But something has been happening since the days of jiggle TV.
Some of you know I have a toe in the Hollywood pool (more like a cuticle at this point), and it is evident that the “old boy network” that ran the town is caving in. There are more women writers, directors, and producers each year. According to Variety, women now make up 23% of executive producers in TV Land. Variety reports that shows with at least one female executive producer have significantly more female characters. Add to that the long-held knowledge that women watch more TV than men and now we have some programming that would have been hard to imagine when the best thing females had was Charlie’s Angels. Have you seen the Reddit discussions on Comedy Central’s Broad City? It’s off the feminist hook!
One of those shows is CBS’ The Good Wife that, sadly, ends its seven-season run on Sunday. I’ll be stuck in front of the TV begging Alicia to run away with Jason into a spin-off where they fight crime on the streets of Chicago. The Good Sex Partners.
The Good Wife hit the airwaves in 2009. I was oblivious. CBS seems to have a lot procedural crime shows that people love, but I just don’t have the time for. You’d think as a criminologist, I’d be all over CSI: Toledo, or whatever it’s called. But I kept seeing the show win awards and my curiosity started to ask, “What’s up with this good wife?” I’d see the show’s star, Julianna Marguiles (who is roughly my age), at numerous awards events, like the Golden Globes, making speeches about women finding new roles in television and I was reminded that this was something I cared about.
So when Andrea and I got pregnant during the 2013 holidays (well, I had something to do with it), I decided we had the perfect opportunity to play America’s new favorite game, binge-watching. It was time to enter the complicated world of one very smart and funny lawyer. While we waited for Cozy to arrive, we burned through several seasons of the show that follows the adventures of defense attorney Alicia Florrick and her legal compadres in a twenty-first century version of Perry Mason. It was clear that the title of the show, The Good Wife, was an ironic one. She performed the role of the good wife to her philandering husband because it served her own interests. Needless to say, we were hooked. How could a network show be this well-written? One more episode.
As a criminologist, I could have written lectures about crime and the law from these episodes. Topics like the problems of forensic science and eye-witness testimony, institutional racism, intellectual property rights, and the corrosive impact of incarceration were presented by writers who knew the research. Intelligent topics for people looking for something a little deeper than Teen Mom 3. The shows were often “ripped from the headlines.” Even though I was enjoying my paternity leave from Portland State, I was looking forward to bringing Florrick and associates back into my classroom.
Now that Andrea works at a law firm in Portland, it was fun to compare her daily dramas to the nighttime dramas CBS provided. Much law work is really just paperwork. Very few cases ever make it before a judge and especially before a jury. But each case has its own human story about how we manage to exist in such a complex society. Turning that into something that’s actually compelling viewing is the result of some insanely talented people whose names I will probably never know.
As a feminist, there was so much to unpack and debate about this show. For once, a show built around a woman who refused to bend to the will of the men in the cast because she was female. Julanna Margulies played the role with great pathos, including Alicia’s need for another glass of wine or a sexual diversion with her law school sweetheart, Will Gardner. We got to see the world through her lens and it was eye-opening. And she wasn’t the only ferocious female in the cast. Women representing a wide range of ages and skin tones created the type of intersectionality that’s often absent when the the focus is just on gender politics.
There are a ton of essays debating feminism on The Good Wife (just click on this word, Google). But the proof is in the pudding. When Margulies says young women regularly tell her that they are going to law school because of the show we know that television can change power structures. An army of female attorneys with an affinity for red wine and lovers on the side is nothing to be trifled with. Like how female TV producers have changed the portrayal of women and girls in media, they will change the very institutions that have worked against the interests of the feminine half of our country. Throw a female president into the mix, and we may hit a critical turning point.
TV shows come and go. I’ve leaned not to get too hung up on their passing. (I still remember bawling my eyes out after the last episode of M*A*S*H.) But Sunday nights at 9 pm have become important, especially for a lot of women of my generation. They, and their daughters, benefit from something that looks like a grown-up version of the Romper Room mirror. “I see Alicia, and Kalinda, and Diane and Lucca and a world where women are full players in the game.”
And if you’ve never seen an episode of The Good Wife, I have two words for you; binge watch.