Media, Mothers, and Me

November 8, 2010
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When The Good Wife was announced last fall my first reaction was interest, as Julianna Margulies and Christine Baranski are both awesome, but that reaction quickly turned to apprehension. Infidelity is the one topic I really avoid in entertainment if I can help it, and I had no interest in seeing this play out. However, the power of word-of-mouth swayed me when a number of my friends–friends who tend to not have much of a fannish love intersection–raved about the show. I gave it a try, and I got hooked. Watching a season in the course of just a few days is always a heady experience, and one that differs from following a series as it airs, week by week. The compressed viewing can highlight weaknesses, but it can also allow longer story lines to gain impact for the viewer, benefitting from the accelerated narration.

Yet neither the larger story lines, such as the myth-arc of corrupt politicians and unjustly imprisoned husbands, nor the smaller, episodic court case narratives were what kept me watching. Rather, I found that the depth of the characters and their interactions had me riveted and wanting to see more. Bechdel test aside, it is nice to see three main female characters interact about everything other than their relationships to or with men. It is even nicer to see these women struggle and yet remain sympathetic and strong. I’m looking at Alicia Florrick and I feel myself identifying more than I have with many other characters who more closely resemble me and my life. It is the program’s demonstrated ability to show depth without needless melodrama and stereotyped caricature that I’ve fallen in love with.

By genre classification, The Good Wife is, disputably, a procedural. And what’s more, it isn’t even innovative as such. The audience is usually presented with one case per episode, and the good side tends to win: defendants are innocent and are vindicated in the nick of time. I’m not sure we have a more precise category for such procedurals cum drama (which seem to cluster in medical and legal settings), but it is the characterization in these shows as well as those in more traditional prime time soaps that I measure Alicia’s portrayal against. I don’t identify (or even much like) most of the characters on Grey’s Anatomy or Parenthood to use two shows I still watch as examples. The drama tends to be extreme, not in the actual issues–because clearly the imprisoned husband and large political scheming are dramatic indeed–but in the responses to those issues. The appeal for me is that the show succeeds in presenting mature adults with adult capabilities beyond their profession, and yet the women are not dominated by any single issue in their lives–neither motherhood nor work nor their sexuality.

The balance of work drama and home issues presents Alicia in different roles that do not defer to one another (mother, lover, wife, professional) but rather mutually influence and affect. This feels like my life: constant negotiation, juggling of different roles and responsibilities, the small concessions and compromises that are part and parcel of most adult lives. In my favorite line of the show, former boss Stern tells Alicia “I always thought the CIA could take lessons from the suburban housewife,” calling out the similar emotional demands of Alicia’s different roles. The show doesn’t shy away from the challenges Alicia faces in negotiating her adult life; this is more than I tend to expect to see on television, where story lines often trade in emotionally false dichotomies. “Issues got more complex. And I grew up,” Alicia explains to her brother; this is the moment where I feel that I am seeing a real person on the TV screen. People may up and run to Africa and break up relationships in airports (example), but most of us go to work and pick kids up from school and have fights and make up and continue on with our lives.

In Alicia, we are presented a woman who’s recovering from an immense emotional trauma and upheaval in her life, but whose response isn’t extreme. She isn’t divorcing her cheating jail-bound husband, but she refuses his demands in a way that make it clear he’s not used to refusal. In the subtle details we see her change and grow, rather than in big melodramatic gestures, and this is why I love the show. At one point, her husband and potential lover discuss a court case while Alicia prepares coffee for everyone in the kitchen. When she moves to present some cakes along with the coffee, she suddenly throws them back in the box, clearly redefining her role. Emotions may not be writ large in this drama, but the message comes through loud and clear nevertheless: this Good Wife is not simply a suburban mom who was publicly shamed by her husband’s infidelities. She is a host of other things at the same time, as are we all. Adult issues are complex indeed!


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19 Responses to “ Media, Mothers, and Me ”

  1. Faye Woods on November 8, 2010 at 1:58 PM

    I really like this post Kristina and it nearly perfectly mirrors my own feelings over the show (tho without the suburban mother juggling). One of its real pleasures is the complexity of the female characters lives, relationships and relationships with each other and how their identities inform their work life and vice versa. And I hadn’t even thought about it in relationship to the Bechdel test. I love how the little moments in Margulies performance like the one you captured mean so much in the continual shifts in her personal growth – I still remember the emotions that washed over her face when her husband first stepped back through the door and how you saw all her different identities – wife, mother, independent working woman – all shift in the viewer’s and Alicia’s mind. I could talk at length about Diane and Kalinda too.

    Also a shout out to some great work by female actors in supporting and one episode roles, particularly Martha Plimpton as the ultimate ‘bad mother’ shark lawyer – hilarious.

    • Kristina Busse on November 8, 2010 at 3:52 PM

      Oh, i’m so glad to find other Good Wife fans (and maybe create one or two as well : )

      Yes, Margulies’s acting certainly adds to the depth of the character, but I think the script gives her that opportunity.

      Diane, oh what a marvelous character! How my heart went out to her, when she left her date sitting at the restaurant… And Kalinda is sexy and smart and mysterious and marvelous all around!

      The kids are possibly the weakest characters in the entire show–even Alicia’s brother’s walk on performance had more complexity than they do. But overall, this is what I’d like to see in all the prime time soaps I try, be they Brothers and Sisters or Parenthood, and in the end these shows always tend to disappoint me…

  2. Jason Mittell on November 8, 2010 at 7:12 PM

    Great post! I too am a big Good Wife fan – it’s the best network drama out there, with a level of dramatic maturity hard to find elsewhere. Given that most of the other excellent (cable) dramas out there are so male centric, it’s nice to have a show that’s got a wide range of female characters who tend to own the screen. Plus the best stable of guest stars on TV – Dylan Baker’s appearances in s1 were priceless.

    I worry about its ratings, though, as it does poorly for CBS and skews really old (yes – older than most CBS shows!). I wonder if its title puts off some viewers, assuming that it’s only about a cuckolded political wife. Also, many younger viewers are loathe to try any drama on CBS, while I think it would do much better on ABC. So spread the word…

    • Kristina Busse on November 8, 2010 at 8:00 PM

      Yes, this post was part having to articulate my excitement, part trying to get others interested : )

      The guest stars are amazing, and again, not only do they get great actors but they get meaty characters to work with.

      I think the title is a real problem, because I know I’m not the only one who refused to watch the show based on that alone. (And yes, i didn’t trust CBS or frankly any network show to work the irony, which TGW indeed does beautifully!)

      My beta had me take out a paragraph on Parenthood, but really, my question remains, why do we traffic in so many character stereotypes, even in main roles when it comes to women? I want more women that may be fundamentally different than me but that reflect the complexities of working moms and single professionals and chosen SAHMs and everything in between…

      • Amanda Lotz on November 9, 2010 at 3:24 PM

        On title trouble–it is curious how this is a problem for shows about women. Desperate Housewives? Cougar Town has had some fun with it’s title problems this season, but yet it remains.

        It is difficult to put this succinctly, but I think the stereotype problem remains to some degree because of concerns about feminist critiques of the past. To be clear, I am not blaming feminism, but I think there remains a fear of being seen as regressive for not offering “role model” types in some quarters (and this is a good and bad thing). It is also the case that broadcast has not succeeded with “anti-hero” male characters, so I’d say broadcast in general remains a storytelling space that hasn’t quite figured out how to present nuanced characters and connect with a commercially viable audience. The Good Wife is quite remarkable in its understatement in that respect.

        • Kristina Busse on November 9, 2010 at 4:48 PM

          Oh, what a good point. Yes, I think you’re right that there’s the danger (as there is in minority depiction) of having a not all wonderful character. But in the end, it remains a problem of complex characterization–I can totally take one problematic female if not all of them are doing the same thing; likewise, I enjoy a negative character trait if that isn’t the entire of the role.

          And Cougar Town? I don’t think ANYTHING could convince me to watch a show by that name…

          • Myles McNutt on November 9, 2010 at 11:45 PM

            As Jason alludes to, Cougar Town really is a far cry from its title – while early episodes play with the notion that sold ABC on the show (40-something woman dates 20-something men), that is quickly abandoned in favor of a (heartwarming, charming, hilarious) show about community as family.


            • Kristina Busse on November 10, 2010 at 6:20 AM

              I believe you, Myles, I really do. But as a 40-something I find that term so repulsive…I’ll continue to pass, I think.

        • Jason Mittell on November 9, 2010 at 9:48 PM

          Cougar Town is surprisingly good, and the producers mea culpa about their title each week in the credits. The other major title flap right now is Terriers, which is a fabulous show that everyone who isn’t watching thinks is about dogs. It’s not. Watch it!

          • Kristina Busse on November 10, 2010 at 6:12 AM

            Oh, that’s really funny! But the problem remains that you need to watch the show to see the joke…

            I tried Terriers. I saw you tweeting and watched the pilot and it just didn’t work for me…it was smart and well done and I wish I’d have been more interested in the characters and the plot.

  3. Anne Helen Petersen on November 8, 2010 at 8:50 PM

    I love the fact that Alicia is not only strong and independent, but smart and articulate — especially about things other than men. She also doesn’t swoon or stammer when a powerful man walks in the room; if anything, it bolsters her eloquence.

    I do agree that the kids are the weak link of the show — but not every show can have a Sally Draper/Kiernan Shipka, eh?

    • Kristina Busse on November 9, 2010 at 4:50 PM

      Yes, she totally is! And these are some powerful and self confident men she’s up against. What I love, however, is the way she isn’t powerful in spite of but because of the way she negotiates all her responsibilities. I can even take the lion mom characterization protecting her cubs when it’s in the service of telling off Eli or anyone else for that matter 🙂

  4. Suzanne Leonard on November 9, 2010 at 9:58 AM

    Always happy to see words of praise for The Good Wife! I know we are lauding the show for being about more than Alicia and men, but I think its crucial, still, to mention the sexual innuendo of this season’s premiere —- if that bathroom scene even counts as innuendo.

    I’ve long been an admirer of the series frank treatment of female sexuality, but that sequence (and its unmissable suggestion of what Peter is doing to/for Alicia) also made apparent its investment in female pleasure, a category perhaps even more underrepresented than sexuality.

    • Kristina Busse on November 9, 2010 at 4:53 PM

      Yes! I love the way she is an active partner in her sexuality. The bathroom scene was marvelous but so was the failed romance/returning to her husband scene. I wouldn’t go as far as her using her husband, but she certainly was turned on by someone other than him 🙂

      Especially considering that sexuality is at the center of the scandal, I’m enjoying her representation as neither the wife who doesn’t enjoy sex nor the wife who gets off on cheating but a real person confused by her desires and emotions and everything in between…

    • Jason Mittell on November 9, 2010 at 9:41 PM

      Any discussion of the bathroom scene has to mention the soundtrack – possibly the first televised oral sex scene while listening to NPR! A bouquet of taboo-busting juxtapositions…

      • Kristina Busse on November 10, 2010 at 6:14 AM

        But isn’t that the perfect sex background? Forget Bolero! This gets the smart politicians/lawyers hot 😀

  5. Myles McNutt on November 9, 2010 at 11:51 PM

    A great rundown of many of the things that I do enjoy about this series, Kristina.

    One thing I find interesting is your note about the lack of extremism in Alicia’s actions: she doesn’t get a divorce, she doesn’t make a substantial life change, etc. And yet if you look at similar series with female leads, thinking here of Weeds or The Big C, it’s all about extremism: in the wake of death or a cancer diagnosis, they start dealing drugs or letting their life fall out from under them.

    I think some people problematize the series’ procedural structure, and the lack of “real” serialization, but I think the show would be far less interesting if you moved it to pay cable and Alicia became truly unhinged. Her level-headed approach to this situation offers a comfortably baseline still capable of drawing real drama, and those moments when the bubble bursts (see: aforementioned bathroom scene) are that much more powerful within this context.

    It defines the character, and it defines the show, CBS’ reputation be damned.

    • Kristina Busse on November 10, 2010 at 6:19 AM

      Oh, you just explained to me why I couldn’t get into most of the cable shows like Weeds or Hung or…there’s something about Alicia’s behavior that I connect with. Which is odd, because I tend to claim that I like escapism (gimme spaceships and aliens any day), but somehow the escapism of over-the-top responses within a realist setting clashes for me.

      And yes, the subtleness and the meaning of every gesture makes this a really interesting viewing experience.

      Great point about extreme responses as the trope of many shows. I was thinking more of the emotional extremism of prime time soaps but yes, these literally extreme reactions are even more fitting.

  6. Faye Woods on November 10, 2010 at 5:41 PM

    Great discussion here! I’m also interested in the wife/husband as showrunners, and the rare network female showrunner and how that may play into the representations and complexities of relationships presented in the show.