THE GOOD WIFE: WHAT WOULD ALICIA DO? by Rona Murray
As The Good Wife is drawing to a close after seven seasons in the U.K. [Note: As this blog appears in the UK the series has just finished in the US], I found myself wondering why it is that Alicia Florrick has become something of a role model in my life. An image sits above my computer at home, her determined face bearing an added thought bubble to remind me to think every day: “Yes, but what would Alicia do?”
I question my devotion because I am uncertain that she should bear the title of feminist role model. As with many encounters with this word in popular culture, I wonder whether the feelings of ambivalence are mine – towards the way in which feminist empowerment seems to be being represented – or is it an ambivalence expressed (deliberately or otherwise) through the character and the narrative themselves. Perhaps there is something to be gained from recognising that Alicia, a character who went from pallid wife of a disgraced District Attorney to success as a corporate lawyer, has emerged a more complex construction. Like other female protagonists on the TV (and I’m mainly thinking of Lena Dunham’s Hannah in Girls), Alicia can be unlikeable, even alienating. She is part of a new breed of modern figure which, as Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker importantly identified, is constantly “regrouping” in relation to the economic and professional circumstances around them. She is a model of individualism, she has had to raise her children, build her own life whilst finding her way through the complications of her marriage and subsequent relationships. And like many women has to negotiate those public labels – such as ‘good’ – as part of the deal.
Of course, individualism is part of the mindset that Neoliberalism has successfully sold women, in the clothes of Postfeminism. The perception of having a ‘choice’ which pervades this discourse, however, has been markedly absent in Alicia’s life. She is often reacting to a complex mixture of professional sharkery: Michael J. Fox as Louis Canning has been a perpetual pleasure as a recurring player here, who never misses a chance to utilise his physical disability to score an advantage; personal tragedy: her relationship with university friend and fellow lawyer Will Gardner which ended painfully unresolved; financial insecurity: the latest series found her sacked from political office, out of a job and starting again in the lowest court circuit.
As a middle-aged role model, she has built her own career, cared for her children, had a relationship with a younger man in Will and found a way of surviving in court against the mainly male judiciary. She remains married to the man who cheated on her with prostitutes right at the beginning, but the prospect of ditching the “Bill and Hillary” arrangement and asking him for a divorce is looming every closer and may form part of the final denouement. This promises that she can finally ditch ‘the good wife’ label and be her own woman. The road to this point has seen Alicia hardening up to the task and increasingly taken charge – not least of her own sexuality – and mixing principle with corporate determination. Is this the modern model of a figure who, back in the eighties, spoke in Melanie Griffiths’ breathless tones and announced that she “had a head for business, and a body for sin?”
I can only answer this by saying that both Alicia and Griffiths’ Tess McGill in Working Girl (1988), sources of such great viewing pleasure, trouble me for related but different reasons. Not least, Tess’s relationships with women dropped too neatly into soulmate or antagonist. Even whilst it showed that the blue collar sisterhood was only going to hold back her ambition. It’s Cynthia (the peerless Joan Cusack) who tells her: “sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.” On the other hand, Sigourney Weaver’s “boney-assed” boss is all Ivy League accent and corporate betrayal. She would never stand up for Tess and ensure she received her just deserts. Her coaching of Tess, that it is down to her to “make it happen”, is simply a smokescreen to abnegate the potential for leadership and guidance. It is up to Tess to dream it up and make herself into the right image to achieve it alone.
I do miss this struggle, amidst all the (delicious) corporate dress porn of The Good Wife. Mike Nichols’ film was made in the ‘greed is good’ eighties and overtly recognised that this self-fashioning within a public working world is itself constant hard work. This is not just in the time and cost of having “serious hair”, wearing the right clothes and having the right accent. It is the pervasive recognition that in the process, at some point on that metaphorical ferry ride across the Hudson, you may have to give up a part of your real identity and sense of self to achieve what you think you want.
Alicia has not crossed over in this way. Her path through corporate life and political office is less complicated in terms of class. The absence of this makes Gloria Steinem’s (comic) appearance, in one episode entitled ‘Dear God’, well, complicated. Encouraging Alicia to stand for District Attorney, Steinem delivers a feminist blessing but to a woman who has the path smoothed by money and a certain confidence in her own entitlement. Can the progress of such a woman stand for the struggle of all women through the system? It has to. In the real world, the same ambivalence sat behind some of the attacks on Patricia Arquette’s call to arms at 2015’s Oscars, regarding equal pay. Charged with being a statement from a privileged woman and misread as only applying to female actors’ pay, this is a more insidious form of ambivalence that wrongly asserts there can be no connection across classes. It seems likely that Hillary will face the same kind of criticism in what will be a bruising and likely very ‘gendered’ presidential race.
Perhaps we need to revisit the myth of female friendship across these texts a little more critically. Despite its engagement with class, something is disavowed in the fairytale ending of Working Girl. This is less about Tess’s new home and life with appropriately-named Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), than her final telephone call to Cynthia in the typing pool from her new office. Female friendship has endured across the divide and the many changes. Cynthia shouts Tess’s success to her workmates in pure joy that one of our own has made it. Back in The Good Wife, a recent episode sees Alicia break down at a revelation about her relationship with Will. She has the confirmation that he did love her, and that she has been denied the chance of happiness. She no longer has the belief to continue. She is comforted by her new professional partner, Lucca (Cush Jumbo), a young woman who tutors her then and there to ask for help and to commit herself to a friendship. Of course, this is what has been missing for Alicia throughout the seven series. One really good female friend. Maybe this is the problem - how could Alicia be a role model when she never sticks with other women?
What is interesting is how unconvincing this whole scene is. What would Alicia really do? Surely, she would regroup and not wilt into another woman’s arms. Somehow, it seems to destroy an unacknowledged pleasure of the show. Alicia has no class struggle to contend with, but at least her difficulties in sustaining connections with other women in the corporate world is always made clear. Her relationship with her formidable boss and corporate survivor, Diane, ebbs and flows. Thus, part of the satisfaction in watching her all these years is the writing’s overt acknowledgement of how women are forced into a state of ambivalence by their place in the structure. Luca and Alicia’s mutual eyebrow raising at the office is far more my kind of female bonding, as are her uncomfortable ‘chats’ with Diane.
No, Alicia and all her compromise will do for now. Not least since one tiny moment [ii] made sure she was ‘linked-in’ to a larger sisterhood. When, after the Will revelation, she is forced to accompany her regenerated husband’s presidential campaign on a long bus ride, she sits (comically) brooding and unavailable behind sunglasses. She stares intently at her Kindle. What is she reading, her daughter asks: Jane Eyre, comes the flat-toned reply. Alicia may not be “poor, obscure, plain or little” but she clearly is reminding herself that she is a “free human being with an independent will.” As we all need to, each time we regroup. So, you go girl, to your story’s ending. And if it doesn’t include one from my personal wish list – “Reader, I divorced him” – I hope it’s no less complicated than Alicia deserves.
Rona Murray is completing her PhD on women's film authorship at Lancaster University.
[i] Negra, Diane and Yvonne Tasker, eds. (2014) Gendering the Recession: Media and Culture in an Age of Austerity. (Durham and London: Duke University Press).
[ii] These kinds of touches are part of the consistently brilliant writing by the team under showrunners Robert and Michelle King, who have been with the show throughout. Its success has broken ground as a Network, rather than Cable, show.
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