still from season 6, “The Good Wife”
The Good Wife is a show about a woman learning to wield her white privilege for her own ends. It is about her—this woman, Alicia Florrick (Juliana Marguiles), the “good wife” of a disgraced Chicago (of course) Attorney General (Chris Noth) learning what powers are available to her as a white upper-middle class woman, if she can accept the limits and insults that come with the role. In its interrogation of white female privilege, identity, and limitations the show is aptly named, because even as Florrick is the title character that moniker is itself defined by its relationship to a man, and by its value judgment around how well the woman, Florrick, plays the role she was cast in. The Good Wife.
Now we have watched Alisha for six seasons, from her start as a mild-mannered suburban housewife-turned-returnee to the workforce, through her years as an increasingly powerful lawyer at Lockhart Garndern, in her role as first lady when her disgraced husband pulled off a return to the governor’s mansion of Illinois (another great spot for a corrupt politician), to her new role in the current season, as a candidate for Attorney General of Chicago, to succeed her husband’s smug successor.
I started watching The Good Wife because my mom, my sister, and Emily Nussbaum told me to. My mom and my sister recommended The Good Wife even more highly than Scandal—in a television lull, I’d asked them which show to start—but it was the New Yorker’s Nussbaum whose glowing column sent me clicking to Amazon Prime. But what Nussbaum or her colleauge Josh Rothman never key into—and what may have tipped the scales for my mom and sister, though they never said so explicitly—was the way that The Good Wife interrogates the role of the white woman in professional-class society—a role the women in my family have tried to master—just as Olivia Pope toys with the limitations of being a black woman with power and prestige. I love watching Kerry Washington tease out the socio-cultural possibilities of Olivia Pope, but I don’t identify with them in the same way I do with Alicia Florrick, whose Bobbi Brown makeup pallette (amirite??) and deep brown hair stain are surely the same as my mother’s, a woman also married to a Chicago lawyer with enough friends and cousins in Highland Park to fill a big country club bat mitzvah.
shady people of color scheming on “The Good Wife” – still from season 6
In their sixth-season coverage for the New Yorker of The Good Wife, both Nussbaum and Rothman attend to Florrick’s increasing comfort with and facility in using her power, but neither see the way that it is specifically gendered and raced: Florrick’s power, I contend, is specifically the power (in our society, at least) of white women. It is the power of being a white lady. Let’s take a closer look at their two reviews. Rothman writes:
The longest plot arc in “The Good Wife” shows Alicia becoming more like Peter—that is, becoming more comfortable with the exercise of power, more elegantly invulnerable when she is being magnanimous. Part of that transformation entails coming to terms with her own privilege. Alicia starts out the show as an underdog, but, at the end of the first season, she draws on one of her husband’s connections to win a coveted position at work. When, a few years after he’s released from jail, Peter becomes the governor of Illinois, Alicia leverages that connection to secure clients.
She’s also privileged in subtler ways that she is less willing to admit. From her husband’s sex scandal, Alicia retains an air of innocence and vulnerability; women root for her, and men are attracted to her. For much of the show, she drifts in and out of a romantic relationship with Will Gardner, one of the partners at her law firm. When, as the governor-elect’s wife, Alicia starts her own firm, taking some of Will’s most valuable clients with her, he calls her out on her own mythos of innocence and victimhood: “You’re awful, and you don’t even know how awful you are,” he says. Everyone, including Alicia, thinks that she’s a victim—but, in fact, she’s a predator, all the more dangerous for being stealthy.
In this accounting of Alicia’s coming to power, Rothman figures Alicia’s “stealth” as an aberration to her use of power, a quirk in comparison with her husband’s brash use of the throne. But I contend that her stealth is gendered—her “stealthy” danger, that wolf in sheep’s clothing, is her feminine use of power, power through flirting, through favors, through being nice. This is power in a “ban bossy” universe, where bossy women are bitches so Alicia has to be the bossy by flirting and cajoling to get her way, not demanding it.
All Hail Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)
Now here’s Nussbaum:
Alicia didn’t get the job [at Lockhart Gardner] because she was exceptional: an old law-school friend, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), promoted her over stronger candidates after she strategically flirted with him—a shady origin story that emerged slowly, over years. On “The Good Wife,” there is no success without corruption. The higher Alicia climbs—winning the second-year slot, making partner, leaving to start a new firm—the more compromised she becomes, and the more at ease with compromise. This applies to her marriage, also: it’s too valuable an asset for either spouse to abandon, even when they separate, when he is elected governor, and when she has an affair with Will. “You’re a brand! You’re St. Alicia,” Eli Gold, her husband’s chief of staff, tells her, begging her to run for office. Yet, despite everything, Alicia clings to her self-image as a heroine, a moral person in a godless universe. (Alicia Florrick is one of the rare explicitly atheist heroines on TV.)
Here again we see how the specifically feminine way Alicia starts her law career is folded into a larger narrative about corruption, collapsing Alicia’s crucial wielding of feminine power into a larger story about power. Similarly, the compromises Alicia has to make to retain that St. Alicia brand—namely, to stay in a sham marriage with a compulsive cheater—is the same compromise women have been making for millenia, just without the rewards.
By the sixth season, in fact, Alicia Florrick has given up the delusion of her earlier years that she can or cares to help anyone—the delusion of white women living in the suburbs, which she doesn’t anymore. Instead, when asked point blank by her new campaign manager (who I am still waiting for her to sleep with) why she wants to run, she answers, “Because I can win.” The only trick to winning is to keep pretending she doesn’t care to. After an interview, Alicia comments to her new foil and “body woman,” Eli Gold’s brash Jewish daughter Marissa, “I don’t like being someone I”m not when I’m being interviewed.”
“Really?” Marissa says. “You’re good at it.”
Good at it in a way that a brash Jewish girl could never be, because to own white femininity is to be invisible, to make one’s power and pain invisible, to win just to win without anyone thinking you want anything at all.
People commend this show for its deft handling of race themes, because a series of minor issues which characters of color adds up to a discrimination lawsuit for Peter Florrick. What no critic seems to have noticed is how Florrick’s continued demotion of lawyers of color equals the show’s continued demotion of actors of color. There’s no neat way to handle that. The discrimination line is like saying “no offense.” Sorry, but it’s still offensive. But very deftly handled.
[all the stills in this post are from season 6 episode 6, “Old Spice,” the most awesome and most feminist episode of the season, which features the show’s female stars almost exclusively. Alicia Florrick tho, but also Diane Lockhardt tho, Elsbeth Tasscione tho, and Kalinda Sharma tho. Fuck yah lady lawyers.]