(This article contains spoilers for The Good Wife)
The Good Wife is over. Well, it’s ceased, at least. The final episode of the tawdry legal prime time ode to lying was as confused as it was unsatisfying, a baffling final installment in the story of Alicia Florrick, a stay-at-home mother turned high-powered lawyer in a marriage of convenience to the resoundingly corrupt politician Peter Florrick. For some reason, the creators of The Good Wife decided to end the story of a character who literally replaced God with Gloria Steinem by defining her by her relationships with three men, destroying her most prominent friendship with a woman, and leaving her with nothing.
It is, unintentionally, a perfect summary of the victim complex that has bogged down modern feminism.
The Good Wife was, on the whole, a sharp, cleverly-written, well-acted show, but it was a show about a woman who seems incapable of ever really owning her shit despite having a fairly financially comfortable life. Despite a massive gap in her resume and an apparent refusal to take any money from her cheating bastard husband, Alicia always lived in a posh, spacious Chicago apartment, wore fabulous designer clothes, and drank copious amounts of expensive red wine. Her kids went to private school. Her hair was always fabulous. And her biggest problem always seemed to be boys. That was a fine place for her character to start, based on her back story, but the fact that she never evolved beyond that belied the show’s undeniable tendency to leverage the current feminist fad for relevance.
Alicia’s solution to the problem of her corrupt, cheating husband was to sleep with her corrupt boss, Will Gardner. She’s rich, so that doesn’t have the “sleep your way to the middle” consequences it would have for a less wealthy woman. It does, however, make her corrupt cheating husband jealous, and drama ensues, like the Governor of Illinois and his wife are still in high school… because emotionally they are.
When her boss gets killed, she temporarily goes back to sleeping with her husband, only to stop that again when some dreamy boy toys started offering her other options again. She finally decides she likes one, Jason, only to have some adolescent-worthy meltdown because he bought her a gag gift of land on Mars.
What Alicia never does is take time to be alone, get her bearings, figure out who she is and what she wants, and then make conscious choices about her life based on those desired outcomes. Instead, she neglects her children, ruins her own life supporting her undeserving husband’s ambitions, possibly lets the one truly decent guy she’s ever met realize she’s emotionally immature and perhaps crazy, and continues to moon over a dead guy who was possibly the only non-sociopathic guy on the whole show who was a more selfish bastard than her husband. Oh and she drinks. A lot.
What Alicia Florrick never actually did was grow the hell up, and in not doing so, she fell short of the basic feminist principle that adult women are the equals of adult men. When you’re taking life advice from the memory of your on-again, off-again sex partner, you are not thinking for yourself and therefore not an adult. The show’s creators have said that Alicia’s arc is from “victim to victimizer”, which is not feminism. It’s a cycle of abuse with Gloria Steinem cameos.
The series ends with Alicia publicly humiliating her would-be partner, Diane, by exposing an apparent affair by Diane’s husband. Alicia justifies this by insisting it’s defending her client, but her client is her own husband, so there was a massive conflict of interest in Alicia’s decisions. Like so many of Alicia’s decisions, surface strength is undermined by deeper bad decisions.
I don’t buy that Alicia humiliated her former friend and mentor and embarrassed her gun expert husband on the witness stand just because she was defending her client. She did it because that client was the father of her children, and she was panicking because her daughter, Grace, was going to delay college if Peter went to jail. That was actually believable, because Grace ended up parenting her parents a lot; it’s the way of children of emotional train wrecks.
To me, Alicia didn’t stay with Peter because of his career or their kids. She stayed with him because she never learned to be accountable for her own choices, and he was easy to blame when it all went wrong. She fell for Will because he was safely emotionally unavailable, just like her, and that only seemed to become love after he died.
It’s so very easy to love a dead man. Dead men will never disappoint you the way living ones will, because they stay frozen in time as a collection of your best memories of them. Will is play pretend, like most of Alicia’s dishonest life.
And that’s the problem with popular modern feminism: actual principles of equality are hard, and many women who self-identify as feminists take the easy way out when it’s time to do that hard work. They never get over being a victim, so they become victimizers. Activism is full of victimizers. This isn’t exclusive to feminism, but… let’s face it, it’s something we do have to address. Unfortunately, the media isn’t quite ready to shake off its love of weepy women brought low for drama. What we need to see more of is women who get knocked down and get back up, but is white Hollywood prepared to do that? Even Madam Secretary became more about the struggles of her husband as the first season progressed, so I’m not seeing much evidence of those “woman up off the mat” narratives outside of Empire. Cookie is pretty badass.
The problem with The Good Wife finale is that it ends on Alicia being knocked down, not with her getting back up. She is literally smacked in the face. By Diane.
For me, that smack rang out as a metaphor for women of the second wave telling the spoiled brats of the third-ish-going-on-fourth wave of feminism to stop squandering what they fought for. Yes, there is work to do. Yes, the system is still unfair. But if you’re rich, beautiful and healthy, and you’re still unhappy… sister, you have no one to blame for that but yourself. At the end of it, Alicia’s problem wasn’t Peter. It wasn’t Will. It wasn’t Jason. It was Alicia. Her idea of being “good” meant being dishonest, and she even lied to herself. Sure, everyone on The Good Wife lied. But what separated characters like Eli Gold from Peter and Alicia is that Eli was completely self aware that he was a liar. He was capable of telling the truth. Peter and Alicia lied so much, for so long, they forgot they were lying, so Alicia spent the time between Peter’s convictions in emotional suspended animation.
“Saint Alicia”, as her public persona was called on the show, was a televised embodiment of the virgin/whore dichotomy, but when Alicia got away from being a woman, she was a pretty smart lawyer. The courtroom was where Alicia stopped being “The Good Wife” or “The Bad Girl”. Court was where she was her best self, and that’s what makes her series’ end so tragic – her worlds collided and came crashing down when she played the role of Peter’s wife in the one place she’d previously been free of that. It’s not Alicia’s fault that Diane’s husband cheated. It is her fault that she had so little empathy for Diane, especially because she’d been through that public humiliation herself.
The fact that the contrasting slaps that began and ended the series were Alicia slapping Peter and Diane slapping Alicia indicate that the partnership that mattered the most to Diane was her plans for her female-led firm. Otherwise, she’d have slapped her husband, not her legal partner. Alicia didn’t understand that because she never learned to really care about anyone outside of the domestic paradigm… even if Alicia’s brand of domesticity involved trysts and booze. It’s probably an accident that Alicia’s two friends on the series – Kalinda and Lucca – were both women of color, but perhaps it’s an unintentional character point as well. What does that say about her? I’m still thinking about that.
More clear, however, is that Diane gets Alicia alone because Alicia had been literally chasing a boy – a man she thought was Jason but turned out wasn’t. I can’t say that Alicia had the wrong priorities chasing boys, because if she wanted to be a wife, first and foremost, that would be fine. The problem is that Alicia really had no firm priorities other than Peter, and Peter’s priority was also Peter, so Alicia was left with nothing.
A truly feminist show wouldn’t tie things up in a neat little bow at the end, but the only way The Good Wife can be viewed as feminist is as feminist cautionary tale of what happens when a woman doesn’t learn to stand on her own. The surprise on Alicia’s face when Diane smacked her told me that she’d not only learned little except how to lie better, but that she had, in fact, regressed into those lies. I mean, she was so deluded that her own self talk came in the form of her dead boyfriend. Even in her own head, a man was telling her what to do.
Delusion isn’t feminist. Delusion is nothing but delusion. If The Good Wife is, as the creators say, a show about lying where the victim becomes the victimizer, then what does that say about Alicia’s replacement of religion with feminism? Is feminism her atheist opiate? Or was even her feminism a lie? I think it’s the latter: feminism was methadone, because Peter was as bad for her as heroine. As long as she could lie to herself that being a career woman could make her happy, she could resist his sleazeball charms. But when it really came down to it, when he whistled, she always came running. The only thing that broke that spell was another man. For Alicia, Gloria Steinem was a false prophet: what Alicia really wanted was male approval, because she didn’t approve of herself. Feminism is supposed to empower women to stand on their own. Alicia’s didn’t give her that. How many self-described feminists fall into the same trap: the trappings of women’s liberation without the bravery to truly be free?