I’ve recently been watching The Good Wife, on the recommendation of a friend. I’ve only seen the first season of the show, via Netflix, but I am seriously hooked. All of the elements of good television are there—a compelling story, interesting and complex characters, excellent writing. I’m particularly hooked because the star of the show—Julianna Margulies, who plays Alicia Florrick—is portraying an exceedingly strong and complex woman, and playing her very well. Alicia is the publicly scorned woman we all know from real life—the wife of former State’s Attorney Peter Florrick, who has been accused of spending public funds on a prostitute. Peter does not deny the infidelity—he can’t, since his trysts have been recorded and broadcast all over heaven, earth, and CNN—but he denies any financial wrongdoing. He claims that he paid for the woman with his own money, and did not accept her services as a bribe in exchange for political favors.
Alicia, in the midst of the media firestorm that rains down upon her and her two teenage children, goes back to work as a lawyer after 13 years as a stay-at-home mom. She is motivated to work in part by necessity—her husband is in jail, and his finances are under investigation—but she is also there because she wants to be, needs to be. Alicia is reasserting her identity after losing it not only to motherhood, not only to wifehood, but also to a very public humiliation that threatens her status as both a wife and a mother. There are many ways in which she responds to the public aspect of her husband’s scandal with aplomb and dignity, but my favorite is found in episode eight, “Unprepared,” in which Alicia testifies on her husband’s behalf. At issue is Peter’s release from jail—he would be on house arrest, and the court is trying to determine whether or not he has a home to go to. In response to a lawyer’s badgering and invasive questions, Alicia responds:
“What’s your goal, here, Mr. Landry? To do your boss’s bidding? To embarrass me? Embarrass my husband? To goad me into some emotional, public renunciation of him?”
I love this response! I love the person who wrote it! I love Julianna Margulies for delivering it so beautifully! There is more to the response than I’ve quoted here—Alicia thoroughly puts the lawyer in his place—but the lines above apply so perfectly to real life “good wives” that I wanted to stop there.
Over and over again, betrayed women are badgered with scandals that their husbands created. Be her name Elin or Sandra or Huma, be her husband accused of sexting or porn addiction or multiple bona-fide fleshy affairs, the wife of a public figure who has strayed from the bonds of marriage is shown no mercy by the media. They pick this woman apart, follow her with cameras, scrutinize her every move. If she is pregnant, they discover her pregnancy and speculate upon her choices. If she has children, they wonder aloud if the father will be at his child’s next birthday party, they take pictures of the woman holding her child, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, trying to get through her day as a person and a mom. The media give us a picture of this woman—real or imagined—as she cries on her mother’s shoulder, as she eats too much ice cream or breaks her favorite dish, as she calls her husband every bad name woman has ever invented for man. The media plays the role of the badgering lawyer on TV—asking questions that Alicia described as “irrelevant, invasive.” They do indeed seem to be trying to embarrass the people involved in sexual scandal—not just the man, but also the woman. To drag her sex life onto the street so that she will give us an emotional, riveting, and entertaining response.
Of course, reporters do this because it makes them money. And I confess, I have clicked on links to learn more about these women and their reactions to betrayal. So I have contributed to the very situation that makes me angry. There are many reasons that we are fascinated with public betrayals, not the least of which is that they have the elements of good television—a compelling story (about sex!), interesting and complex characters, and (sometimes) excellent writing. But the difference here is that the real life women in these stories are—well, real life women. And they deserve some privacy. Barring that, my wish for each of these women is this: May you be able to respond to the media as if all your lines were crafted by Alicia Florrick’s dialogue guru. May you have the dignity and faith, self-preservation and self-esteem of the most empowered woman you know, real or imagined, and may you be gifted with a poker face that is so damn good Kenny Rogers and Lady Gaga would have to write a duet about it.
Photo: Courtesy of CBS; photo from Season One of The Good Wife.