In a recent push against the advertising practices of The Good Wife, Miss Representation’s Sexy or Sexism campaign asked fans to flood the show’s Facebook page with a message asking the show to stop using images of Alicia Florrick in a black negligee to get more viewers. I, along with many others, responded to the request—not because I thought there was anything wrong with Alicia Florrick, a good mom and angry wife, being portrayed as a sexual being, but because the show was using Alicia’s recent sexual choices as a way to get viewers—show a beautiful woman in a black negligee and BAM, you’ve got some attention.
On December 4, 2011, “Parenting Made Easy” aired, in which Alicia breaks off her romance with Will. When she makes her decision, alone in her bedroom while awaiting news of her missing daughter, Alicia angrily scoops up her black negligee and throws it into the trash. Presumably, this symbolic gesture was a response to fans’ requests; notably, however, the show is still using the image of Alicia in her negligee on its Facebook page.
After watching the episode, I was concerned about the direction of the show. The circumstances surrounding Alicia’s decision were dramatic to say the least, and the show seemed to be pitting Alicia’s role as a mother against her role as a woman. Of course, things are more complicated than that—Alicia was having an affair with Will while holding her husband, Peter, at bay, and she needed to make some decisions. While Alicia’s affair was understandable given her husband’s flagrant and very public dalliance, it was still an affair, and it needed to be dealt with one way or another. But I didn’t want to see the show sacrifice the black negligee—and the sexual selfhood it represents—to motherhood. Rather than writing about this issue immediately, I decided to give the show some time and see where the writers were going with all of this.
I’m glad I did. In the following week’s episode, “What Went Wrong,” Alicia is talking to her brother, Owen, about her relationship with Will. Owen asks Alicia, “Do you suddenly become a nonsexual person just because you have kids?”
Alicia responds, “No. I am a parent, and I have to stop being irresponsible.”
Owen asks, “How are you being irresponsible?”
Alicia responds that she is married, and then she and Owen establish that while she could divorce Peter, she is not in love with Will. This dialogue handles Alicia’s perspectives beautifully—she has never seemed to be in love with Will, and it is believable that she ended the affair for personal reasons as well as those associated with motherhood. As a woman, Alicia recognizes that she isn’t in love with Will. As a mother, she recognizes that her affair has an impact on her children. And as a wife, she recognizes that there is some unfinished business between her and Peter. So far, so good.
Ah, but Alicia’s role as a mother does not only affect her love life. It also affects her career. The show is beginning to explore the ways in which motherhood defines Alicia as a woman and as a person, and there is some rich ground here—some ground that we, as a country, desperately need to cover.
The primary parenting issue that Alicia faces in “What Went Wrong” is that she is attempting to move her kids into a private school. The school’s policy is to refuse admittance mid-year, and Alicia arranges a meeting with an administrator to convince her to make an exception. When Alicia tells Peter about the meeting, he says he will be there too, and Alicia is pleasantly surprised.
During the meeting, Peter charms the administrator, who is an attractive woman. When Alicia has to leave the room for a moment, she returns and apologizes, explaining it was work. The administrator comments that it is usually the husbands who leave to make phone calls.
Peter responds, “We take turns,” as he and Alicia head out the door.
Charming, indeed. But how true is it? It is evident that the couple share parenting responsibilities—the kids stay at Peter’s some of the time, and Peter and Alicia have conversations about who is taking care of what and when. This episode in particular shows a good bit of negotiation between the two parents about their responsibilities. However, Alicia seems to be the point person for all kid matters—the kids are used to relying on her, and she is used to managing the aspects of their lives that need managing. While we occasionally see Grace in Peter’s office, or the kids on their way to their dad’s for the night, it is evident that their primary residence is Alicia’s apartment, and the parent they call when they need someone is their mom.
It is Alicia, for example, who is making the appointment with the private school. It was Alicia who learned that Grace was missing, and responded swiftly. Alicia found Grace a tutor, and monitored that relationship. Alicia suggested that Zack’s girlfriend come to dinner one evening. And so on. If Peter is involved with parenting at a similar level, we aren’t seeing it—and, as Alicia’s role as the managing parent is all too familiar for moms, working outside the home or not, we assume that Peter is off working while Alicia is both working and keeping track of the kids. This portrayal of a working mom is very accurate, and I have no problem with it, as far as it goes. But I’d like for television to do more than portray the real-life dilemmas women face—I’d like for quality television to propose some very real, workable solutions to those dilemmas.
Here’s a perfect case in point: toward the end of this episode, Diane (one of Alicia’s bosses) takes Alicia aside and says she’d like to mentor her toward eventual partnership. As part of the plan to become partner, Diane emphasizes that Alicia can’t get distracted—“not with family, not with friendships.” Diane’s veiled reference to “friendships” concerns Alicia’s relationship with Will, which presents professional as well as personal issues. But her direct reference to not getting distracted with family is the exact kind of pitting a woman against herself that we as a culture only do to the detriment of us all.
Here are some factors that Alicia—and the writers of this show—should consider:
- First, Peter is also a parent. Presumably no one is telling him not to get distracted with family so that he can further his career. Yes, we have seen him make choices not to use his family for political gain, but no one has ever told him he needs to stop checking on his kids and focus more on his career, which is essentially what Diane is telling Alicia. In addition, Peter’s campaign manager, Eli Gold, has told Alicia that her role as his wife is vital to his career. But what about Peter’s role as Alicia’s partner? Even if Peter and Alicia divorce, he is her parenting partner—and if she would like to advance her career while raising kids, his role is vital to her success.
- Diane is telling Alicia the truth, but only one possible truth. Diane is not trying to sabotage Alicia’s life as a mother, or Alicia’s children. But, unwittingly or not, she is setting up a situation in which Alicia will eventually feel that she must make a choice between being a good lawyer and being a good mother. In a fascinating contrast, Louis Canning, the character whom Michael J. Fox plays on this show, has offered Alicia a job for which she would not have to sacrifice family considerations—he has made that clear as part of his offer. So, here we have a woman, a non-mother, telling a mother that the only way to get ahead is to put family concerns—to put children—aside. Which is what men have traditionally done to further their careers, knowing that women were there to pick up the slack. On the other hand, we have a man—an involved father—telling Alicia that she can have a job that allows her to be a good parent. Which path Alicia chooses, and the way she chooses to go about it, will say a lot about the ways in which television helps define the national conversation around parenthood and professionalism.
- If Alicia follows Diane’s advice, and she does nothing to ensure that Peter picks up the slack that will be created by her newfound professional focus, where does that leave the children? Who will be ensuring that they are in the best school, and that the influences in their lives are positive ones? Part of what Alicia must consider—what any parent in her position would consider—is the amount of time she has left to raise her children, both of whom are teenagers. In five years, her children will be grown and she won’t need to be tracking them the way she is now. The kids need both their parents to be connected and involved—and both their parents have professional needs that they should be able to pursue without feeling that they are somehow failing their children.
What Alicia needs is a plan, one that deeply involves Peter. Together, they can define ways in which each family member gets what he or she needs. If The Good Wife shows Alicia creating that plan with Peter, changing her own role as a mom and professional as Peter changes his as a dad and professional, the show could create something truly unique—a model for a cultural solution that allows women to explore every aspect of who they are, without having to pit the inner professional against the inner parent.