The Good Feminist

The Good Wife officially transitioned into its post-Will state on Sunday, and followed through on the showrunners’ promise that the next few episodes would not be “all tears—there’s comedy too.” The show is adept at balancing drama and comedy in the same episode, and though it continues to deal with Alicia, Kalinda and Diane’s grief in the aftermath of Will’s murder, “A Material World” has some humorous scenes. Alicia and Diane’s drunken get-together was funny, but the most chuckle-worthy part of the episode comes during Alicia’s lowest moment. Bedridden and in mourning, Alicia watches a detective show that seems awfully familiar.

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Alicia drowns her sorrows in TV.

In it, a couple of detectives run their flashlights over a dead body, while one of the detectives goes on a philosophical rant. “People just think there are black hats and white hats,” the detective drawls. “But there are black hats with white lining, and white hats with black lining. There are hats that change back and forth between white and black.”

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A deep-thinking detective on The Good Wife.

The pontificating detective is a great parody of myriad talky TV investigators, whether it be CSI Miami’s Horatio Caine (never without a pun) or True Detective’s Rust Cohle. The parody further mirrors True Detective through its imagery, the sadly familiar portrait of a brutalized woman strung up to a tree or a fence, on display for the male detectives—or saviors. Image

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Dead bodies on The Good Wife (top) and True Detective (bottom).

Much was made of True Detective’s women, whose frequently naked bodies—dead and alive—were ogled by the camera. The women of True Detective were there to illuminate the male leads: Marty’s mistress was valuable because she proved that Marty was out of control; Dora Lange (above) mattered to the audience not because she was a human being, but because her death offered a doorway into the way Rust Cohle’s mind worked. The Good Wife’s parody is comic relief, sure, but it also places the show’s complex female leads in contrast to True Detective’s flat women. Later in the episode, Alicia Florrick, who throughout the last two seasons has become more and more commanding, finally takes a long-awaited step toward her liberation from the shackles of the Tammy Wynette role: she breaks up with Peter, the husband who forced her to play the titular good wife.

No matter what you think of Alicia lately—the show certainly hasn’t privileged her likability—the character is not stagnant. The recent episode “A Few Words” reminded us of Alicia’s earlier iteration, all bad hair, dowdy suits, pursed lips and wide, nervous eyes. She has turned into a power player, at times a ruthless one. (“Don’t worry, I’m not going to divorce you,” she assures her jilted husband. “You’re too valuable to me professionally, just like I am to you.”)

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Alicia just after the Peter cheating scandal (L) and Alicia in season 5, now a name partner and founder of Florrick/Agos (R).

True Detective rankled some critics, but it was also one of the buzziest television events of recent years. Divergent schools of thought helped drive that buzz—some saw the show as simply a well-executed detective series, using all of the tropes associated with the genre but with snazzier directing and acting. Others praised True Detective for subverting the trappings of genre and offering something deeper. For all that talk, though, The Good Wife is doing something even more revolutionary: working within the confines of a network series, twenty-two episodes and all, and managing to tell a woman’s story subtly and artfully. True Detective created something television viewers love to indulge in: fervor. But The Good Wife creates something much more important: feminist television.

Is “The Wolf of Wall Street” Sexist?

Margot Robbie in The Wolf Of Wall Street

I just read this piece on Jezebel titled “A Lady’s Defense of The Wolf of Wall Street,” which seeks to defend the Scorsese picture against claims that “the filmmaker was sexist, and the script was sexist, and the portrayal of women was sexist, and this was offensive and bad and we should not give our money to such a heinous endeavor (because, you know, sexist).” Author Sara Benincasa doesn’t really argue whether or not the movie is sexist (although she does helpfully state, “[T]he film is not sexist or misogynist”); rather, her thesis seems to be that the film is drawing the viewers into the hedonistic, misogynistic, sexist, over-the-top world of its characters in order to hold up a mirror to the audience, to prove that we are “desperate, and greedy, and all too willing to be led.”

All this may be true—I have not seen the movie yet, so I can’t say—but I was disappointed that the article’s response to the film’s sexism (or lack thereof) was pretty much summed up thusly: “depiction of bad behavior does not constitute endorsement of said bad behavior.” I emphatically agree, but I don’t think that really answers the question. A piece of art is not sexist because it contains sexism. A piece of art should convey truth, and if sexism is part of that truth (as it was for Belfort and his buddies), then so be it. A piece of art is sexist when its women are not whole.

Case in point: Mad Men. No fan could argue the point that many of the male leads are sexist, but that does not make the show sexist. The show is not sexist—in fact, it’s quite feminist—because its female characters are as well-drawn as its male characters. The women are real people with thought, emotion and depth; they are not the caricatures many men of that era made them out to be.

So, having not yet seen The Wolf of Wall Street, these are my questions: Does it pass the Bechdel test? Is Margot Robbie’s character as human as any man onscreen? DiCaprio’s Belfort may not treat her with respect, but does the camera treat her with respect?

Those questions are not so easy to answer sometimes. If Scorsese is trying to draw us into Belfort’s world, then is it possible to separate Belfort’s gaze and the camera’s gaze? If Belfort sees Robbie’s character as a plaything, then should the film? I would argue no, and Scorsese’s track record gives me some measure of faith. This is a man who loves to explore masculinity on film, but not always at the expense of his female actors (see: Lorraine Bracco in GoodFellas or Cate Blanchett in The Aviator). How much of this is due to the performers, though? Vera Farmiga’s character in The Departed, for example, is paper thin, but Farmiga is skilled enough to create something out of virtually nothing. (Not surprisingly, you can now catch Farmiga acting the hell out of her role on Bates Motel—television seems to be the medium of choice for strong roles for women.)

Speaking of great performances by women this year, I saw American Hustle last night and was blown away by Jennifer Lawrence. I had read the accolades and was skeptical—I sort of assumed that her newfound status as America’s Sweetheart elevated the praise, especially since Amy Adams is the female lead—but boy, were the critics right. Lawrence is hilarious and sad and bawdy, and every other emotional shade in between. Thinking back on this year’s 2013’s films—with Adele and Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Color, Carey Mulligan’s Jean in Inside Llewyn Davis, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said, Oprah in The Butler, Scarlett in Her—it wasn’t a bad year for women in the movies, with or without Scorsese’s help.

Beauty School Dropout

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“You carry your brush with you?” my friend Abeline asked me incredulously the other day. We were studying in a coffee shop and I pulled a brush out of my backpack to comb my tangled hair.

“It’s a new development,” I said.

I’m not exactly sure what drove Abeline to comment, but it made me think about the impetus of the new brush situation. I am half-Arab, one-quarter Italian; my hair is very dark, very thick, and, right now, very long. Usually I don’t bother with it much. It takes too long to style. If it’s in my way, I either put it up in a bun or in a braid. It’s kind of heavy and sometimes it looks pretty, but in general I don’t think about it that often.

Until I started working at a school. At my job as, essentially, a classroom assistant, my sixth graders are constantly commenting on my hair. A couple of the girls love to twist it into elaborate braids during lunch. When it’s down, I often flip it from side to side because it gets in my eyes, and my students always yell, “Why do you always do that?” The running hair commentary makes me pay closer attention to my appearance than I normally would. I have never put much effort into my looks because 1) I never developed the skill set and 2) I was never presented with the incentive. Around sixth grade, when one starts processing these things, I noticed that there were “pretty girls” in class that got a lot of attention. The most popular was Destiny. She had huge boobs, naturally tan skin and an easy smile. A cute boy with dimples, blonde hair and green eyes moved into our class—Sean—and it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Destiny and Sean would become a couple—the couple. One day during reading period, Sean walked up to me and said matter-of-factly, “I like you and Destiny.” Then he walked away. I was sort of shocked. I was not unpopular, but I was not one of the “pretty girls.” I was one of the “smart girls.” Nevertheless, Sean was interested, so he became my first boyfriend, and also taught me a rather trite life lesson: looks aren’t everything.

I have a very clear memory of watching Grease when I was a kid and feeling like at the end, when Sandy got the perm and the tight clothes and ended up with Danny, that I was missing something. There was something I didn’t get. My mom didn’t really ever talk about looks, so at that time I didn’t have the language to frame what had happened at the end of Grease. When I got older, I understood that it was a ubiquitous cultural narrative: you get pretty so you can get a boyfriend. My sixth-grade experience, though, held true through high school and into young adulthood. No matter what the ads and movies said, I had seen no evidence that I needed to wear makeup or invest any undue effort into my appearance to attract men, and so I never learned how. I never figured out how to use a curling iron or put on eyeliner or choose my lipstick shade. I learned that as a very hairy girl thanks to my Italian-Arab jackpot, I felt more comfortable with my appearance when I got threaded, and that I liked how my nails looked with a manicure, so I began to invest in those beautification procedures. Beyond that, I didn’t really get into a beauty regimen.

Once I reached young adulthood, I realized that girls do not adopt beauty routines strictly for the benefit of the male gaze, that some young women feel empowered and excited by makeup and fashion—but I didn’t understand that until I was through my formative years, when a lot of those interests and habits form. Thus, I felt like I basically missed the window for developing a proficient beautification skill set, and I wasn’t troubled by that since it had never seemed to work against me. The last thing I thought about when I decided to become a teacher was the way it would affect my beauty routine, or lack thereof. I anticipated all sorts of challenges: having to learn to censor myself in certain situations, dealing with disruptive kids, defusing angry parents. What I didn’t think about was my hair. And yet, as soon as I was surrounded by sixth graders who were, like my sixth-grade self, becoming situated with beauty standards and social messages about looks and the dynamics of a classroom crush, my appearance became part of their conversation. My hair is no longer just my hair; my choice of shoe is no longer just my choice of shoe—these are potential classroom distractions.

I always thought there was a current of sexism running through requests for women to look “office appropriate”—which to me suggested a full face of makeup and immaculately blown-out hair. The implication seemed to be that a woman in her more natural state would somehow be a hindrance in the workplace, which fit into the larger cultural narrative that women should conform to certain models of femininity in order to be accepted. But now that I’m working with youth in a school setting, I am more aware of some of the subtleties at work when it comes to self-presentation. Luckily my current position is still fairly casual, but once I begin teaching full-time, I’ll definitely have to learn to strike a balance between being myself and looking professional—whatever that means.

Gender and The Good Wife

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I want to kind of unpack my reaction to this week’s The Good Wife because I’ve noticed sort of a disturbing trend. Those of us who love TV have heard a lot about the era of “difficult men” that The Sopranos ushered in—that is, the largely white, male antiheroes that anchor television’s most acclaimed dramas (Walter White, Don Draper, etc.). I love those characters, particularly Don Draper, which is what led me to question my response to Alicia Florrick’s defection from Lockhart/Gardner on The Good Wife tonight.

By all accounts and purposes, this is a feminist move from Alicia. Even though it wasn’t really acknowledged in this episode, the viewers were led to believe that Alicia was leaving L/G in part because she wanted to get out from under Will (figuratively and kind of literally). She wants to strike out on her own and really fight for the ideals she believes in as a lawyer, because we know that Alicia has often felt ethically compromised at L/G. And her strength as a woman was on display not only through the savvy business moves she made throughout the night’s episode, but also through her sexuality. Sure, she was forced into leaving once Will found out about the new firm, but she was still taking a lot of ownership in tonight’s episode on multiple fronts.

So why, as a regular viewer and as a feminist, did my sympathies lie so squarely with Will? To the point that I was really getting mad at Alicia as I watched, and actively rooting against her and the new firm? I don’t think the show was pushing me that way. This is The Good Wife, after all—it’s her story, so by virtue of that alone, we as viewers should be predisposed to siding with Alicia (which I often do). I don’t think the show was pushing us to take Alicia’s side, but I do think the Kings expect the viewers to celebrate her show of independence.

On the other hand, we also were not pushed to side against Will in this episode. Interestingly, we begin squarely in his head. First we got that long beat where the camera settled on Josh Charles as he let Will absorb the news from Diane, which was a moment that clearly engendered sympathy for the betrayed Will. Then we went right into his head; we literally saw things through Will’s eyes through the point-of-view shot as he approached Alicia. That was an interesting choice, because it put us squarely in Will’s frame of reference. And a great direction note; the POV shot gets the audience right up in a character’s mindset, but it’s also used very effectively in some horror movies, like “Halloween”, to unsettle the audience by placing them in the serial killer’s head as he or she stalks or watches the victim. So in that beginning scene of the episode, we were recognizing Will as a threatening presence to Alicia, but we were also sharing a very intimate moment with him.

Beginning aside, Will and Alicia very much operated in grey areas tonight, so it’s hard to argue that the show took sides. Will’s darkest moment was also literally the darkest moment in the episode, when, barely lit and shrouded in black, he told Kalinda that he would essentially stop at nothing to take the competition down. That was an ominous shot that put him in some shifty territory. But he also had the beats related to Grace’s phone call, which humanized him and gave us a respite from his anger. Alicia also went to some dark places, but she had the wrenching elevator moment. Overall, I thought the show was quite objective, which leaves me questioning my anger toward Alicia. Sure, she did some ethically questionable things while maneuvering out of L/G, but Will has been shady through the show’s entire run. Furthermore, how can I as a viewer not just tolerate but actively root for Don Draper—who is frequently a misogynist pig—and yet actively root against Alicia Florrick as soon as she makes one ethical transgression?

I have to wonder if even I, an avowed feminist, am uncomfortable with the depiction of female power, or of a woman in a morally grey area, a woman willing to make moves for her own benefit. That woman kind of already exists on The Good Wife in the form of Kalinda, but for me I think it’s easy to not react to Kalinda very strongly because 1) she’s such a heightened, over-the-top character anyway and 2) she’s so emotionally opaque that I rarely react to her with any strong emotion, unless it’s related to Alicia or some other character on the show. But Kalinda also doesn’t toggle identities the way Alicia does. Alicia is mother, wife, lawyer, lover, and so on. And maybe part of the discomfort comes in watching a woman really wear all of those different masks; maybe we don’t want to think that a woman has those masks at all. We want to imagine that she is some pure presence—St. Alicia. We can celebrate Will Gardner and Don Draper because despite their transgressions, aren’t these the archetypical American males? Aren’t they—in their well-cut suits, surrounded by  the signifiers of power—filling idealized male roles? And yet when we watch a woman adopt their strategies in order to seize power for herself, there’s a certain discomfort, for me at least. I don’t know exactly what it says about my biases or societal norms, but I am happy there’s a show that’s even challenging me to consider it.