Sunday Night TV + The Roles of Women

Admin Note: Episodic spoilers on Mar. 1 episodes of The Good Wife and Madam Secretary and first 5 episodes of House of Cards

This past weekend, three of my favorite shows came back from hiatus — House of Cards, The Good Wife and freshman political drama Madam Secretary. All three shows are generally considered to be feminist, to the extent they feature women in titular or lead roles and populate the rest of the cast in a way that, for the bulk of mainstream shows, looks decidedly more male. This week however, it was a straight challenge to push through the usual misogynistic droll that pervades so many prime time narratives. This week, my favorite shows felt less like semi-realistic alt worlds and more like: what the Hell am I watching? We’ve got a problem with how we portray women on television, and the only solution is more women, in more significant roles, in more compelling narratives.

I love these particular shows for a few reasons: 1) They feature women in legitimately meaty and complex roles, 2) I dig just about any drama featuring politics or courtrooms, and 3) They’re consistently well-written and well-acted. I’m binge-viewing House of Cards this week, and the other two I unfailingly watch live, DVR, and watch again.

The Good Wife premiered in 2009, and stars Julianna Margulies as the titular good wife, Alicia Florrick – a woman who gave up a stopped-before-it-started career in law to raise her two children while her politically ambitious husband was free to chase his career as well as, it turns out, all the skirts in town. When the show began, after almost 20 years of playing this role, her husband is publicly exposed as an adulterer with a preference for sex-workers. Alicia’s the good wife, ostensibly, because she chooses to stand by him – at least, in public (Full disclosure, I’ve never been married – but this stand-by-your-man philosophy has never made sense to me); she ditches the PTA to jumpstart her law career, a move which works pretty fantastically. At this point, we’re six seasons in and not only is she a named partner in her own law firm, she’s also running for Attorney General, a role previously (ironically?) held by her husband, to whom FYI, she’s estranged but still married.

This weekend’s episode, “Dark Money” (Ep. 613) – featured the other named partners in Alicia’s firm, Diane and Cary, battling a defamation suit against a client, who, in a past season, was acquitted of murdering his wife. As part of the trial, we’re made to sit through a fake TV show depicting a woman being strangled, rolled into a carpet and dumped into a shallow grave. Another storyline involves the firm’s intrepid investigator Kalinda, being blackmailed by another client, who unsurprisingly (and again, ironically?) we first met in an earlier season when he was accused of murdering his wife. Alicia, meanwhile, trying to recruit donors for her campaign, crosses paths with wealthy misogynist Guy Redmayne (played by Ed Asner), who is not only a bigot, but a sexist homophobe to boot – spitting out such lines as “I’d split that little missy in half” as well as a nasty string of f-bombs (not that one, the other one). She spits it back at him to an extent (Redmayne: I’ve got the testicles of a 20-year-old. Alicia: Where? In your briefcase?), but ultimately accepts his money and ends the episode in tears, guilty of feeling like “a bad person.”

House of Cards is a conundrum. Claire Underwood (played by the fantastic Robin Wright) is nothing short of a feminist antihero and has been a beast from the get-go, though initially overshadowed by her then-Majority Whip and resident sociopath husband Frank (Kevin Spacey). Part of the conundrum is that Claire is simply a divisive character – I’m never quite sure about her intentions: she rocks a striking hairstyle and a cold, calculating demeanor; she’s unsympathetic and morally ambiguous. If that sounds straightforward, it’s really more of a blur that always leaves me hoping she’ll do the right thing. That she’s essentially unlikable in the first two seasons is another story, but personally, it’s precisely those attributes that allow me to forget her transgressions and root for her. I blame it on the enormous gap between seasons – I simply forget she’s just as sociopathic and power-hungry as Frank.

Within the first five episodes (via Netflix, the entire third season was released en masse 2/27) – Claire is now the First Lady of the United States, somewhat bizarrely aiming to be named the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. The barrage of criticism that comes her way, despite her enormous efforts, shows no mercy. She’s also routinely dissed by members of leadership, who seem to value her only as a trophy wife, a temporary annoyance. The visiting Russian delegation provides particularly (and purposely) cringe-worthy scenes, including an unwanted and decidedly inappropriate mouth kiss from the Russian President in a room full of White House leadership, and gratuitous put-her-in-her-place exchanges – some of that culminating in a fantastic bathroom scene wherein Claire has at least a bit of comeuppance.

Watching what amounted to several episodes of full on woman-hating was difficult. Two other women featured prominently in the first part of the season are Assistant House Minority Whip Jackie Sharp, who goes head to head with Frank in a ploy to attain higher rank and attention (she’s also strongly encouraged to marry to give the impression that she’s a family [wo]man since apparently that’s the only type of person considered worthy of leadership) and Heather Dunbar, U.S. Solicitor General turned Presidential candidate after Frank unintentionally gives her the internal push she needed to run for the big seat. While you’re rooting for all three women, you get the feeling it’s only a matter of time before the exclusionary leadership of men (née patriarchy) smash them back down to earth.

Madam Secretary features ex-CIA analyst Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), who after 20 years with “the company,” leaves in protest, ostensibly after an incident wherein she essentially condones the torture of a Middle East terror suspect. After the assassination of the sitting Secretary of State, she is recruited by the President (and her former CIA boss) to step into the role. The show, only 15 episodes in, revolves around how Elizabeth navigates her new, volatile political landscape, office politics as well as how she maintains a functional relationship with her husband and three children. I totally dig the premise, and if you’re not watching yet, you should, this show is just getting better.

This show, not unlike reality, features mostly white men in leadership roles. Aside from the Secretary and her Chief of Staff, we’ve seen women in a few prominent roles including an Admiral, Indian Foreign Minister, and outspoken Senator – I believe there was also a French leader of some sort, but the scene was brief. To be fair, there are loads of women in lesser roles from CIA analysts, to bodyguards and even Elizabeth’s own two daughters, but the leadership roles are almost exclusively men, and they’re almost exclusively white. This is a problem. When you live in a fictional world, for the love, make it the world you want to see.

While she came into her position like a lamb, Elizabeth has evolved into somewhat of a lion – pushing back several times when backed into corners by the powers that be. In the premiere episode, for example, the President’s Chief of Staff sends a stylist to her office who boldly tells the Secretary of State that in regard to her strongly suggested wardrobe revamp: “you don’t have a choice in the matter” which prompts Elizabeth’s promo-worthy retort: “I’ve never met a situation where I don’t have a choice in the matter.” In the most recent episode, this show didn’t disappoint – though we were forced to deal with an egoistic male Senator, a male “fixer” who essentially saved the day, and several women who were criticized, investigated, potentially part of a larger political conspiracy, and in the case of at least one, killed/kidnapped (TBA).

One of my favorite lines from this season of Madam Secretary comes from Elizabeth’s husband, Henry, who is trying to ease Elizabeth’s mind when she misses her daughter’s sleepover. “Working late doesn’t ruin the kids. It just shows them that in life, sometimes you have to do stuff that is hard. It’s just life, babe, normal life. You’re a mom that got stuck at work.” Tell me the last time you heard a line like that on television? Who knew one of the most prominent feminists on cable television would be a guy?

Most women are aware of the sexism and boys clubs that persists in most industries and who generally make it difficult to stay sane while you’re trying to achieve your own career and/or life goals. I think it’s an important angle to represent; to exclude or ignore it would paint an inaccurate and dishonest picture of reality. But when it comes to drama, why is it that women seem to be more often the victim than any other role?

I don’t need to see a woman being strangled or raped to get the gist of violence; I don’t want to see her mansplained in every episode; “ice queens” can and should exist without a violent past and the fact that the effects of violence against women seem to last for only a single episode are patently offensive. We are a motley crew of our experiences, highs and lows, successes, failures and indifference and the persistence of this violence and misogyny on television perpetuates the idea that women can only exist in these ultra-violent faux worlds.

I’m encouraged by the fact that the number of women breaking into behind-the-scenes, production roles is increasing, and then discouraged, and discouraged again.  A diverse cast and production team seems to be inextricably linked to more positive portrayals and more diverse and compelling roles for all types of women and men. I’m also encouraged by the popularity of shows featuring women of color including Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Orange is the New Black, Blackish, The Mindy Project and Fresh Off the Boat (among others) – though the highest-rated of these also contain a stunning degree of violence toward women  (though, to be fair HTGAWM seems to offer equal opportunities for violence).

Let’s fix this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s