thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Quiet Times: Ladies, Friendship, and “The Good Wife”

In CBS, gender, The Good Wife on September 18, 2013 at 5:42 am

Phoebe B.

On The Good Wife, female friendships–especially Alicia and Kalinda’s–and relationships between women are, I think, the driving force of the show. Yet, these relationships are inevitably strained, often silent, and above all else complicated. Near the middle of the show’s fourth season, Alicia and Kalinda sit quietly in a hotel room, drinking red wine. Each woman is atop a separate bed, so that they face out toward the camera. When they speak, their conversations are stilted–filled with one-word answers, long pauses, and minimal eye contact. Adding to the strangeness of the scene is the hunting-themed wood lodge where they’re spending the night, a setting where they are both–with their very nice clothes and red wine–out of place.

Watching Alicia and Kalinda interact this way is an uncomfortable experience for me as a viewer. In fact, seemingly strained silences often make me uncomfortable. Yet the discomfort is wholly my own. The characters themselves are actually quite comfortable; this image of the two of them–together yet distinctly separate–perhaps defines their friendship. And that’s one of the things I love most about The Good Wife: the show challenges my expectations of how female characters are supposed to behave and interact with one another on television.

kalinda-and-alicia

***

The first time I watched Pretty Little Liars was on Super Bowl Sunday about three years ago. At the time, I was living in a cute, though small, house in Eugene, Oregon, which conveniently had a lofted attic. While my boyfriend and two of his guy friends gathered downstairs to watch the football festivities, I holed myself away in the attic with an air mattress, a space heater, and some blankets.

I wandered downstairs midway through binge-watching the show, hungry and hoping to catch the Super Bowl halftime show—truly the only part I ever want to watch. (One word: Beyonce). Sitting on the couch, watching television together but barely speaking or making eye contact, were the three guys. On instinct, I began to talk to fill the space. Their silence made me nervous. The Jewish grandmother in me worried that they weren’t happy, or that they were hungry, or needed more beer. The list, as any goes on. Mostly, I just worried that their silence indicated they were having no fun at all.

***

On The Good Wife, Alicia and Kalinda’s relationship is impossibly strained. After all, Kalinda slept with Alicia’s husband and then lied about it. But these events are not the reason for their silence and stilted conversations. Rather, their friendship has always involved long pauses and very little talking. That is, they are both reserved—stoic even—and communicate a lot to each other using very few words. Even their movements are restrained and controlled. They never waste time, space, or conversation with chatter or small talk. That’s just not their style.

I realized my discomfort with the way they related early on while power-watching the first season of the show this summer. At first I thought I didn’t like the show or their characters. I felt bothered by the way silences punctuate the show. I had never seen women–at least on television–relate in this way. Instead, these kinds of silences have historically been the purview of men like John Wayne or now Don Draper.

Then, I thought perhaps their stoic natures were part of character development. Surely sooner or later they would come out of their shells and talk incessantly, like stereotypical teenage girls at a sleepover (pretty much PLL all the time). Of course, this never panned out. And, what’s more, it shouldn’t!

What I finally realized, in a bout of self-reflection, was that these characters were not the problem: I was. I expected them to behave like other women I’ve seen on TV–to be likable and chatty and outwardly-directed. I expected to identify with them, which would thereby produce my enjoyment and investment in the show.

But ultimately, what I actually love so much about both Alicia and Kalinda is that they are different from the packs of outgoing, tight-knit groups of women we so often see on TV. The Good Wife’s female characters are diverse in their personalities, providing a dearly needed spectrum of television ladies.

***

After I spent all of Super Bowl Sunday getting caught up on PLL, I started watching it with a group of my real-life girlfriends. We would gather every week, with wine of course, to watch our favorite teenage heroines together. For both PLL and Gossip Girl (which we also watched around this time), we made rules about talking: no talking during the shows—a rule made significantly easier by pausing and DVR—and no mocking them.

Of course, we could rarely abide by our own rules. There were screams of disbelief, gasps that dissolved into giggles, strange and fun bursts of academic debates over teenage girl representation, and even occasional anger directed at the shows and their villains. Between the pauses and extended commercial breaks taken up by chatting, guessing at what would happen next, and theorizing about who the real criminal mastermind was, a 45-minute show might last over two hours.

These loud, excitable, and boisterous friendships became a staple of my time in graduate school—they kept me happy, sane, and comfortable in my own skin. The laughter, wine, excitement, and silliness got my through my exams, writing a dissertation, and generally just made life more fun. In spaces filled with laughter and talk, I have always felt at ease and most myself. But this brand of friendship is neither universal nor universally desired.

When I came downstairs to see three quiet guys watching the Super Bowl, I didn’t realize at first that enjoying the company of others looks different on everyone. Indeed, in that room, I’m quite sure that I was the only one who was uncomfortable. The three guys were probably having a great time together. As my boyfriend often says, sometimes so much can be communicated without words. For him, it seems, sometimes talking just takes up unnecessary space and energy.

***

I love The Good Wife because it’s helped me think more broadly–not only about my expectations of representations of women, but also about the different ways we all relate to each other and build, maintain, and foster our friendships.

As Alicia and Kalinda sit in their weird hunting lodge-themed room, Alicia remembers sitting at home drinking a glass of red wine by herself everyday at 3 pm. This was before her husband’s affair was exposed to a national audience, before she returned to work as a lawyer. The silence, she says, was a thing of beauty, a necessity during a busy and hectic life full of children, noise, and a marriage. In the afternoon, she could–as she says to another character later in the season–“let the silence rest.”

Letting the silence rest neither comes naturally to me, nor does it even sound enjoyable. But thanks to The Good Wife, I’m rethinking the reasons for that. Watching Alicia and Kalinda, I understand the benefits of quiet–how two people together, barely talking, can provide each other with relief from the chatter, noise, and busyness of everyday life.

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  1. […] Quiet Times: Ladies, Friendship and “The Good Wife” […]

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