Pop Culture: The Good Wife & Disability
About two or three weeks ago, I finally got around to noting the existence of the show The Good Wife. And then I watched every episode I could, as quickly as I could, because wow is this show good.
It’s one part legal drama, one part family drama, and one part mysterious conspiracy theory drama. The Wikipedia summary is pretty good: “The storyline focuses on Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick, the wife of Peter Florrick (Chris Noth). Her husband has been jailed following a very public sex and corruption scandal. She returns to her old job as a litigator to rebuild her reputation and provide for her two children.”
Except the whole article somehow manages to skip over how feminist the show is. In the early episodes, Alicia has a male coworker who is pretty damn sexist to her, including talking down to her, ignoring what she says entirely, and acting like her being both older and a parent makes her not very smart. Later episodes have her pointing out how she keeps getting shunted aside to “hand hold” clients, which she admits is important but is curtailing her career. And these things are shown as being bad, not as being acceptable because, you know, woman.
The show is filled with interesting relationships between women as well. We’ve got Alicia’s relationship with both her investigator, Kalinda, and one of the managing partners, Diane. Both relationships are complicated by professional needs and the fact that they’re still working in a sexist office environment. Diane is involved in EMILY’s List, and there’s an implication that her “pet project” is looked down on by her male colleagues.
At home, Alicia’s mother-in-law has come in to help care for the kids while she’s working and Peter’s in jail, and their relationship is also complicated, with concerns about parenting and their different views of Peter’s prison sentence.
I just love this show. Love it.
But I’m not just talking about it here because it’s awesome. It also managed to (mostly) side-step some disability fail that I was expecting.
The rest of this is full of spoilers for Season 1, Episode 4, “Fixed”.
The episode involves a law suit against a pharmaceutical company. Diane & Alicia (and Cary, the male attorney that Alicia is competing against for a permanent job) are representing a client who was a former word-class athlete, took the drug the company created to relieve his migraine, and had a stroke. It’s not revealed until he’s on the stand that – gasp! – he’s now a full-time wheelchair user.
I admit, I’ve gotten pretty jaded over the past few years. I turned to Don and said “The big reveal is going to be that he’s faking, isn’t it? I’m not sure I want to keep watching.”
But I was wrong!
The show did do some interesting things with this plot. The wife of the athlete was put on the stand and grilled about their sex life – something that happens to people with disabilities and their intimate partners all the time – and there was an obvious rustling of discomfort when she revealed that he was not actually a paraplegic but was able to use his lower body somewhat. As people who use wheelchairs and their loved ones will tell you, again – people have that reaction all the time. (If you can stand up, you’re not a real cripple!)
IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE STOP READING RIGHT NOW.
Part of the plot of the episode is investigating who may be bribing jury members in order to ensure a victory. It’s presented as a very important case: If the plaintiffs win, it opens the drug company up to a class action law suit. Throughout the episode, various background characters are shown watching the trial, obviously people who had also become disabled because of the drug. There’s a scene where the wife of the plaintiff shows Alicia an overflowing shoe box full of letters from them. It’s obvious how important this case is.
So when it turns out the jury is being bribed by the plaintiffs, rather than the drug company, it made perfect sense.
People (mostly men) in wheelchairs are often shown as being totally selfless people – good cripples – who never do anything wrong and suffer quietly without calling any attention to themselves or being in any way a problem. Or, they’re EVIL, EVIL EVIL! out of a need for revenge for the world that left them a cripple. Having a character with a disability who did something wrong – illegal! – but did it for “good” reasons, with “good” intentions, impressed me. It made the character morally ambiguous, instead of just there so we could all feel sorry for him and his ever-suffering wife.
It’s also interesting how they juxtapose this with Alicia’s behaviour. She, too, is an ever-suffering wife, and has also made several wrong – illegal! – decisions over the course of the show.
No one is Ultimately Good in this show, not even the one-shot characters who are now wheelchair users. I love it.