I’ve watched a few episodes of the Good Wife before, but have never been a regular viewer. After hearing that the show took on the events of Ferguson in an episode, I suspected the piece might be a good fit for this project. After an hour of vigorous note taking, wincing and eye-rolling, it’s fair to say that my assessment was correct. This clunky portrayal of the problems facing communities of color in our country focused primarily on the impact they had on the white characters trying to go about their days and the strongest assessments of the problem, coming from white voices, could be boiled down to the fact that “it’s complicated.” While attempting to be edgy and relevant, an (according to my research) all white group of producers took on race and police violence in a way that was soft, off-point and ultimately problematic.
The episode, called “The Debate,” revolves around the pending verdict on a case that had much in common with the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. An unarmed black man was killed by two white Chicago police officers and early on in the episode both the main characters and the outraged black community in Chicago tensely awaited the verdict. As was the case following the murders of Brown and Garner, there was a non-indictment for the police officers responsible and the people took to the streets in Chicago as they have across the nation throughout the past few months. The “riot” that erupted in Ferguson was obsessively and fearfully reported on by the mainstream media in the United States as was the case in this episode of the Good Wife. Focusing on small acts of violence or the assumed potential of violence for peacefully protesting black people distracts from the systemic and constant violence faced by people of color in our country. The Good Wife had an opportunity to move beyond the superficial mainstream media coverage of police brutality but by consistently focusing on the fear and frustration of the white characters that were having their status quo disrupted meant that the show fell short at every opportunity it had to do so.
The main character, Alicia Florrick, was empathetic at times but most of her statements on the topic were focused on how much harder this verdict would make her political campaign and her debate responses (which her staff were formulating not with the goal of being just or right but with the purpose of saying whatever would anger less voters). We saw this phenomenon over and over in the dominant narratives surrounding the #BlackLivesMatter movement which focused attention on the impact on drivers that were delayed on their way to work as the roads were filled with protesters or on shoppers that were momentarily kept from shopping at the Mall of America’s protest in December. While these inconveniences and white feelings may feel real and important to some, they are a convenient distraction from more important discussions, that is a matter of life and death for many in our community, and further perpetuate the idea that white voices and white experiences are more valuable.
Beyond the focus on the white response to the non-indictment, the show dropped the ball once again with the conversation held between the two candidates for State’s Attorney. Alicia’s character discussed racial inequities and the criminal justice system with her opponent in front of a group of black and brown kitchen staff after the live debate was postponed due to the coverage of the riots. First, the two white candidates made recommendations based on their realities and their experiences and the crowd of brown while the people of color listened intently. While this is perhaps reflective of the way that political conversations about race happen in places of power in the United States, this dominant reading of this episode normalized that as a, perhaps unfortunate, but inevitable and acceptable phenomenon.
The next part of the dominant reading of the episode that emerged in this scene is that these issues are “controversial” and “complicated.” While Alicia’s opponent said some powerful and straightforward statements about how police violence against black men is a part of a structural and historical system of racial oppression in our country, Alicia was soft and hesitant to place too much blame anywhere. Because Alicia is the relatable protagonist that viewers have been watching for years, the stance she takes has a lot more power and respect than the stance her opponent takes. Ultimately, Alicia’s stance is that yes, there is a problem, but it’s a complicated one that requires baby steps to reform it. To this, the people of color applauded and told her that she had their vote. Really? Has the vocalized consensus among marginalized racial groups post-Ferguson been to take things slowly? Have people of color been calling for a respect of the complexities and a few small and respectable reforms? I certainly haven’t heard that message in articles I have read post-Ferguson or by people of color that I’ve heard speak at events that followed the non-indictments. The notion to slow down and appreciate the complexities is problematic in that it shifts the conversation away from the root causes of the injustice itself to a confused and inactive state of white discussion. Focusing on the complicated nature of the systems takes away the culpability of the policies and actions of the powerful that contribute to this problem and makes us feel better about the inaction and violence because we know people are trying– it’s just really, really hard.
Dominant readings of this episode were also that it was edgy and brave just to dare to venture into the realm of race relations and that addressing the topic alone warrants applause. A reviewer with Entertainment Weekly said that they would “refrain from getting political here because it is, after all, a television show” which furthers the idea that representations in the media are apolitical and do not impact material realities, something that the oppositional gaze and critical theorists like bell hooks strongly disagree with. The reviewer follows that statement by honoring the writers’ commitment to “tackle” these controversial subjects. In one clip, Alicia’s white campaign manager Eli, while speaking to a black woman, calls black people “her people” and attributes rioting as a characteristic of “their” race. This scene is described by the Entertainment Weekly reviewer as both “hilarious” and “awkward.” Sure, interracial conversations can be “awkward,” but if awkward and funny is what you got out of that exchange, we’ve got a problem. This dominant narrative of the episode being edgy, funny or remarkable for even daring to go there is distracting and problematic to anybody that has to live with the structural violence marginalized communities face or understands the impact that television has on our society.
Television and the media, according to bell hooks, are apart of a “system of knowledge and power [that] reproduce[s] and maintain[s] white supremacy” (hooks 117). To applaud the show for touching on a controversial topic while ignoring the impact that problematic representations of people and topics have on material realities is to fundamentally misunderstand the impact media has. Yes, being ignored and made invisible by media is a problem, but the solution to that problem is not just representation. Promoting ideas that white people’s feelings about state sanctioned violence on communities of color are more important than that of said communities of color or that white people hold the answers to these “complicated” problem contributes to the very problems that creates the violence against brown and black bodies to begin with. Valuing white experiences and ideas while simultaneously silencing and taking agency away from black people creates a culture where a murder of a black person is somehow less of a loss and less illegal than the murder of a white person. This is described in bell hooks’ piece “The Oppositional Gaze” when she quotes Teresa de Laurentis who says that “discourses ‘do violence’ to people, a violence which is material and physical, although produced by… the mass media” (hooks 118).
There was definitely a pleasure and a power for me in the process of viewing the episode with an oppositional gaze, as bell hooks argues there is. As a white woman, I wasn’t able to use my experience as a marginalized race to get to my position of viewing the episode oppositionally, but have some political and academic background to care about and understand many of these issues, which helped me, start to pick through the parts of the episode that didn’t sit well with me.
P.S. What I didn’t realize until after watching the episode is that the executive director of the show is Ridley Scott. The same Ridley Scott that was responsible for Black Hawk Down, a film that not-so-clumsily portrays the Somali people as a mass of two-dimensional oppressed, backwards and uncivilized people that would be lucky to be saved by the U.S. military. The off-point representation of race and police violence in America in the Good Wife is significantly less surprising when you make the Ridley Scott connection and start to delve into the demographic of those responsible for writing and directing the show.
hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” Black Looks: race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. 115-131.
Brissey, Breia. “The Good Wife Recap: ‘The Debate'” Entertainment Weekly. EW.com, 12 Jan. 2015. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.