Sunday, October 11, 2009

Good Wives Sometimes Have It Bad

It was not long after the pilot episode of the new CBS show, The Good Wife, aired that criticisms began mounting. The show features a middle-aged woman, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), returns to a law firm after thirteen-year hiatus during which she supported her husband’s political career and raised their two daughters. A reasonable observer would think Florrick content. Yet, the opening first scene of series depicts her husband’s public resignation from office, after having been embroiled in a sex scandal (he was caught on tape in bed with prostitutes). When the press conference concludes and the couple retreats to a more private venue, Florrick promptly slaps her husband (played by Chris Noth) and realizes she must go back to work at her old law firm to support her children.

Of course, as Dana Goldstein wrote in an American Prospect article, “The Wrong Side of the Mommy Track,” political wives would not typically be in dire financial straits. The Alicia Florricks of the world do not often need to return to their cubicle. But regardless of the show’s financial realism circumstances, The Good Wife should be applauded for its attempt to show a women’s professional success in the midst of a marital crisis. Whether or not you think Florrick should stand by her man, her decision to go back to work is harder to fault. Even though the impetus for Florrick’s return to work is degrading, that she does return is intended (I expect) to be empowering. She returns her firm and completes an oddly seamless transition back to a high-powered and high-stress position.

Unfortunately, The Good Wife, despite some of its nobler goals, seems to perpetuate the idealized account of a professional woman’s return to the work force after time away. “Women rarely win, in their personal or professional lives, by giving up everything to focus on hubby.” Goldstein explains that a woman attempting to re-enter the work force after significant time off can expect her salary to drop two percent for each year she stays home. “That means a woman who earned $80,000 ten years ago, then quit her job, can expect her new salary to be $64,000.” Opting-out has significant financial consequences for all women, but especially for future divorcees. Because when things go amiss and “the chips fall, women are the ones left supporting the kids, and their [decreased] earning potential matters.”

I don’t expect CBS to accurately reflect political realities in its prime-time programming. And I haven’t decided whether or not I will continue to watch the show. But I do want to address that when real women return to the work force after years or even months absent, they lose out on raises and promotions and often lament that their colleagues treat them differently and take them less seriously. The title of the show is meant to be ironic; pre-scandal Alicia Florrick is a “good” wife by a mid-twentieth century metric. And in returning to work, she’s not now somehow bad. Either way, if a real American woman’s transition back to work were anything like hers, then life would be very good indeed. Too bad.

Amanda Krause