Sex Geek: The Blog

The Good Wife and the attempted eroticization of intimate partner violence

For the past couple of years,  The Good Wife has been one of my favourite shows on TV- it’s really timely, it has some really interesting storylines, and I’m pretty sure there’s enough material on the portrayal of Diane, Alicia, and Kalinda to create an entire gender studies thesis.

Kalinda’s always been one of the more controversial characters- she’s very intelligent, very savvy, and never afraid to use her sexual allure to get what she wants. Apparently it was a big deal when it was confirmed that her character was bisexual (or, at least had sex with both men and women- her self-definition of being “flexible” is another post entirely). But the latest season has created a troubling storyline about domestic violence that no one seems to be talking about.

So, for the one paragraph recap of the show (which isn’t really all that relevant to the story at hand). . . Alicia is a lawyer who goes back to work after her husband (Peter, the district attorney) has been caught having an affair with a prostitute and is arrested for corruption. The first season is spent fighting for his freedom, the second getting him elected at State’s Attorney, and now he’s running for governor. Kalinda is the private investigator at the firm where Alicia works and ends up one of her only friends. Prior to her work at this law firm though, she worked for Peter at the DA’s office. Now, Kalinda is always kind of mysterious, and when a rival PI joins the firm, he makes it his mission to discover her secrets. As is her way, she does a great job of getting rid of him, but not before he figures out her secret- she was actually a Canadian, and had faked her own death when she got into trouble. And as he slips off, he tells her that he’s found her husband (something we don’t hear about for another year). As it turns out, in order to cover up her former life, she slept with Peter (back when they worked together) to get him to fake the documents. (Alicia later finds out- she never wants to see Kalinda again, she leaves Peter, but both relationships are kind of built back up over season 3).

Cue the end of season 3, when Kalinda’s husband is about to enter the picture. When she realizes this, she picks up a sledgehammer from the local hardware store and ends the season with her sitting inside her apartment with a gun. In the season opening, it turns out it’s not her husband, but his friend who has come to find her. He tells her that Nick (her husband) misses her, he’s not mad, and to come home. When he claims to be taking a phone out of his pocket, she pulls her gun on him. Apparently she had good reason- it turns out to be a gun. They struggle, and eventually Kalinda has to hit his hands with the sledgehammer to get free. She picks up the friend’s ringing phone, and tells her husband quite clearly that she wants nothing to do with him and to leave her alone. Before she leaves the friend writhing in pain on her apartment floor, he warns her that it doesn’t matter what she does- wherever she goes, her husband will find her.

Later in the episode, we learn that her husband (Nick) has already infiltrated her new life; under an assumed name, he comes to the law firm where she works and pretends to be a client needing her help. They’re both perfectly civilized and pretend not to know each other. That is, until they end up in the elevator together, and beat the crap out of each other. (On its own, this is a pretty big deal. She’s been in plenty of physical altercations before, and I don’t think they’ve ever shown anyone get the better of her.) Somehow, they end up back at her place and have sex. She tells him she needs him to leave, but the whole situation is left very unsettled.

Now, one of my guilty pleasure websites is TV Line. There’s absolutely nothing on it that’s going to improve my brain, but that’s not really what guilty pleasures are for. Anyway, I came across an interesting write up for the second episode of the season, where there’s a scene that’s described as being so hot, it barely made it past the Standards and Practices board. Okay, whatever. It’s not like it would be the first time that The Good Wife pushed the envelope with their sex scenes or content. It also contained the following description.

“Allow me to set the scene: Ice cream parlor. Lovers on a date. Each enjoying a sundae. The male half of the pair reaches under the table to, ahem, melt his partner under her dress. He then takes that same hand and dips it in her sundae. And finally, the frisky female laps up a spoonful of the “tainted” dessert.” (

On its own, I have absolutely no problem with this. Yes, it’s not appropriate for young viewers, but it’s not like it on at 7pm. But after seeing the scene, I started to have some trouble with it. On the CBS website, it’s actually called “Ice Cream and Kinkiness”. (You can see it via youtube here – though it’s definitely NSFW! )

After the first episode, I had expected this to be some kind of weird reconciliation scene where they’re trying to revamp their relationship or something. Instead, she seems to be there against her will. He’s maybe trying to butter her up, but she’s not having any of it. And when he sticks his hand under the table, it’s not because she’s somehow indicated that she was aroused- he was trying to make a point. When she rebuffs him, the way he sticks his fingers in her ice cream is an act of aggression and anger. The best I can tell, her continuing to eat her ice cream has nothing to do with being a “frisky female” (as described above), but a symbolic “you can’t break me down” statement.

How does this storyline play out? In a rare moment of vulnerability, she asks Alicia to get rid of him as a client (again, something that’s never happened before). When she tries, he gets quite verbally aggressive with her too (and makes it clear he’s not leaving). Next thing you know, Nick’s waiting in Kalinda’s apartment with a gun pulled on her. When she tries to lock herself in the bathroom away from him, he slams his fist through a mirror. She comes out to help clean the wounds, and he asks her “why do you make me do this?” Of course, this inevitably ends with them having sex again.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything particularly subtle about this scene. In fact, it seems to describe the cycle of abusive relationships perfectly. There are several variations, but it goes something like this: (1) tension starts to build (things are getting worse and worse) until finally (2) the incident occurs (the incident might be verbal, physical, sexual, emotional, etc). But once it’s over, you slide into the phase (3) of reconciliation, where the tension has broken and the abuser apologizes, minimizes what he did, or blames the victim. And finally, they go into the “honeymoon” (4) phase, where it’s almost as if the abuse never took place, and the abuser goes out of his way to be kind and sweet. Unfortunately, since this is a cycle, you end up back at the first stage (tension building), which ultimately leads to another incident. . . you get the idea.

Anyway, you start to see the effects of the abuse playing out in other ways- there are passing comments from multiple characters about her attendance/performance at work. After he spies on her having sex with Lana, a recurring character, he becomes furious, calls Kalinda homophobic slurs, and threatens Lana (to Kalinda). He even goes as far as to meet with Lana, pretending to be a stranger so Kalinda can see how serious he is. There’s an awful confrontation in Kalinda’s kitchen where they end up pulling knives on each other. He ends up breaking into Lana’s apartment.

Let’s be clear: this guy is a homophobic, racist, abusive misogynist. And while it might have been an incredible opportunity to start the conversation about abusive relationships, the show didn’t go there. (And it’s not like it’s afraid of those issues; they’ve gone into these issues and more- in the following two episodes, they cover the rape of military women and rape jokes). And while there’s been some outcry from fans about really hating the storyline (to the point where the producers are wrapping it up much earlier than intended), the dialogue isn’t about the abuse. In explaining why fans hate the story, creator Robert King said, “You don’t give James Bond a girlfriend.” That is, people seem to see the emergence of her husband as making her boring. . . she’s supposed to be sexy, seductive Kalinda, and she doesn’t get to be that with a husband. Unfortunately, fans seem to see this as the result of Kalinda having any kind of boyfriend/commitment, not as the result of an abusive relationship.

I can see why people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea- she’s really self-sufficient, and manages to get the law firm out of all kinds of messes. She’s totally in control of her sexuality (and has no problem using it to control (entice?) others). She’s been able to hold her own in physical confrontations before. I haven’t seen her cry or really confide in someone about the abuse. She hasn’t been showing up to work covered in bruises. So it just doesn’t fit with our typical understanding that she could be the victim of domestic violence. But she CAN. It DOES happen to strong, self-sufficient individuals every day. And we need to talk about that! It doesn’t matter how physically fit someone is, or what kind of resources they might have to fight back. It can still happen. It happens regardless of gender. And like in the show, it can happen that the abuse is bi-directional. She’s been able to give as good as she gets in some fights, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t be abused. She’s repeatedly asked him to leave, tried to get away from him, and used brute force to scare him off at times. And yet he won’t leave. Whatever she does, she can’t seem to escape. It’s slowly chipping away at what made her character so kick-ass and subversive to begin with, and she’s becoming a quieter, meeker version of herself.

What I think is happening here is that The Good Wife is trying to capitalize on the popularity of series like 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight. Books that are, at their core, about abusive relationships that are somehow romanticized. (In Twilight, people seem to find it romantic that he breaks in to watch her sleep; in 50 Shades of Grey, people seem to think it’s sweet that he can’t be away from her, going as far as to fly across the country and hunt her down at a bar with her mom). In The Good Wife, the narrative probably goes something like “he loves her so much that he hurt himself (put his hand through the mirror) to deal with the intensity of his feelings”.

That’s not love. That’s not romance. That’s abuse.

By pairing these abusive scenes with depictions of passionate sex, they’re doing a real disservice to viewers everywhere. It somehow suggests that this kind of behaviour is okay if it means that they get hot sex as the outcome. Young (and for that matter, not-so-young) women are seeing this held up as the ideal of romance, with no one there to step in and say “this isn’t healthy”. We (as a society) have always counted on outside intervention for individuals in abusive relationships (since it can be easier to see the abuse when you’re not in it) to help when their friends need it. But are we going to have a generation of women (or more generally, people?) who believe that this isn’t only okay, it’s ideal?

As the story wraps up (one male character has now seen her push him away and is concerned about what’s happening), it seems to be heading towards him rescuing her. And you know, it’s entertainment. . . everyone likes a happy ending where the good guy gets the girl and bad guy gets what’s coming to him. But the issues of domestic violence and its eroticization in the media deserve some attention.

If you go to the show’s website, you can see PSAs that the stars have made about helping the survivors of Sandy, message boards dedicated to the show (I checked, and there’s nothing about this on Kalinda’s board), a blog from the show’s stylist, a store where you can buy the products from the fictional Florrick campaign, and information on a line of home furnishings inspired by the show. It’s not like they’re really lacking in ways to communicate with viewers. So why can’t they talk about this? Television is a powerful medium (in fact, after the episode about military rape came up, I saw posts on my Twitter feed about how people were going to start paying attention to the issue now that they’d seen it on TV). So why won’t we talk about it? Is it because the majority of the audience is made up of older women? Is it just not profitable to educate younger viewers about the realities of these issues?

I don’t know why. But I do know that I’ve had more than enough depictions of abuse that are supposed to be erotic. I also know there’s plenty of research to show that primetime television viewing is associated with greater acceptance of rape myths (believing things like “she deserved it if she was dressed like that”). That is, this is a part of a larger problem in our understanding of sexual and intimate partner violence that’s not going away. And that we need to start to talk about. When I can pull up at least 50 news articles published in the last week about how unhappy the viewers are with this storyline, it gives me pretty good reason to believe that there’s no lack of people who want to talk about the show. So why can’t we make some of that dialogue about domestic violence?


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One thought on “The Good Wife and the attempted eroticization of intimate partner violence

  1. Appreciate observations Kalinda. Somehow her character, for me, better understood with arrival of abusive husband. The mystery of Kalinda enlarged. Storyline took a plunge with intro of this domestic violence and gnaw at Kalinda’s entrapment. Perhaps lack of talk indicates TV-land wants entertainment not a social consciousness raising experience? Thanks for post.

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