Why I’m Leaving The Good Wife and Why I Stayed For So Long
If I’m wholly honest, it took me two seasons to get into and be converted to the The Good Wife. Now, I don’t linger too long on shows – I tend to have the attention span of a fish and the irritability of a… well a frustrated (angry) brown girl. Most things, unless entirely ridiculous (I can suffer the really awful stuff because it doesn’t pretend to be anything but nonsense) tend to fall back on my viewing addictions because if I’m about to watch something it’s to ‘switch off’ my over thinking, over analytical brain. But I stuck and stayed trying for one reason only – Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma, something five seasons later I’m not too sure I can do anymore.
One of my girls whom I share a close affinity with in TV and film kept on me: she said I had to check out this new legal drama and that Archie Panjabi presented all kinds of fabulous in a show centred around women’s experiences. With all that leather, those knee high boots and a baseball bat regularly stocked up in the back of her car, investigator Kalinda Sharma presents something akin to a super heroine for brown girls everywhere. Or, at least for a while it felt like it.
When it comes to representation – the unavoidable sorrow for all Women of Colour in the media that actually is painful – there are few South Asian women ever present and even fewer that make the cut as credible. It’s not that one Asian woman can collectively represent all Asian women’s experiences, but that portrayal is heavily entrenched in the narratives surrounding it, the ones that delineate a kind of (un) belonging of sorts, that determine who, how and why a character is there. It becomes less about personal experiences and more about cohesiveness, context, and consistency.
For the most part, Women of Colour as viewers are simultaneously watching and looking – they too have (albeit limited) agency, scanning and skimming not to see if the character or portrayal is directly related to their own experience, but whether it really and truly is plausible within the context. It is also this alterity that allows their spectatorship to create connections, identifications and cultural affinities, as well as dislocations and renegotiations when producing meaning. Whilst it can often mean shutting off and avoiding looking too deep in order to enjoy and experience pleasure, the perennial consciousness of the white gaze means we are also constantly looking to one another. bell hooks (1992) argues that this critical spectatorship enables Women of Colour to “look back, and at one another, naming what we see” (p116). It facilitates a kind of validation, empathy and affirmation amongst one another that is necessary when you struggle to be seen let alone be considered human.
When brown and black women stayed showing up for Kalinda, it wasn’t without conflict. On the one hand, where brown women remain largely invisible, Kalinda offered a breath of fresh air. She wasn’t the submissive, ‘traditional’ Indian woman existing only in relation to her even more ‘traditional’ family stereotype that is fostered in most mainstream media. Instead she was exhilarating and in strange ways familiar: strong, fierce, bold, and adamant on doing what she professionally does in a matter-of-fact way that screams flawlessness. She lifts your spirits and, in the temperament of imagination, has you day dreaming about how you too could be more super heroine-like in your everyday life. She has those of us that grew up in an era of hip-hop and RnB with the likes of Missy Elliot, Foxy Brown, Queen Latifah and TLC amen’ing a hymnal dedicated to being present and bold with your badness in a way that men don’t really matter.
But just as she offers an aspirational excellence for brown girls everywhere, we are and forever have been conscious of the white gaze and what it does to women that we love. Kalinda remained highly unracialised, her traces of brown/Indianness reduced in reference perhaps to two incidents such as her surname or ability to not speak Hindi. I too do not speak Urdu (or not very well) as a second generation Pakistani and so, like many of us the children of immigrants, whether we may or may not speak our native tongue(s), hasn’t been the real issue. Instead Kalinda, in this deracialisation, has been posited within the contentions of broader and dangerous stereotypes of brown and black women in TV.
In a legal drama based on very real issues (often being tackled as they come up socio-politically in the US), Kalinda comes into existence merely as the spectacular and extraordinary. She is highly sexualized, ambiguous with her sexuality (through homophobic portrayals of bisexuality), and almost always in close proximity to violence. Kalinda may be fierce but she is also flat. The narratives that define her character are ones that scream selfish, shady, quite possibly disloyal in personal matters and aggressive. In many ways she’s the angry brown woman, the one who whilst she seems cool, calm and collected in her professional environment, has no qualms about breaking the law, smashing windows or fucking her way into and out of everything. She also falls prey to a shocking portrayal of domestic violence as so unbelievably hyper sexualized in season 4, they had to axe the story due to public discontent. It is the spectacular of her character that gives way not only to fantasy in a show it doesn’t belong in, but the kind that reeks specifically of white men watching her as the exotic object.
Five seasons into a show with intricate and nuanced character development, she remains almost entirely underdeveloped. The more brown and black women watching the show willed and longed for Kalinda to be a little more than a prop, the more she was reeled in and strung out as the object brown bodies tend to become – as the backdrop to not only whiteness, but affirming white femininity in particular. Alicia was perhaps the reason I had an initial aversion to the show; she fell neatly into the white, middle class femininity I was much too aware of – the kind that is pure, good, innocent and fragile. However, over time, her character grew and I began to appreciate the complexity and depth she was afforded. Alicia unraveled in anger, jealousy, desire, compassion, empathy, and grief amongst other very real emotions in real life situations.
Diane, partner of the firm, whilst offering up an alternative narrative to Alicia, as the prototype highly successful professional woman that has smashed glass ceilings (but remains conscious of them), is also afforded that humanity. As tough and stern as she is in a male-dominated environment, and with a wardrobe to kill, middle-aged Diane is softened through love and moments of vulnerability from her professional career to her personal life. Kalinda is unsurprisingly afforded no such thing. Her friendship with Alecia is severed upon Alicia finding out Kalinda had once slept with her husband, state attorney Peter Florrick; she has no loving, intimate or committed romantic (or platonic for that matter) relationships with anyone; she is almost devoid of feeling and emotion; her background story remains mysterious and unrooted; and when Alicia and Carry Argos leave to begin a new law firm – talented Kalinda is left behind for no other reason than her rates being too expensive. Regardless of her success, Kalinda is perceived as disloyal and is rarely, if ever, praised for the work she does (this is probably the realest thing about her character and experience). Strolling through twitter after a weekly airing, time and time again I was reminded that Women of Colour watching knew that what we saw in her was different to what the white audience (and white writers) were seeing. To them she couldn’t be more than an object, something to reflect and affirm those who have access to their entire humanity on a TV screen.
The problem with whiteness is that it does you in and it will betray you and leave you hanging. For a long time, I tried to believe that misrepresentation was because white folk really don’t know what to do with us (apart from rare occasions like The Wire), that even in a show as well crafted as The Good Wife, it was white privilege that creates and re-creates these stories. After watching 12 Years A Slave last week, however, I came to terms with how intentional and purposeful it is to continue to dehumanize brown and black bodies so much so that they are not really considered human in the first place. These portrayals come from a long history and legacy where we exist to serve whiteness, but in this existence we do not matter, we are disposable.
When I watch Kalinda now it is admittedly painful to acknowledge that we are not past our visible bodies. The love for her Women of Colour can have, like when we search for something to cling on to that we know and recognize, is not a love Kalinda is truly afforded as the spectacular, unhuman, Super heroine begins to mean something quite different. I “look back, and at one another, naming what [I] see” (hooks, 1992, p116) to find that this shit is personal, that I love Kalinda the way I love brown and black women all the world over: I believe that we have the right to be seen and known as complex, nuanced and human, to love and be loved (and everything that comes with it) in a world that tells us that we do not. Many of us stayed trying for Kalinda, some of us may continue to do so because who else will? Real or fictional, these are pertinent reminders of what we do for one another as Women of Colour: we show up to stay loving.