Portraying ambitious women has always proved challenging for playwrights, screenwriters and television writers. Lady Macbeth, for example, entreated the spirits to “unsex” her because seating your husband on the Scottish throne and making yourself queen is a tricky business, especially if you are biologically hardwired to nurture and care for life. Competing with men often seems to require a repudiation of the feminine—being powerful is being ruthless is being masculine.
But does success really require women to become less “female”? Two television series, Damages and The Good Wife, grapple with the interplay of strength and femininity, focusing on female protagonists in the male-dominated legal profession.
For three years “Damages,” which airs on FX, has followed the journey of a young attorney, Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), and her complex relationship with her calculating, ruthless boss, the senior partner Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). Each season begins, in a sense, at its end, establishing a single plot with countless labyrinthine twists told through flashbacks. Viewers were introduced to Ellen in the first moments of the series premiere, when bloody, bruised and disoriented, she is hauled into a police station to discuss the murder of her fiancé. The audience is then immediately thrown into her past, when a bright, polished Ellen appears for a job interview at a prestigious law firm. But seeds of conflict are sown early. Ellen’s upcoming interview with Hewes and Associates, her first choice, is rescheduled for a Satur-day—the day of her sister’s wedding. Torn between her family obligation and her ambition, Ellen agonizes before telling Patty Hewes that she cannot meet with her.
At the wedding, Ellen toasts her sister’s and brother-in-law’s happiness before dashing to the ladies’ room, where she stares at herself in the mirror. As Ellen silently wonders if she has made the right decision, Patty emerges from one of the stalls. Patty says she had to meet Ellen “because, kiddo, you’re the first person stupid enough to turn me down.” Though Close delivers the line with irony, we are meant to understand that Patty is not joking. Sacrifice—of family, relationships, personal well-being—is not optional if you plan on earning her respect. In Patty’s world, “damages” means more than civil recompense; it suggests emotional damage: How much harm is one willing to bear for the sake of her ambition? No machination is beneath Patty. Killing the beloved pet of a key witness to manipulate her into testifying? That doesn’t scratch the surface of what she will do to win. In spite of Ellen’s “wrong” (for Patty) decision, Patty still wants to hire her if she is up to the task.
Ignoring the warning signs, Ellen, hopeful and confident, accepts the offer. She does not yet see a conflict between her job and her personal life. Ellen’s hope that she can balance work and love strikes Patty as adolescent idealism. Over time, testing Ellen’s commitment to the job becomes a game for her boss. Faced with completing a crucial legal brief before her upcoming engagement party, Ellen sacrifices sleep to accomplish both. When an exhausted Ellen delivers the brief, Patty tells Ellen to enjoy her party but requests that Ellen hand-deliver the brief to the judge. Assured by Patty that this face-to-face encounter will benefit her career, Ellen arrives at the judge’s chambers only to be informed that he is running late. Ellen waits patiently. And waits. Even as his secretary packs up for the evening and Ellen’s fiancé phones to tell her the party has started, Ellen stays the course. She will prove, to Patty and to herself, that her grasp does not exceed her reach.
But at what cost? Missing her own engagement party is merely the beginning of the deterioration of Ellen’s personal life. The psychic struggle between professional responsibility and interpersonal responsibility intensifies when Ellen’s role in a high-profile case is directly responsible for the murder of her fiancé. Her career has literally killed her relationship. For an ambitious woman marriage, at least as I see it, should not be the apex of one’s life. But setting aside the joys of love and resigning yourself to choosing only one path—whether career or love—is dangerously myopic.
Ellen spends much of the second season plotting vengeance against Patty, mimicking Patty’s ruthlessness. She disingenuously tells a reporter that working for Patty has “taught [her] something about being a woman...seeing how [Patty] balances work and her personal life, what she prioritizes, how she prioritizes....” But Ellen has already started down a similar path.
The first season provides glimpses of how well Patty prioritizes. We learn about her strained relationship with her teenage son, Michael (Zachary Booth). Absent a genuine connection, Michael has learned only one lesson from his mother: how to manipulate. He lies to school counselors, spinning a wild fiction about his fear of death, recycling a nightmare that Patty had as an excuse for his recalcitrance in school. Michael is Patty’s equal in viciousness and wields it as a weapon. He mocks her openly: “People either leave you or they die; those are the only two endings possible with you.” And he resists her pleas for better behavior.
The sad irony is that Patty’s maternal legacy contains only the destructive talent of alienation; she and Michael are united in their ability to isolate themselves from the world and from each other. The tension between them continues into the second season, when Michael rebels by dating an older woman, and when Patty’s marriage to her second husband, Phil (Michael Nouri), falls apart after his infidelities and backdoor business deals, which hurt Patty, come to light. Patty may have successfully “unsexed” herself, but it is a hollow victory. Her relationships shattered, she is left with only a career that makes her fear for her life.
“The Good Wife,” a recent addition to the CBS lineup, begins with Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) literally standing by her man, the philandering State Attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), who has been imprisoned on charges of political corruption. Now the breadwinner, Alicia returns to work as an attorney after a 15-year absence from the profession. The title of the show and its opening scene seem to define Alicia by her role as a “good wife”—a woman who sacrificed a budding career at a top law firm to care for her family and attend to being the selfless wife of a public figure.
But returning to the workplace is a challenge. A slightly older female attorney, Diane (Christine Baranski), offers advice: “Men can be lazy. Women can’t. And I think that goes double for you. Not only are you coming back to the workplace fairly late, but...you have some very prominent baggage. But,” Diane says, gesturing toward a photograph of her with Hillary Clinton, “if she can do it, so can you.” Baranski’s Diane is firm but empathetic, softer but no less competent than Patty Hewes. Whereas Patty wants Ellen to “unsex” herself and demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice all to prove her commitment to the firm, Diane’s counsel does not aim to position Alicia’s re-entry into the legal world against other aspects of her life, like marriage and motherhood.
One of the most refreshing qualities of “The Good Wife” is its refusal to assert that strong women need to be less feminine or that femininity is weakness. Alicia does not need to bury the “good wife” in her to be successful. In fact, the compassion and understanding required to raise a family, support a husband and forgive that husband’s transgressions do not threaten her ability to litigate; they strengthen it. In an early episode, Alicia represents a friend’s son, whom she used to babysit, against charges of illegal drug possession and assault. Alicia’s role in this case is distinctly maternal; she once cared for his basic needs as a babysitter, a mother figure; now those protective instincts inform her work. Her emotional stake in the case is so great that she heads to the scene of the crime in the middle of the night and inadvertently secures a crucial piece of evidence.
Not only do her experiences as a woman and a mother improve the quality of her work, but rather than sidelining her maternal instincts, her career has sharpened her ability to defend her children. At Peter’s bail hearing, where her son, Zach, unexpectedly appears, Alicia rebukes a prosecutor for his impertinent line of questioning about her husband’s sleeping arrangements: “My son is here…. What’s your goal? To embarrass me? To do the bidding of your boss? I’m suggesting you stop asking invasive and irrelevant questions....” Zach later tells his mother that she “kicked ass.”
Another episode features a no-nonsense opposing counsel, Patricia Nyholm (Martha Plimpton), who tries to bully Alicia in an effort to throw her off her game. Nyholm is fierce; she is also visibly pregnant. Like Alicia, she does not need to be unsexed or masculinized to convey strength.
On “Damages,” to be as successful as a man requires trading empathy for ruthlessness. “The Good Wife” presents a more optimistic vision: commitment—not cruelty—is required for success. And a good wife probably knows something about that.