During a scene in the first season of The Good Wife, the titular wife, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Marguiles), arranges a conjugal visit with her husband Peter (Chris Noth), who is imprisoned on charges of political corruption. They don’t have sex. He sleeps on the floor while she takes the bed. And the visit is actually only for her professional gain. Later, after Peter is released and on house arrest, Alicia refuses to let him sleep in the master bedroom with her, forcing him to sleep in the spare. After an illicit kiss with Will Gardner (Josh Charles) — her boss and former classmate — Alicia rushes home to Peter to have her way with him. Peter tries to convince her to take this into the master bedroom, but Alicia, straddling him, responds, “No. Here.” The scene fades to black with Alicia pinning Peter’s arms by his side.
Created by husband-and-wife team Robert and Michelle King, The Good Wife often receives recognition for its clever inclusion of technology, the intriguing way it handles its “ripped from the headlines” cases, and its savvy use of guest stars, but the careful treatment of its female protagonist’s sex life deserves a spotlight as well.
Alicia Florrick makes conscious decisions about who she wants and why she wants them, using the two men in her life in order to rejoice in the power of her sexuality, in a way few female characters over 40 are allowed on screen. With her husband Peter, Alicia is the power source in the bedroom. And with Will Gardner, her lover and boss, she basks in the glow of his desire before aiming it back to blind him. There’s no need for some young stud or trembling ingenue to awaken Alicia’s sexuality. She’s able to harness it with men her own age in a way that places her in a position of control.
At the show’s start, Alicia’s marriage to Peter is shattered when his term as Cook County State’s attorney is disrupted by a much-publicized sex scandal — he admits to hiring prostitutes and is accused of other corruption charges. And from early on, Alicia makes it clear that the bedroom is where she will use Peter for her own needs — for help on a case or to act on urges that someone else has aroused. She controls the settings and purposes of their intimacy now. It’s not necessarily a form of punishment, but it’s important for Alicia to establish that Peter cannot gain forgiveness through affection.
Before the scandal, the Florricks occupied traditional gender roles in their marriage: Peter was a rising politician in Chicago, and Alicia was a stay-at-home mom who left her job as a lawyer to raise two children. In flashbacks of their sex life, Peter was in the dominant position, with Alicia praising his performance. After the scandal, their roles shifted: If Alicia isn’t the one to initiate sex, she’s the one in a dominant position, while Peter is submissive. Peter becomes the one complimenting her performance.
In the Season 2 premiere, Peter comes to court to watch Alicia in action and becomes aroused when Alicia emerges the victor after butting heads with the judge. That evening, with NPR’s All Things Considered as the soundtrack, Peter shows Alicia how proud of her he is by dropping to his knees. The scene ends with Alicia’s breathy sigh.
The Good Wife, a primetime network drama that shows a woman receiving non-reciprocated sexual pleasure, arrives a time when films like Blue Valentine and Charlie Countryman have either received a NC-17 rating or were pressured into removing scenes because of cunnilingus. That’s practically unheard of, but the audience gets to witness this rarity because Alicia’s authoritative stance in the courtroom leads to her sexual satisfaction at home.
Regardless of how Alicia wields the power of her sexuality, it’s important to note that she is a woman over 40, on television, who undergoes a sort of sexual awakening with men near her same age.
When women of a certain age are shown learning more about themselves emotionally and sexually, it’s usually at the hands of a younger lover, when it’s depicted at all. Take, for example, Margaret Scully (Allison Janney) on Masters of Sex, who turns to one of her closeted gay husband’s younger staff members, and of course, there’s Samantha Jones’ (Kim Cattrall) relationship with Smith Jerrod on Sex and the City. From older films like How Stella Got Her Groove Back to new releases such as Don Jon and Afternoon Delight, older women are portrayed as experiencing personal, sexual evolutions as inspired by someone younger.
Eventually, Alicia changes her dynamic with Will, no longer using it as a healing balm against the insults of Peter’s unfaithfulness. What was once a way of reestablishing control over her life and a way of feeling attractive is now a weapon Alicia uses in court to win cases.
In the show’s landmark 100th episode, Will struggles with the hold Alicia has over him. As he prepares to go against Alicia in court, his feelings of betrayal war with the memories of his love for her, and he breaks down with a weakness he doesn’t want to see even in Alicia. Weaving fantasy and memory, Will reveals he, too, is helpless against the strength Alicia displays.
Alicia Florrick remains at the top of The Good Wife’s love triangle, with her husband Peter and former lover Will unable to resist her sexuality. Alicia isn’t in a position of power over Peter and Will simply because she’s older or wiser. She stands on equal footing, yet still manages to bring them to their knees as she pleases.