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Thursday, September 18, 2014

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Natalie Gadbois: Lessons from my dad

By Natalie Gadbois, Daily Gender & Media Columnist
Published September 4, 2014

I spent most of my time last winter break catching up on “The Good Wife” with my parents. I was pretty much as content as you could ever hope to be — indifferently braless, eating Christmas cookies from a Tupperware container, watching, mesmerized, as Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies, in a role that garnered her her third Emmy) deftly navigated the terrifying limbo of starting her own firm and going up against a former boss and lover. She was becoming the boss-lady, and I was eating it up.

Halfway through our marathon, my dad — my kind, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly, wears floral shirts, cries during “The Phantom of the Opera” dad — rolled his eyes and said, “I don’t like Alicia anymore. She’s so cold and hard.” He went on to say that she had gotten mean when she broke off from the firm – meaning that her behavior now mirrored Will and Diane’s, rather than acting as their moral compass.

This was a nuanced and human character, growing into a new, powerful role and shedding her submissive past. She was the ultimate female role model and it dumbfounded me that anyone could think otherwise. Sitting there, cookie falling out of my mouth and pajamas askew, all I wanted to do was be Alicia; intelligent and successful, willing to strike out on her own and be a little selfish to follow her dreams, but still remain caring mother and conscientious boss.

I, of course, launched into a tirade about the biases against strong women, against anyone perpetuating limiting or archaic narratives about women; at my naïve father, who didn’t understand feminism because he didn’t realize he had to. (Sorry Dad, this is what you get with a daughter in the #media.)

The incident tumbled around in my head for months after, resurfacing when I watched Olivia Pope crumble into a Fitz-induced mess on “Scandal.” Or when I watched a James Bond marathon with my cousins and realized no one could remember a single Bond girl’s name. Or when I fell in love with “Drunk in Love” and guiltily ignored the domestic violence-tinged rap lyrics.

As my anger about the situation began to ebb and the rational, let’s-plan-and-box-everything-into-categories part of my mind took over (eagerly termed my “Leslie Knope”), I stopped blaming my father and focused on the larger issues at play. My dad’s reaction to “The Good Wife” ’s progressive take on the working woman wasn’t necessarily his fault. I love that show, and Alicia Florrick specifically, because it does challenge so many norms. “The Good Wife” is adrift in a sea of TV shows, movies, and songs that just don’t understand women – led by people who don’t believe we need to try to.

How was my dad supposed to understand the nuances of Alicia’s shifting lifestyle when nearly everything else he saw told him the opposite – women are mean when they are strong, best when they are motherly, even better when they are only used as histrionic or sexy props. My dad can’t know any better until our culture knows a little bit better too.

That’s why I am starting this column. No, I don’t have some misguided hope to impact all of pop culture with my 600 words every few weeks, but I do believe that every voice of dissent against a system that consistently devalues and misinterprets women and their needs matters. This column will try and shed some light on misinformed narratives present in the entertainment industry. It also will praise people who are doing it right – those who are creating meaningful female characters or challenging everyday misogyny through their art, just as “The Good Wife” does.

I’m not an expert – I quit my women’s studies minor out of laziness and have a profound love of Disney Princess movies. But that’s why I want to write; I don’t want to disavow everything that may perpetuate a limiting narrative of women – that would make watching, reading, or listening to nearly anything popular impossible. But by calling out problems within even great or progressive works of art, hopefully good, well-intentioned people like my dad can better understand the complex ways women are represented. That’s my hope at least.