Let’s share a vision together: you are, as the entertainment industry likes to put it, “an actress of a certain age” who has just been cast as a bitchy lawyer.
You’re an acclaimed actress who rose through the ranks as acclaimed actresses do — perhaps an early role as a punchline nymph on a beloved sitcom, maybe the protagonist of an indie-sleeper hit about a woman with big dreams in a small town, or as one of those characters that were considered horrifying villains in the ‘80s but are more likely just a stigmatized “crazy lady” suffering from mental illness and wouldn’t stand a chance against the Jezebel litmus test today (Glenn Close! Fatal Attraction!).
Then, the roles dry up. You’re too old to play George Clooney’s girlfriend, because you’re the same age as George Clooney. You’ve always kind of wanted an Emmy. So what to do?
If Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Geena Davis, Candice Bergen, Kerry Washington, Juliana Margulies, Christine Baranski, Eliza Coupe and a litany of others are any indication, you go and play a bitch lawyer who’s a so-so mother/wife and occasionally kills for sport.
Where did the concept of the bitch lawyer come from? Not to be confused with the working-girl characters in law – see Ally McBeal or Drop Dead Diva– the bitch lawyer is an extremely specific, almost superhero-like character who is ruthless first, professionally without flaw second, and struggling with her womanhood last. They make for some of the highest-rated shows on television (The Good Wife, Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder are leading the charge currently) when they are, essentially, all the same character.
Here are the seminal qualities of the bitch lawyer:
- Her career always costs her to fail in another area of her life, usually as a wife or mother.
- She’s cruel and harsh, but also maternal and nurturing.
- When she has sex, something bad or a negative consequence of this action almost always happens.
- She looks great but not as great as her younger protégé costar.
- At some point, someone will call her a “pistol,” “handful,” “bitch,” etc. etc. etc.
- Her ambition is often her greatest flaw.
To be clear, this is no reflection on the actresses taking these roles on - the bitch lawyer can be the best option for many actresses who don’t want to be relegated to the sidelines of superhero blockbusters as a jaded bitch matriarch. Legal procedurals are television candy - the characters are wealthy and sell the aspirational lifestyle that advertisers love, the plotlines are easy to digest and theres plenty of room for sex and murder. (It should be mentioned that Taraji P. Henson gets an honorary bitch lawyer medal for her role as an executive on Empire.)
This role is almost always complimentary to a cast of younger traineés or protégés to provide the fresh-meat sex appeal, so that when the bitch lawyer has sex and reveals her own body the clickbait sites can call it progressive. These younger, often shirtless B-characters can also be used as yarn balls for the protagonist – being batted around and manipulated by the bitch lawyer’s almost supernatural, legal brilliance.
Then there’s the attitude of the bitch lawyer toward her profession. She is ruthless and, in a manner that most closely mirrors latter seasons of House, inexplicably knows the solution to almost any legal mire. She’s just that good – but don’t worry, she became that good at the expense of all the other defining traits of womanhood.
Even as characters in The Good Wife occasionally make misjudgments, these are the exception to the rule and almost always come as a consequence of investing too much time and energy into the traditional roles of motherhood or partnership. See character Patty Hewess’s Achilles heel of being unable to win a case and mother her troubled son at the same time on Damages, Annalise Keating sacrificing her marriage and investing a deeply maternal bond with her student Wes on How to Get Away With Murder (or the fact that every time Olivia Pope hooks up with the POTUS on Scandal* a code red national crisis erupts).
In a cultural landscape that demands that women have it all, the bitch lawyer is repeatedly denied the pleasure, and often demonized by putting her career before a more traditional role. When put in the same position as a lawyer, male protagonists on Suits, Franklin and Bash and nearly every incarnation of Law and Order and CSI, the same commitment to the job is almost never seen as problematic.
Why is this role such a draw for excellent actresses approaching or past middle age? Legal fuck-ery offers a very specific appeal in TV regardless of the protagonists’ gender. Shows that feature female lawyers as secondary characters are more likely to be sexualized - look no further than the gossipy, provocatively dressed walking B-plots in Suits for evidence - but providing the strong female character in conjunction with a cast of sexy submissives allows networks to have their cake and shoehorn a few gratuitous sex scenes into every episode, too.
The problem isn’t the bitch lawyer per se, though the limitations and perceived empowerment of the character certainly has its drawbacks. There’s a clear demand for strong female characters in television, and the bitch lawyer allows network audiences and executives to have it both ways – a woman is in power, but can still dress to the nines, sell an aspirational lifestyle and be punished for her sexuality in the classic TV tradition. It’s a good thing that these roles exist for powerhouses like Margulies, Washington and Davis, but the use of this role as the only option as the connecting tissue between the actress’s original breakthrough and their late-in-life Oscar bid is indicative that there’s still a lot to be desired in developing roles for women over forty on television.
But then there’s the prestige. If you’re an actress over forty hankering for an Emmy, there’s no better life hack than taking on the bitch lawyer role – ask Margulies, Close, Davis and Washington, and that’s just in the past ten years.
The bitch lawyer is an excellent tool to get the “actresses of a certain age” who should never be referred to as such the screen time they richly deserve, while male actors the same age continue to star in action movies well into their fifties. For many actresses, it offers a meaty second act to their career and allows them to return to the types of roles they excel at with more success, and usually nets them a few compulsory “comeback” magazine covers. Unfortunately, it’s one of the only roles available to make this sort of career move, and with at least three highly successful bitch lawyer shows currently on network TV, there isn’t a ton of room at the table.
Now join me in our visualization again. Imagine a television landscape that women over forty can not just play lawyers who are terrible mothers and spouses because they dared to have ambition, but any leading role in any show. Imagine them claiming their Emmys without having to thank their showrunners for “finally writing a real role for women when there are fifteen hundred similar, subtly marginalized character types on air at any given time. And please, please visualize Glenn Close on Damages. Seriously, Glenn Close; kiss my mouth.
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