By Ruth Shalit (April 6, 1998)

Ally, Dharma, Ronnie, and the betrayal of postfeminism.

Over the last few years, a growing number of gender scholars, cultural studies dons, images-of-women enthusiasts, and other arbiters of the male gaze have denounced prime time as the time of patriarchy. In Beverly Hills 90210: Television, Gender, and Identity, E. Grant Hunt finds that Aaron Spelling's oeuvre "exemplifies the microworkings of hegemony." In Reading The X-Files, Lisa Parks finds that "the show reiterates the dominant norms of heterosexual femininity." Outside the academy, television writers have also detected the workings of hegemony. "Females aren't getting much of a break in the TV hours that matter most," writes Howard Rosenberg in the Los Angeles Times. "Won't TV's patriarchy take note?"

Well, it has. In May 1996, Warren Littlefield, the president of NBC, confessed that the hegemons of General Electric had experienced a "wake-up call" regarding the need for gender justice on television. The solution, Littlefield explained, was a dose of new, women-friendly fare. And so, in the fall of 1997, NBC unveiled its first overt appeal to the sisterly sentiments of female consumers. "Must-She TV," a shopworn cache of chick shows including Suddenly Susan and Caroline in the City, was slated for the beginning of the week, where it was supposed to be embraced as a respite from the rough pleasures of Monday Night Football. So far, the experiment has been something of a disappointment. ("Must-Flee TV," yawned TV Guide.)

The real trailblazing was occurring elsewhere. Three glossy, high-profile new shows--Ally McBeal (Fox), Dharma and Greg (ABC), and Veronica's Closet (NBC)-- were said to have devised a new breed of feminist heroine: untrammeled, assertive, exuberantly pro-sex, yet determined to hold her own in a man's world. The characters of Ally McBeal, a flustered but lovable girl-power litigator, and Dharma Finkelstein, a freewheeling hippie chick who marries a stuffed-shirt D.A., were singled out as the incarnation of the postfeminist ideal. Entertainment Weekly pronounced them "brainy babes"; the New York Post hailed the ascendence of "smart women in very tight skirts." The character of Veronica Chase (Kirstie Alley), known as Ronnie, a fortysomething lingerie mogul with body-image problems, has also won approbation as a new-style role model. As she flutters diaphanously about her showroom, displaying the very latest in intimate apparel, Ronnie presents a progressive image of a "funny lady taking charge," according to Time. Here are juicy, upscale tribunes of female empowerment: savvy yet vulnerable, fallible yet likable, feminist yet not.

The names "Ally" and "Dharma" have already seeped into the language as an affectionate shorthand for a kind of scrunched-nose cuteness and girl-can't- help-it charm. For all their artful goofiness, though, the new heroines are surprisingly dither-free when it comes to the subject of sex. Urged on by Renee, her district-attorney roommate, Ally McBeal, who is portrayed by Calista Flockhart, prowls nightclubs, flirts with rabbis, and engages in strenuous sex with a particularly well-endowed art school model. "Where does it say that women can't act like men?" Ally cries. Meanwhile, Dharma and Greg, who are played by Jenna Elfman and Thomas Gibson, are the '90s odd couple with a postfeminist twist: he's the sweet, sincere boy who wants to share his deep thoughts, she's the party girl who just wants to fornicate. "I would like to propose a toast to my husband, Greg Montgomery," Dharma says, "who works his butt off to put away a bunch of really bad guys--and still has the energy to come home and make hot jungle love to his wife." And Veronica Chase, who is played by Kirstie Alley, also has sex on the brain. When one of her employees, an addle-brained former model, hopelessly botches a press release, the CEO is unconcerned. "He is so pretty," she sighs. And her top executive adds, "Don't you just want to put him in a blender with a frozen banana and drink him like a smoothie?" It is startling to see these women standing around in their outfits, assessing the male talent and looking over boys the way boys had always looked over girls. Finally, you think, the tables in Hollywood have been turned.

To the extent that these creatures represent anything at all--the verisimilitude of television is never to be assumed: prime time is fake until proven real--they are the mainstream apogee of what Esquire magazine called "do-me feminists." The do-me feminist is plucky, confident, upwardly mobile, and extremely horny. She is alert to the wounds of race and class and gender, but she knows that feminism is safe for women who love men and bubble baths and kittenish outfits; that the right ideology and the best sex are not mutually exclusive. She knows that she is as smart and as ambitious as a guy, but she's proud to be a girl and girlish. She is a little like Monica Lewinsky.

These avatars of female carnality, in addition to supplying fodder for whither-feminism symposiasts, may offer a solution to a perennial network conundrum: how to pander to politically correct sensibilities while attracting male viewers in droves. Despite their origins in the must-she henhouse, Ally McBeal, Dharma and Greg, and Veronica's Closet have established themselves as equal-opportunity hits, drawing a deluxe audience of upscale young urban adults of both sexes. The shows have an unbeatable combo: an aura of sexiness and moral message. Ally McBeal, the career vixen who likes to talk about penis size, can arouse feelings of liberation among female viewers and less noble feelings among male viewers.

The packaging of prurience as an anthem of emancipation is hardly surprising, given the tendency of social-minded critics to mistake television for life, and to hail each new season as another victory in the long march to gender enlightenment. "A glance through the new fall series makes it look as though Gloria Steinem has taken command of the airwaves," declared the Los Angeles Times--in 1982. The paper was referring to female-friendly sensations such as 9 to 5 and Remington Steele, as well as to Cagney and Lacey, the CBS drama about two righteous New York City policewomen. Cagney and Lacey was eventually pulled amid concerns over its cryptoSapphic content. (A CBS executive delicately explained that they "seemed more intent on fighting the system than doing police work. We perceived them as dykes.") But a year later came Murphy Brown, prompting Newsweek to devote its cover to "a revolutionary new force in prime-time.... Its name is "Womanpower." Newsweek cited Murphy Brown and Designing Women as evidence of its cheerful thesis that "a fresh breed of female is seizing control of prime time."

The old TV women were true-blue activists, prone to harangues and tirades about the social origins of women's oppression. "Until women are liberated, men really won't be either," Cagney and Lacey assured each other as they prowled the streets of Manhattan. And: "We don't really have to be twice as good to be equal." The stars of Designing Women traded similar gal-gal apercus. "I'm mad because we're fifty-one percent of the population and only two percent of the U.S. Senate," ranted decorator Julia Sugarbaker, after a friend looked at her cross-eyed. "I'm mad because in a Seminole, Oklahoma police station, there's a poster of a naked woman that says `Women make bad cops.' I'm mad because in spite of the fact that we scrub America's floors, have all the babies, and commit very little of the crime, still we make only fifteen cents on the dollar.... All we want is to be treated with equality and respect. Is that asking too much?" Feminism was still too young to be entertaining.

So what are the significations of this year's crop of postmodern, postfeminist, post-therapeutic charmers? In a recent episode of Veronica's Closet, the fluffheaded CEO is delighted by the news that a public-spirited toymaker has decided to include her in a new line of "role model" dolls, created to salve the self-esteem of little girls who cannot live up to the Barbie fantasy. "This is so great!" Veronica says, her hoarse voice cracking and squeaking with pride. "Will I have one of those pink Corvettes? And maybe some of those teeny-tiny little plastic shoes? ... I can't decide whether I should be holding a copy of Proust or wearing a feather boa." And at the mention of Proust, a laughtrack: the Ivy League in Burbank.

But Veronica's euphoria fades when she is presented with a prototype of the Ronnie doll, who, like her real-life inspiration, is endowed with what the company diplomatically refers to as a "beautiful, healthy body." "I especially like the way the boobs actually rest on the stomach," she observes. The episode's climax comes when the CEO of Sherman Toy Company allows our heroine to watch through a twoway mirror, Salvator Minuchin-style, as the Ronnie doll has her play-group premier. The debut is not a success. The girls strip Ronnie out of her plus-sized outfit, place a tiny harness around her neck, and hook her up to the front of a wagon. "They're making me a plowhorse!" Ronnie screams. By the episode's conclusion, she has convinced the toy manufacturer to scrap the line of healthy-body role model dolls. "I know I should change the world," Ronnie exclaims. "But right now, I just want to change my ass." These days that is revolution enough. Ally McBeal is similarly impervious to the claims of feminism as a social movement, preferring instead to cultivate her own garden. "If women really wanted to change society, they could do it," the tiny, moody lawyer declares. "I plan to change it. I just want to get married first." TV's first generation of single-girl adventurers preached that you could be single and still be a whole person; that you didn't need a husband to have a complete life. Twentysomething Ally, in a precocious lather about the prospect of her biological clock ticking away, sees it a different way. "All I ever wanted was to be rich and to be successful and to have three kids and a husband who was waiting home for me at night to tickle my feet," she wails in the first episode. "And look at me! I don't even like my hair!"

As the blowsy matriarch of an international panties empire, Veronica Chase has "got the universe on a string.... She's--got--everything!" proclaims the show's theme song. Veronica's Manhattan office is a kind of pretty-in-pink pleasure spa, in which Veronica and her top executive Olive are pampered and fussed over by a revolving troupe of bare-chested male attendants. Yet, for all her success in her chosen field, Ronnie, like Ally, is a miserable failure in her personal life. Having wrenched herself away from her philandering husband, she spends much of the rest of the season in an adorable dither of loneliness and misery. Olive counsels her to look on the bright side: "This is your chance to grow as a person, okay?... You can march on Washington. You could spend more time with your woman friends." "I have no woman friends," she wails.

Dharma represents the flip side of this gilded-cage singlehood: she is a blissed-out newlywed, a homebound lovebird feathering her modest nest. The running gag is that she and Greg are opposite numbers: he's a lockjawed wasp, heir to a family fortune; she's an insouciant tree-hugger who grew up in a solar sod hut. She says tomato, he says tomahto. And they follow their bliss to a domestic euphoria not seen since the days of Donna Reed. In this fairy tale, Dharma has no career to speak of, so she has a great deal of leisure time to sit in the lotus position dreaming up new ways to surprise her husband with fresh displays of bohemian expressiveness. That could mean whipping up a bright new drink in the blender; or commandeering a school bus for a private joyride through the streets of San Francisco; or simply dragging a mattress up the stairs to the roof of their apartment building, where she and her humdrum hubby can whoop it up like foals by the light of the moon. Greg loves it. "Have you ever seen him so happy?" marvels Dharma to her snooty mother-in-law. "No I have not," snaps Mrs. Montgomery. "And I blame you."

But even the disdain of her upper-crust in-laws cannot dampen the spirits of this giggly-girl hausfrau. In a recent episode, Greg's mother lashes out at Dharma for encouraging Greg to abandon his law career for a stint as a short- order cook. "Dharma," she fumes, "do you have any idea what it means to be a Montgomery? This family has a long and proud tradition. We build communities. We shape policy....It is our job as Montgomery women to protect and pass on that tradition." Dharma, ever the strong woman, jumps in to correct her mother-in-law. "Noo-oo," she says. "It is my job to keep my husband happy."

Mary Richards, remember, was supposed to be good at her job--hence her regular anger at the witting and unwitting misogyny of Lou Grant. So, too, Murphy Brown, who is so attached to her job that she cannot even bear a one-day suspension for insubordination: "My work is just about the most important thing in my life," she wails. The new working women, by contrast, wear their careers as lightly as their Kate Spade accessories. To them, a job is a lifestyle accoutrement, a crisp stratagem to make themselves more attractive. Ally McBeal is "a good lawyer, but not a great lawyer," Flockhart has told reporters. Indeed, Ally "didn't even want to be a lawyer"; she just had to follow her boyfriend to law school. As a career-girl role model, Veronica is an even bigger flop. The show, which congratulates itself on being a feminization-of-power anthem, is really a relentless showcase of female incapacity. Here is the CEO as basket case, in constant need of support and approbation. "Comfort me, oh comfort me," the lonely mogul cries out, at least once per episode; and just like that, a entourage of sycophants and thong models materializes at her side. With vigilant tenderness, they fetch her junk food, troll the aisles for Vagisil, rummage through her dog's vomit in search of undigested pills.

The new heroines of prime time are not particularly interested in ameliorating the collective wrongs that afflict women. They are conventional glamour girls, with perfectly souffled hairdos and designer finery that positively glows with newness. Dharma, for all the Buddhism of her name, is an unrepentant clotheshorse. No flea-bitten hippie togs for her: she pads about their spacious loft in flouncy fur-trimmed negligees and a white leather maxicoat, fresh from last month's Vogue. Ally McBeal is also a girly girl, more concerned with fulfilling her consumerist fantasies than improving the plight of women. After Ally stages a successful ploy to expose the villainy of a senior partner whom she has charged with sexual harassment, she calls her roommate to share the good news. "It actually worked, Renee!" Ally burbles. "He's going to have to settle! Now maybe we can get those new drapes." Slumping dejectedly down the street after a brutal setback in court, she surrenders to her equivalent of despair. "Sometimes I'm tempted to become a street person, cut off from society," she tells us, in voice-over. "But then I wouldn't get to wear my outfits."

Yet these feminine virtues are accompanied by feminine weaknesses--by the painstaking vulnerability that has become the trademark of television's postfeminists. Veronica Chase's fluttery unsureness, her crackbrained mannerisms, her inability to build a stable life for herself--all are supposed to be part of her charm. And insecurity also happens to be the touchstone of the child-woman Ally McBeal. Ally feels compelled to remind us again and again what a mess she is: the pain she feels takes the form of self-denigration bordering on self-hatred. "Oh, how did I get to be such a mess so soon in my life?" she moans. Told that men go nuts for her, she replies despondently, "Only until they get to know me."

So whom should we prefer: Cagney and Lacey, in all their pristine Ms. magazine earnestness, or Ally McBeal and the other weepy exempla of the new ideal of high-powered vulnerability? What explains the craving, at this moment, for images of sophisticated women humbling themselves? A part of the reason, surely, is the apotheosis of do-me feminism as a Hollywood growth industry. For it is really nothing but a male producer's fantasy of feminism, which manages simultaneously to exploit and to deplore, to arouse and to moralize.

This vision of girl power as a voyeuristic contrivance is most fully realized on Ally McBeal. In the very first episode, Ally is sexually harassed by senior partner Jack Billings. The scene, which unfolds from the harasser's point of view, takes place in the law firm's plushy library. We see Ally standing on a high stool as she replaces a volume on a top shelf, oblivious to the sneaky- piggy colleague approaching her from behind. Suddenly, he pounces, planting both hands on her bottom and squeezing with exaggerated relish. "Hey!" Ally yelps, stumbling perkily in her high heels. The scene is stretched out voluptuously: the approach, the squeeze, the whirling around, the deep expression of shock and violation in Ally's eyes. It is replayed later in the show and in subsequent episodes (sort of like Bill and Monica at the rope line), as Ally relives her experience of harassment in neurotic flashback. And poor Ally must also contend with other on-the-job indignities. Much of the plot unfolds within the sleek confines of the firm's unisex bathroom, a futuristic arcade of chrome and glass that affords the opportunity to present numerous, discomfiting shots of a flustered Ally surprised on the toilet by one of her nefarious male coworkers: more cutting-edge prurience disguised as cutting-edge politics.

Ally McBeal, even more than the other shows, has been embraced as a canonical statement of postfeminist exhilaration. The New York Times, noting that the show has "captured the imagination of young professional working women," has praised its creators for training public attention on the myriad problems faced by working women: "sexual harassment, relationships between an employee and a boss, romance in and out of the office." Newsweek went so far as to convene a panel of unmarried twentysomething professional women, in hopes of discerning the source of Ally's allure. The conclusion was that Ally served as a kind of therapeutic device for professional women gratified to realize that they are not alone in feeling weak and even tremulous on the job. "It is what many feminist authors have referred to as the `imposter syndrome,'" Newsweek's writer explained, citing a scene in which Ally, tongue-tied at a meeting, has a sudden vision of herself as a little girl in an oversized chair. "It is women's nagging fear ... that their success is a sham and one day they will be exposed."

But this brings us to another problem with this saint in a short skirt. It is that America's favorite litigator-gamine not only sees herself as a little girl, she also is a little girl. As an upscale exercise in the packaging of female interiority, Ally McBeal is less Mary Richards than Angela Chase, the frazzled pubescent played by Claire Danes in the recent high school weepie, My So-Called Life, still a hit in reruns on MTV. There is even a physical resemblance between Ally and Angela--the glossy bob, the rosebud breasts, the piquancy of the high cheekbones set against the low esteem. "Sometimes it feels like we're living in some kind of prison," muses Angela the privileged moppet. "And the crime is how much we hate ourselves." Though twelve years Angela's senior, Ally McBeal shares many of her cotton-candy miseries. "Love and law are the same," she tells us. "Romantic in concept--but the actual practice can give you a yeast infection." And in another girl-power Gumpism: "Men are like gum. After you chew, they lose their flavor."

But there is a difference. When Angela Chase lets fly with one of her girlish temper tantrums, it is cute--a part of the essential ridiculousness of adolescence. In a 30-year-old attorney, however, it is not cute. It is manipulative and infantile and demeaning. Ally McBeal seems determined to see herself as a fuddled schoolgirl. "A little girl playing in an old boy's club," she calls herself. In one episode, she refuses to join the partners and the clients in the conference room, airily informing her boss that "I have a problem in conference room meetings. I just get insecure.... I feel like the clients look at me like a little girl and I feel puny." Is this feminism or arrested development? In another episode, she is asked by the state public- defender's office to represent an accused prostitute. "I can't go to criminal court," whimpers the new feminist heroine of prime time. "I'm afraid of criminals." Then find another profession.

All this rigging, of course, is owed to the social and sexual imagination of David E. Kelley, Ally's creator. The liberalized, sensitized man who writes girls so right seems to take pleasure in stripping Ally of her authority, in making her look foolish and incompetent. He does this most famously in a series of cute visual gags in which the lawyer's innermost thoughts are played out on screen. The images positively seethe with hostility. Here's Ally, with an enormous foot stuffed in her mouth. There's Ally, being unloaded by a dump truck. He allows Ally her triumphs, of course; but Kelley seems more interested in dealing out setbacks, the kind that leave the supersensitive barrister acting like, well, a girl. He seems to delight in her chastisement, in the infliction of inordinate punishments for trivial vice. When Ally, running errands at a supermarket, stashes a tube of spermicidal jelly in her jacket pocket (she doesn't want anybody to see it in her cart), she is confronted, handcuffed, and thrown in the slammer; her exasperated colleagues must interrupt their power lawyering to come to the station and bail her out. "They said you swiped some gyno cream," shouts her boss Richard Fish. "Any truth to that?"

Ally's colleagues are constantly trying to annex her feminine wiles for their own ends. After Ally informs her boss that she does not plan to attend a particular meeting, he commands her to show up, telling her she will be there "as estrogen," planted for the purpose of flirting with the other side's lead counsel. On another occasion, she is brought into a case as a counterweight to a successful female lawyer who has previously bested the firm many times. "It's not that she's such a great lawyer," one of Ally's colleagues explains. "But she's got this amazing smile. And judges just fall for it." The trial quickly devolves into a clash of the lawyer-babes, as Ally and her toothsome rival vie for the judge's favor. As the camera swirls, amid the soft lights and the soft music, the two women are shown in slow motion, smiling and prancing and finger-combing their golden hair.

If Ally's life is a twisty mess of erotic confusion, though, she has no one but herself to blame. Her attitudes toward sex and work represent the dark side of do-me feminism, where wholesome carnality shades into careerist cunning. In a recent episode, Ally makes a last-minute decision to enter into a case as co-counsel, for the sole purpose of sexually discombobulating the lawyer on the other side. He is Jack Billings, whom Ally has already sued for sexual harassment. The idea, she explains, is to "distract him a little bit.... My being at the table--Jackie boy loses focus." The ploy works. Billings is forced to settle. "The tables are turning," Ally's colleague gloats. But are they really? Using sex to fluster a hapless opponent is not an accomplishment; it is dysfunction, professional or personal.

But this postfeminist fusion of coquettishness and rage is Ally McBeal's stock-in-trade. When Ron Cheney, a prospective client whom Ally was supposed to ensnare over drinks, confesses that he doesn't actually have any questions about the litigation department, that this was just a pretext to find a way to be alone with her, Ally thinks: "Pig." But then she looks at him and decides that he's kind of cute. After drinks, she permits him to kiss her. "I saw a piece of cute meat," Ally tells her roommate later. "And I said to myself, You only live once! Be a man!" On the second date, Cheney neglects to kiss Ally good night. Bad move. "Most men would have asked to sleep with me," Ally fumes. "Why can't he be a man and just paw me a little? I am a sexual object, for God's sake. He couldn't give me a little grope?"

Ally's passive-aggressive response is to turn her law-firm associates against Cheney. She finds a professional use for the kiss that first troubled her. "I don't think we should accept this client," she tells her colleagues. "I'm not comfortable representing him ... I don't even want him in these offices." After he has been dismissed by the firm, Cheney confronts Ally about her behavior. "I thought we were getting along," he says. "Next thing I know Richard Fish is turning down my business." Replies Ally, "You're just going to have to take my word on this. It's not going to work out.... I'm going to have to ask you to leave." "You want me to leave?" Cheney asks, incredulous. "No," we hear Ally say to herself. "Yes," we hear her say to him. The ugly scene is played as zany comedy. The innuendo about harassment is merely Ally's neurotic defense mechanism, just another one of her quirks.

In addition to being vulnerable, our heroine is emotional. The sliding oak door leading to Ally's office is often closed. "Don't go in there," visitors are told. "Ally's having an upset." At least once an episode, Ally herself pridefully reminds us that she's crazy as a loon. "I like being a mess," the lawyer declares. "It's who I am." And: "I know I'm a simpering little needy thing." And: "Balance is overrated. What if I don't want to be balanced?" And why should she? As David E. Kelley has set things up, Ally's imbalance is a badge of honor. The Boston legal scene is a kind of difference-feminist utopia, and Ally McBeal is a Carol Gilligan heroine, a character who is choking on feelings; and who never doubts her feelings are an asset, a source of power. Here is a lawyer who is valued not for her legal acumen, but for the weepy integrity of her ruined dreams. Ally's boss assigns her to join a male colleague on a case because "the judge has great respect for John's legal mind--and for your sense of romance. She needs nudging from a romantic idealist."

Ally's romantic idealism, her emotionalism, her intuitiveness, her girlish indifference to such manly concerns as law and logic and reason, do not just make her a superior person. They also make her a superior lawyer. Like a killer precedent or a surprise witness, her neurosis is a passport to truth. In one recent episode, a hearing on Ally's professional misconduct devolves into a soppy ode to the relational woman, as colleagues of the embattled McBeal rise from their chairs to testify to the glories of different-voice lawyering. Her associate Billy Thomas (he is also her ex) tells a three-judge panel:

There are those who see the law in black and white. Ally is forever seeing grays. She's constantly trying to make sense of an arena that, for the most part, is messing her up.... This is a woman who isn't afraid of being emotional. She isn't scared of being weak. She knows part of being alive is a willingness to get in the same room with your pain. And so, I don't care what kind of a club this is. We're all a lot better off with her in it.

Ally, you see, is so glamorously fragile, so irresistibly anxious, that she has to be taken care of. She is simply too tender for this world. But who wouldn't be sensitive and vulnerable, with money and swell clothes and a script that spares you the full consequences of your mischief? These career gazelles of prime time, whose professional errors are dismissed as hormonal tremors, who are taken such good care of and who give so little back, may indeed be the heroines of postfeminism. But they are also what has given postfeminism a bad name.

Ally McBeal is a slap in the face of the real-life working girl, a weekly insult to the woman who wants sexual freedom and gender equality, who can date and litigate in the same week without collapsing in a Vagisil heap. These are the women who will not see Ally as especially feminist or especially admirable. They are not victims of "imposter syndrome." They know that it is Ally who is the imposter.

But this is a particularly clever variety of imposture. The trick of Ally McBeal, its "originality," is to use verisimilitude to disguise a lack of truth. It tricks out its stereotypes in the pseudo-naturalism of brand names and cultural markers. So far this season, characters have made references to Botox injections, John Gray, The Rules, Johnny Mathis, Ruffles with Ridges, Henderson the Rain King. The real world! (The real world of the people who make the show, too: "Oh Ally," says Renee, "you're not a spontaneous person. You wouldn't go to bed with a man unless you storyboard it first." ) The knowingness is so unexpected, so intoxicating, so cool, that you forget that what you are watching is a cartoon, a Gilliganesque caricature, a demographically brilliant iteration of Jessica Rabbit. The zeitgeist impresarios who produce these emoralizing shows have made male power and female powerlessness seem harmless, cuddly, sexy, safe, and sellable. They have merely raised conservatism's hem.

(Copyright 1998, The New Republic)