|July 20, 1998|
BY PHIL ROSENTHAL TELEVISION CRITIC
PASADENA, Calif.--It would be one thing if Calista Flockhart, like so many women her age, was simply concerned with being defined by her job.
Flockhart's problem is that a whole generation of women is being defined by her job.
One day, Flockhart is hired to play the title character on Fox's ``Ally McBeal.'' The show gets good reviews and becomes a modest hit. And suddenly, without warning, The Experts (whoever they are) embrace her as The Face of Postmodern Feminism (whatever that is), and she finds herself on the cover of Time magazine depicting the evolutionary ascendant of Susan B. Anthony, Julia Howe and Gloria Steinem.
``That's just surreal ... I mean, Susan B. Anthony would roll over in her grave,'' said Flockhart, a slight woman who unintentionally has become a giant on the cultural landscape.
``For me, the interesting question is: Why are we grabbing onto this character? We don't do this to men. There are a lot of men protagonists who are leads on television series, and [experts] don't tell us, `Oh, so this is how men behave.' But Ally behaves this way and suddenly it's `All women behave this way.' That's just not true.''
Flockhart knows that just as Mary Tyler Moore's Mary Richards was based on a certain kind of single career woman 25 years ago, her Ally McBeal is based on a certain kind of single career woman today.
But, unlike some of the more passionate fans championing her and her program, she also is acutely aware that, when all is said and done, Ally remains a television character created by David Kelley. And his chief mission in inventing this edgy bundle of desires and contradictions was to amuse viewers, not engender socio-political debate.
Somewhere along the line, amid the hype, it all got out of hand and, wherever she goes, Flockhart has to answer for it.
``I try to focus on the work, and it's not hard to do because I work a lot of hours and I'm always on the set,'' said Flockhart, who played Helena in a movie adaptation of ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' during her series break. ``I don't pay attention to the rest of it, or I try not to.
``People are saying I'm the spokeswoman for postmodern feminism, and I never thought I would be that. I mean, I consider myself--Calista Flockhart--a feminist. The sole purpose of `Ally McBeal' is entertainment, and people need to take it in the spirit in which it's given.
``I'm just an actress trying to play a part. It is interesting to me. There's no denying that people are thinking of Ally as a role model. I do have to acknowledge that people are identifying with this character. To me, the interesting question is why? What's lacking?''