With a real-life political soap opera unfolding before the nation, feminists (like all of us) have more serious things to worry about than a character in a television series. Still, in this year when attorneys seem to spend more time on TV than in court, there has been a lot of griping about fictional lawyer Ally McBeal, heroine of a Fox Network show whose second season opened last week.
Ally, played by the fetching Callista Flockhart, was even featured on the cover of Time as a symbol of the death of feminism. The author of the story was appalled that “the most popular female character on television” is a ditsy young woman in very short skirts who is forever fantasizing about her married ex-boyfriend and colleague, can’t get a grip on her personal life, and gets caught in hilarious predicaments.
In the web magazine Salon, TV critic Joyce Millman carps that the show’s message to women is that “it’s strong to be self-diminishing, smart to be indecisive, brave to be a wimp.” The New Republic’s Ruth Shalit thinks Ally’s neurotic personality and her emotional approach to legal issues are a “weekly insult” to career women. Some conservatives hail the show as evidence that women have had it with feminism and careers.
They’re all wrong. For one, Ally is no wimp. She’s often shown as a capable lawyer. What’s more, she stands up for principle, confronting her colleagues when she thinks they’re doing the wrong thing. Sometimes she’s indecisive; sometimes, assertive and impulsively direct. Early on, she reads The Rules, the book that advises women to be coy and passive. Then she throws it away and, more than once, takes the romantic initiative (even if she can get jittery after kissing a man).
So Ally admits that she’s “a strong working career girl who feels empty without a man” (adding, “The National Organization for Women, they have a contract out on my head”).
Guess what: a lot of men feel empty without a woman.
Besides, Ally is no aspiring housewife. She wants it all — marriage, kids, partnership in the law firm. She won’t settle for a man she doesn’t love. She’s not even sure she will ever be ready to settle at all. Maybe, she admits at one point, she will always want more.
I think many women today, and the many men who make up a large number of the show’s following can identify with this confusion.
So Ally’s neurotic. But so are many of the show’s male characters (who are also permitted to have a much more genuine emotional life than men often are in today’s TV fare). One of her bosses, John Cage, is a lonely guy who’s even more insecure than Ally, who talks to a stuffed horse, and who brings his personal life into his work at least as much as she does. In one closing argument, he tells the story of a man who never dared reveal his love to a woman friend. He is the man — and the woman is the opposing counsel.
Dana Hagerty, 31, who works in public relations in the Washington, D.C., area and runs a web page devoted to Ally McBeal, is impatient with complaints that the show demeans career women. “I think it shows that women can be strong, independent and smart, while also being disheveled,” she says. “Is Ally neurotic? Insecure? Sometimes. If she didn’t have insecurities, she wouldn’t be real.”
Ally may be more disheveled than most real people, though when she gets into comical scrapes, she often gets out graciously and charmingly. But what do her critics want — a feminist version of Soviet realism in which the heroine is as tough as the tractor she drives?
One thing feminism should have achieved by 1998 is the liberation of women, in life or in fiction, from having to represent all womanhood. Jerry Seinfeld’s TV character did not represent all men or even all Jewish comedians.
Relax, folks, it’s only a TV show. An inventive, funny and well-written one at that.
Cathy Young is vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network. Her column is published on Tuesday. You may write her at The Detroit News, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, Mich. 48226. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org