Miniskirt feminism baffles veterans

I only caught the last half of "Ally McBeal" Monday, but 30 minutes was enough for me.

McBeal, a television attorney, was dressed in an orange prison uniform and standing before a judge. She had been jailed on a contempt of court charge because her skirt was too short.

Let me backtrack a minute, for readers too busy at 9 p.m. Mondays to turn to their local Fox channel for weekly insights into a professional girl's life.

Ally McBeal is sort of the late-1990s version of Murphy Brown: Neither character is real, but society takes them so seriously they develop lives of their own.

Readers with memories longer than the average sitcom episode may recall that former Vice President Dan Quayle denounced anchorwoman Brown for symbolizing the decline of moral values when she became an unwed mother.

(Quayle, however, never mentioned why Murphy Brown was unwed: The baby's father bolted as soon as she announced her pregnancy.)

Similarly, Ally McBeal has become an icon of New Feminism. Her picture recently decorated the cover of Time magazine along with real women, such as Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem.

And how did a television character rise so high so quickly?

By wearing thigh-high skirts. I'm talking real short here, only 14 inches from waist to hem.

Those old enough to have been taught to do math in their heads rather than relying on a calculator will quickly realize that a 14-inch skirt uses little more than one-third of a yard of fabric. Those old enough to recall when a penny saved was a penny earned might think the character was simply skimping on the cost of clothing.

Nope. McBeal's short skirts are her way of exercising a woman's right to choose. Those skirts are McBeal's weapons against sexism and society's refusal to allow a woman to express her individuality.

It's her way of making society look past her physical attributes and take her seriously - based on, I guess, her ability to sit demurely in a micro-mini.

At least that was the explanation suggested in Monday night's episode.

That's why McBeal represents the New Feminism: You can rule the world if you have great legs, short skirts and/or blond hair.

That wasn't feminism in my day. That was sexism.

The line between New Feminism and sexism is so blurry, I decided to consult a lawyer to see if she could explain the difference.

So I called Gale Messerman. Messerman has stellar feminist credentials: She defended a woman whose case was later included in the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision.

Had the atmosphere around the Cuyahoga County Justice Center loosened up in the year since I had last been there? Can a woman attorney come to court dressed like Ally McBeal?

Messerman laughed. "No one wears skirts that short," she said. "How can you sit comfortably in a skirt that short?"

She remembers the days when the length of a lawyer's skirt wasn't an issue - because the lawyers were mostly men.

Since Messerman is an old-school feminist, she thinks "Ally McBeal" is a sexist show.

But her daughter, also an attorney, loves it.

Messerman's "confident, aggressive, tough" daughter doesn't miss an episode.

"It's a girl thing," Messerman said. "Young women watch this show and identify with it. My daughter says, "Mom, it's just a show.' "

Messerman is bewildered, partly because she is standing on the older side of the generation gap. And partly because she has met Calista Flockhart, the actress who plays Ally McBeal. "She's so tiny, she must be a size 2!" Messerman said. "I thought she was a teenager."

Well, she certainly plays one. Week after week, she depicts a woman who has risen professionally because she's beautiful and acts like a kid.

Who said women haven't come a long way?

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1998 THE PLAIN DEALER. Used with permission.