Fishism. Bygones. : My Thoughts on Ally McBeal
I don’t know what compelled me to do so, but I have started watching Ally McBeal on Netflix (to my husband’s chagrin). The first 15 episodes were basically amazeballs. Seriously. Peter MacNichol is stellar (and he remains so throughout the series).
And then the show fell into this weird ebb and flow of creativity, cringe-inducing moments, and oddness. In either case, I think this show is an interesting case study in how a showrunner’s point of view can clearly dominate, and evolve as a show goes on.
One of the most interesting things about Ally McBeal is the way it challenged the conventions of feminism, though executive producer David E. Kelley contested that Ally is not supposed to be a feminist hero, or role model. An excerpt from Kathleen Newman’s fantastic essay, “The Problem That Has a Name: Ally McBeal and the Future of Feminism:”
Women, like me, who were born between the early 1960s and 1970s. Torn between the more radical, bra-burning feminism of our mothers’ generation and the sassy girl power rebellion of our younger sisters, we are faced with the problem of reclaiming feminism for ourselves.”
Watching this show in 2012, I see how some women see Ally as this horrible representation of what it is to be a woman in the workplace — she walks into court with her tiny little skirts, and wearing her emotions all over her sleeve, and her face, and everywhere else. Oh, and she sees crazy visions. As Newman said, younger feminists (like me, born in the mid-80s) have a slightly different view of feminism than some older women (though my 50-something mother and 60-something mother-in-law are both feminists who also liked Ally McBeal when it was on, s’idunno…). Because, in 1997 there were fewer admirable portrayals of women in the workplace then, it probably seemed fare more dire to have the lead title character of a hit drama to be a more with-it, professional representation of being a young female in the workplace. No matter how hard we deny it, popular culture influences society. Watching the show now, however, I can only think to myself:
- Who cares if she wears short skirts? Maybe they make her feel confident, and therefore better at her job as a lawyer.
- Who cares if she sees things? Her visions of that dancing baby, and Al Green make her interesting.
- Who cares if she has emotions, and *gasp* expresses them? Humans–human women, in fact–have emotions.
- Who cares if she wants it all? Aren’t we all looking for a fulfilling professional life, as well as a fulfilling family and home life?
By 1997 standards, was Ally McBeal a feminist? That’s a 50-50, to me. In 1997, we hadn’t yet met presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Or Sarah Palin. Or Tina Fey, for that matter. We didn’t have nearly as many female politicians in office as we do now. There weren’t as many female executives as there are now. The laws that we have in place now to protect women in the workplace were new and awkward then; there was a tougher fight to make these laws feel like legitimate standard practice instead of new dumb rules to restrict men from honking their secretary’s boobs. So to have a strong female protagonist on television was more crucial.
But by 2012 standards, Ally McBeal is a feminist — she’s her own kind of feminist, which is really what I think feminism is about, in some sense. The ability for all of us to make choices, and not be treated less-than for being a stay-at-home mom, or incomplete for forgoing family to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. For goodness sakes, Ally is a successful, Harvard-trained attorney. Let her be weird and neurotic and honest about how she feels.
But, as I said, this show got me thinking about the voice of David E. Kelley, who also wrote most (or all?) of the episodes. The female characters are written to basically be frenemies, except for Ally and Renee, her BFF and roommate. That kind of bothers me. But, I like that the other women around Ally are different, and very strong people even if they climbed aboard the Miniskirt Express.
Anyway, I like the fact that Ally is a dreamer, and that John Cage is one of the few people who understand her. I like that Richard Fish is his own ridiculous version of a feminist, and even claims to be one (though I usually question his ridiculous reasoning). It makes me cringe when real-life women use sex as a power tool, but in a cast of television characters, Elaine and Ling work for me. I like that Ally inherently likes Georgia, the woman married to Billy, the so-called one-who-got-away. I like that Ally eventually gets over Billy, since he’s basically a duuuuud. I also find myself presently surprised with the racially diverse casting (though I have problems with the way Ling is basically stereotypically Asian in so many ways — she does nails!?). I think the fashion starts to actually flatter the actors right around season three.
And as much as I hate to admit it, I really like Ally, because I’m a little bit like her. I hear music. I dream vividly. I even had a Billy of my own. But, in contrast I like to eat… Oh well, can’t win ’em all.