Brief little think piece as I make my way through the first season of Ally McBeal:
So far, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by this show. I had heard it was a kind of “feminist romantic comedy,” so I expected it to pay lip service to feminism while essentially undermining its ideals in the course of the show’s romantic endeavors. At this point, however, 7 episodes into Season 1, I am very pleased to see that show is genuinely trying to explore ideas of feminism and female empowerment within a workplace context.
Because the show began in 1997, the first season at least is firmly situated in 90’s Third Wave Feminism, the phase of the movement that embraced femininity and was all about female empowerment and the career woman. Ally McBeal follows a young female lawyer, played by Calista Flockhart (aka the woman who would marry Harrison Ford!), who goes to work at a new firm after leaving her last firm due to sexual harassment. When she joins the new firm, she discovers that her high school sweetheart works there and wackiness ensues.
The show spends most of its time dealing with gender issues in a legal manner. Most of their cases involve prostitution, marriage, sexual harassment, etc. What’s most exciting to me about the show is its willingness to address gender issues and double standards head-on, and it’s not afraid to have Ally get overtly feminist. In an early episode, Billy says it’s okay for men to cheat but not for women, since, for women, sex is “more mental.” I was immediately outraged by this statement and, luckily, Ally was right there with me! She is not afraid to call out the (often unintentional) chauvinism of the men around her. She even confronts one of the firm’s partners for his “prostitution is more fair to women than hitting on them in bars” speech. When he delivers it in a thought-out, convincing manner, another show would have let it go and allowed him to be vindicated, but Ally takes him on and doesn’t let him get away with his BS.
The episode that really made me like the show is Episode 5, “One Hundred Tears Away.” Ally has been reported to the bar for being “too emotional” and “possibly unstable” after losing her temper a couple of times. No one understands why the bar is making a big deal out of it until Whipper (hot, older-lady judge) calls them out on the double standard. She sees that they’re going after Ally because for a woman to be emotional means that she’s fragile, that a “pretty little thing” like her can’t handle the pressures of being a lawyer. Billy joins in, saying that Ally isn’t afraid to be emotional and human, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I really love that the show is willing to embrace all aspects of femininity – even if you’re a feminist lawyer, it’s still okay to be emotional and impulsive. (Side note: My old favorite Zeljko Ivanek is in the episode! He seems to play a lot of magistrate types.)
Finally, the show does an excellent job creating three-dimensional female characters. With the exception of the stereotypical “sassy black friend,” the female characters are all layered and unique individuals. For instance, Ally and Georgia, Billy’s wife, get off to a bad start when they admit a mutual petty hatred for each other. Over the course of a few episodes, however, they realize that their dislike is silly and decide to become friends. The show allows them to have a realistic, mature relationship instead of using their situation to create drama and conflict. I love that Ally McBeal recognizes that women don’t have to fight over men to make good television.
Obviously, my opinion on the show could change as I move forward, but for now, I am a big fan of Ally McBeal.