Was Ally McBeal a Feminist Icon?

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In June 1998, Time Magazine published an issue with a most unusual cover. The image displayed the pictured heads of four women: Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and… Ally McBeal. The first three heads were printed in black-and-white, the fourth in full color. Beneath the picture of McBeal were printed three boldened words: “Is Feminism Dead?”

It may have seemed like a jarring question to the casual newsreader, even if it was playing off a more famous Time cover from decades earlier. The magazine had published a cover asking “Is God Dead?” way back in 1966, and had featured a similar “Is Government Dead?” cover in 1989. (They also published an “Is Truth Dead?” cover earlier this year. Time Magazine is kind of obsessed with death, is what I’m saying.) The “feminism” question might not seem as controversial in comparison… except for the fact that it implied that decades of women’s progress now hinged on a fictional TV character.

It may sound ridiculous now, but that’s only because the character in question has largely faded into obscurity. But back in the late ‘90s, Ally McBeal was everywhere. From the time of its fall 1997 premiere, the show was a breakout hit. It became the watercooler series of its era. It spawned one of the first Internet memes with the creepy “dancing baby” sequence, re-popularizing “Hooked on a Feeling” long before Guardians of the Galaxy even existed. It was the first – and, to date, only – hourlong series to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy, scooping up the prize in 1999. (The show’s creator, David E. Kelley, also won that year’s Outstanding Drama award for The Practice, making him the only person to ever win both top prizes at the Emmy Awards in a single year.)

Yet despite its popularity, there were always some vocal complaints. The show, which focused on a young female lawyer trying to balance a professional and personal life, was criticized in some feminist circles for being sexist in its depiction of its main character. On paper, you can’t really blame them: Ally was clumsy, emotionally unstable, and typically wore miniskirts in the courtroom. Plots often revolved around her sexual exploits. At a time when TV women like Buffy and Xena were grinding the “damsel in distress” trope into the dirt, Ally McBeal felt like an embarrassing step back.

But… was it really? Ally McBeal dropped out of the public eye after its 2002 cancellation, but in recent years, it’s slowly begun to resurface. In 2011, Vulture TV critic Margaret Lyons revisited the series, and praised it for exploring empowering feminist themes. In 2014, Neha Gandhi of Medium wrote an article titled “Turns Out, Ally McBeal is a Total Feminist Icon.” There are still people who dislike the show and its title character, but a surprising number of defenders have lately surfaced.

I don’t claim to be an expert on feminism, a topic which has itself branched out in numerous directions and taken on numerous manifestations over the years. (Judith Butler and Christina Hoff Sommers, for example, both consider themselves feminists, yet their opinions on the subject are jarringly different.) But the reactions to Ally McBeal are unique in the television world – few if any shows in the modern era have inspired as much discussion about women in the media, and how those depictions reflect women in the real world.

So this all got me wondering: Was there something we’d missed? Were the criticisms wrong? Was Ally McBeal secretly a feminist icon?

To answer, we must go back in time.

Ally McBeal simultaneously celebrated and deconstructed the “working woman” trope

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It would be wrong to say that television’s portrayal of women in the workplace has been a steady march; it’s actually felt more like a series of peaks and valleys. Take female-centered cop dramas, for instance: they began with Decoy in 1957, reached a high in the late ‘70s with shows like Police Woman and Cagney & Lacey, and have grown in and out of vogue ever since.

It’s less noticeable with female-led lawyer dramas, which were practically nonexistent before the ‘90s. And even then, the early attempts (such as ABC’s Civil Wars and NBC’s Sweet Justice) were low-rated and short-lived.

Ally McBeal was the first truly successful example of the form, and paved the way for other such dramas in the 21st century, including Close to Home and The Good Wife. That’s all pretty groundbreaking for a show whose main character often made the women on Studio 60 look intelligent.

But there’s the vexing conflict. Ally McBeal was groundbreaking, in form if not in execution. It presented a woman working in what was regarded at the time as a man’s profession, solving cases and giving courtroom speeches, yet spent a lot of time depicting her as an airhead. What kind of capable, sophisticated lawyer is prone to imagining so many fantasy sequences? Or falling head-over-heels for so many men (and, occasionally, women)? None of it seems to add up. Are we supposed to root for Ally or laugh at her?

Well… I don’t think you can have a show run for five years and average 12 million viewers an episode without getting the audience to root for the main character. Women everywhere took to Ally, cheering her on as she stumbled from one unsuccessful relationship to the next. And they seemed perfectly willing to forgive her flaws.

And there’s the other question: did her flaws necessarily need forgiving? Sure, Ally made poor life decisions on a regular basis, and could often be too bubbly for her own good. But if you look past the broad comedy, she made a lot of subtle yet important strides. She won a great many cases. She stood up for women’s rights, and from the pilot episode, she wasn’t afraid to face down chauvinist men. And she was driven and determined against any odds. Sure, she could be klutzy or absent-minded, and she could often make mistakes. But you know what? So could anyone else.

Ally’s flaws, while numerous, could be viewed as degrading. But they can also be seen as humanizing. An idealized version of Ally McBeal, who was strong, independent, and always got the job done may have been more respectable, but would not be nearly as relatable. Millions of female viewers saw themselves in Ally, even if some of them preferred otherwise.

Authorial intent does have limits

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Just a few weeks ago, Wired published an open letter written by Kai Cole, the ex-wife of nerd idol Joss Whedon. In her piece, Cole stated that Whedon, widely regarded not only as a talented writer but a feminist icon, had repeatedly cheated on her during the course of their 16-year marriage.

The reaction was immediate, and of course, largely negative. But even as we look down on Whedon for his actions, many Buffy fans now wonder: How does this affect his past work?

Buffy was in important touchstone in the world of TV feminism, and its influence cannot be denied – or retroactively erased. But some fans will now find it difficult to look back on the series now, knowing the history of its creator, who spent years promoting women’s equality while cheating on the woman closest to him.

I can’t imagine that I will wish to turn my back on Buffy – on its own merits, it’s a wonderful show. But the next time I tune in to “Hush” or “Becoming,” it will be with a detached sense of commitment. An attempt to enjoy the art while ignoring the artist.

Now, let’s flip the coin. It may be difficult to see Ally McBeal as progressively feminist when the show’s creator, David E. Kelley, never claimed to be an expert on feminism in the first place. A former lawyer who found success writing legal dramas for television, Kelley once stated that he made McBeal as a change of pace – after creating two hit dramas with male protagonists in Picket Fences and The Practice, he wanted to try his hand at writing for a woman. (Most of Kelley’s shows in the years since have featured men as the lead, although he continues to change things up now and then. His recent Big Little Lies focused on a social group of women, and Goliath, while centered on a rivalry between two men, featured an almost exclusively female supporting cast.)

So while McBeal featured an all-gender public restroom and the first lesbian kiss ever seen on network television, progressive politics were not built into the show’s fabric. In fact, it’s widely been accepted that the lesbian kisses were okayed by the network with hopes that they would draw more male viewers to the show. (It worked.)

The question, then, is whether we can take a utilitarian approach, and appreciate the influence of Ally McBeal without caring about the intent behind-the-scenes. And ultimately, that will be up to the viewer. Some will embrace the show, others will dismiss it.

But for all the arguments we can make about her short skirts and shorter romances, we should remember that, for a while, this series made an impact. Yes, the character was flawed. Yes, she could sometimes be ditzy and self-absorbed. But Ally McBeal challenged the definition of feminism the way no TV series before or since ever has. And twenty years later, we can look back at the series and truthfully state: “She persisted.”

All episodes of All McBeal are available on DVD and streaming on Hulu.

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