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The Trouble with 'Ally' Analysis: Fox's pseudo-feminist, 'neurotic female' is sending mixed messages on gender and workplace issues

It has come to this: I am lying awake nights thinking of Ally McBeal.

Not Ally McBeal, the character -- the waif-like Harvard Law graduate played by Calista Flockhart Monday nights on Fox. Privileged and whiny, McBeal gives new meaning to self-absorption.

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Trying to be fair, I gave her six weeks to make me care and then decided it was all right to file her under television characters I don't like and hope I never have to meet when I die and go to that big TV Land in the sky.

But "Ally McBeal," the series, stays on my mind. It is the sociology of the show that makes it seem both important and troubling.

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Is it presenting a new, progressive and "post-feminist" image of a professional woman for the '90s? Or is its picture of women in the workplace so regressive that it makes "That Girl" seem positively up-to-the-minute?

From McBeal's miniskirts to her law firm's unisex bathroom, the show so relentlessly sexualizes office life that you wonder what a young woman would be more likely to find there -- professional fulfillment or sexual exploitation.

Its value system is built on the bedrock of making more money than anyone will ever need, getting a hunky husband and "having it all" as the "post-feminist" ads for Virginia Slims say. Or, as McBeal put it in one of her poutier moments, "All I ever wanted was to be rich and successful with three great kids and a husband waiting to tickle my feet -- and I don't even like my hair."

The deeper meaning and appeal of "Ally McBeal" has something to do with social class, the widening gulf between haves and have-nots and the inalienable right of stylish, young, Ivy League graduates to push older, less attractive women out of their way in the supermarket to get the last can of potato chips -- as McBeal did in one episode.

Based on the buzz about "Ally McBeal," you might think it was a Top 10 Nielsen hit instead of a series that has a smaller audience than "Homicide: Life On the Street," according to Nielsen Media Research. Given that, I wonder how much of the buzz is real and how much is hype about this new woman for the '90s.

When asked at a press conference last month if McBeal was a standard-bearer for the series' core audience of women 18 to 34 years old, Flockhart said: "God forbid! No, that's not my intention at all.

"If that happens, it's out of my control, but I see Ally only as an individual. She's a character who is just simply that: an individual, independent of any kind of role model or some sort of symbolic woman of the '90s who embraces womanhood. No, not at all."

Creator David Kelley, too, tries to duck any discussion of sociology, saying: "I look at myself the same way I look at television: As long as there's an image up there in the mirror, fine. Don't start looking at the wires behind, because something will go wrong.

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"So, I sort of tend to stay out of the analysis of why I write what I write and just hope that whatever comes out, some people will want to watch."

Kelley admits that commerce played a major role in the making of Ally McBeal. He says he and Fox entertainment president Peter Roth started the project with an understanding that it would be on Monday nights following "Melrose Place" and had "to be compatible with that kind of a lead-in."

For one thing, that's how Courtney Thorne-Smith, who left "Melrose Place" at the end of the last television season, wound up in a supporting role. She plays Georgia Thomas, wife of Billy Alan Thomas (Gil Bellows). Billy had been the love of McBeal's life since age 7 until they broke up in law school. Now he's the star lawyer in the Boston firm where McBeal works. She still aches for him a bit, but she really likes Georgia. The triangle and the sexual energy of Billy and McBeal in the office is central to the series.

Kelley, who so far has written all the scripts himself, made a lot of smart choices in the series. Creator of "The Practice" and "Picket Fences," as well as executive producer during part of the run of "L.A. Law," the 41-year-old Kelley knows how to make an hourlong series that has the look and feel of quality, adult drama.

A woman at the center

His most interesting choice was in putting a woman at the center of the series and taking viewers inside her mind through fantasy sequences and voice-overs. For example, in one episode, McBeal looks in the bathroom mirror at her breasts and wishes they were "less small." As we hear her thoughts in voice-over, the breasts expand until the strap on her bra snaps.

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Again, Kelley says making the lead female instead of male was more commerce than sociology. "It was always a woman from the very beginning. I didn't make a conclusion that their inner lives were more interesting or something -- never having been there.

"The pragmatic answer is that Fox knew most men would be watching 'Monday Night Football' [on ABC], so we wanted a show that was more oriented toward women -- that was the initial seed. When I went back to my office and started hatching ideas, the word 'woman' was in there from the beginning.

"But I cringe when people ask me how I write women characters, because I tend to say, 'I don't know.' The dirty secret is that I don't write them differently than men. Some of the issues are probably more organic to story lines that women may find more appealing, but I don't actually sit in my office and say, 'OK, now, what would a man think vs. what a woman would think?' I just don't think about that kind of gender thing that way."

Shirley Peroutka, director of the Media Studies program at Goucher College, teaches courses in gender and television and does think about that kind of gender thing. She says she started thinking about "Ally McBeal" when five of her students in a television criticism course last semester wrote final papers about the series.

"One student thought Ally McBeal was a neat character -- a strong woman -- who she could really identify with," Peroutka says.

"But the authors of the other four papers had real problems with the character. They said, although there were good aspects -- she was a career woman, et cetera -- the concentration on her relationship with men showed her being a 'typical neurotic female' obsessed with male attention and her physical appearance. Even in her professional life, there were times when she fell apart and had to have some man come along and pat her on the back to make it OK."

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Their conclusion, according to Peroutka: "Don't watch this show, you'll hate it."

Peroutka links "Ally McBeal" to "thirtysomething" (which ran on ABC from 1987 to 1991) -- another series that, while attracting a relatively small overall audience, inspired lots of love-hate reaction, especially in the press.

"Reading those papers, I was thinking how Ally McBeal is the new feminist character TV has invented starting with the women on 'thirtysomething.' Those characters were supposed to be 'new women,' but in episode after episode, they were shown crying, losing control, not being able to cope with the simplest things like their parents visiting. It's the male version of the new woman -- that's what it is -- and it's really problematic," Peroutka says.

The notion of McBeal's being more a male than female ideal is supported to some extent by Nielsen demographic data.

Stressing that "Ally MeBeal" has been on a "growth curve" since the end of "Monday Night Football," Jeff DeRome, vice president of corporate publicity for Fox, says the largest and most surprising percentage of that growth has come from young men.

"That growth with young men really goes against the conventional wisdom that it is all young women watching," De Rome says.

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As for its being the top show with young women, there are five series on Fox alone that have larger audiences of women 18 to 34.

The series is growing in overall audience and made the Nielsen Top 25 for the first time on Feb. 2, after spending most of 1997 well below the Top 50. "Ally McBeal" could well become a hit, but it is way too early to call it one now -- let alone a "phenomenon" as some publications have. After all, "Homicide" finished 24th among all series for the entire 1993-1994 season -- not just one week -- and no one has ever called it a ratings hit.

Workplace issues

But gender is not the only prism through which to view "Ally McBeal."

Dr. Michael Brody, a psychiatrist who writes about television and film for the Journal of Popular Culture, says he likes the series because of its depiction of the workplace. In fact, he's preparing a paper on it for the Washington Psychoanalytic Foundation, a professional organization that regularly meets to discuss the psychological aspects of popular culture, among other matters.

"In terms of work, one of the big appeals of the show is that nobody really works on the show. All people do is gossip. What a deal in her law firm. They gossip and interfere in each others' lives and have a wonderful time. That show is one big water cooler," Brody says.

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"I mean, all the people are really involved in each others' lives -- even when they go to the bathroom. That unisex bathroom is very important: It's everyone literally in everyone else's business," he adds.

Brody says it is a "backlash" against the depersonalized discourse of e-mail, voice mail and pager messages that is overtaking our culture.

"We speak to each other in depersonalized monologues on computers," he says, explaining that the highly personalized world of "Ally McBeal" might seem especially attractive to a young person who has moved to a new city to take a job in a large, impersonal company surrounded by older workers who see him or her as a threat.

But as much as Brody likes the "personalized workplace" on the series, he acknowledges "absolute problems" with it in terms of gender and class.

"Well, it's written by David Kelley, so it's going to reflect his interests, don't you think," he says.

Like McBeal, Kelley comes from the Ivy League (Princeton) and has a law degree (Boston University). In fact, the background of this former captain of the Princeton hockey team sounds like "Love Story," only instead of the love of his life dying, she turns out to be Michelle Pfeiffer and they marry. Steven Bochco brought Kelley to the magic kingdom of Hollywood from a Boston law firm when he hired Kelley as a story editor on "L.A. Law."

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As a whole, Kelley's work does consistently celebrate good looks, prestigious jobs, money, privilege and possessions, while poking fun at those who have not. The scene in the supermarket is a good example.

After insults about age and appearance are exchanged, McBeal resorts to tripping the older woman as she hurries past with her shopping cart. The scene, which is played as comedy, was so unpleasant to watch for Pier Massimo Forni, a Johns Hopkins University professor who recently launched the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, that he cited it in a recent Sun interview as a particularly egregious example of television teaching rude and hurtful behavior.

McBeal winds up at an ethics hearing before the bar as a result of what she did, but the show concludes with her not only cleared but celebrated by friends and co-workers, including a judge, for being a "passionate woman who lets her feelings show."

The woman that McBeal injured, meanwhile, was totally depersonalized by Kelley's script -- never treated as anything but a gray, lumpen figure, one of the unwashed standing outside the palace gates snarling at the beautiful people.

That's the kind of feminist solidarity "Ally McBeal" teaches.

As for her feminist priorities, "If women wanted to change society, we could do it," McBeal says in another episode. "I plan to change it. But I'd like to get married first."

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Pub Date: 2/23/98


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