Ally McBeal

Natasha Forrest explains what really annoys her about Ally McBeal...

, 16 December 2001

Every time I watch an episode of Ally McBeal I get the impression that the producer, David Kelley, is involved in some conspiracy against women, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my views about why I think it’s one of the most sexist programmes on television. While a lot of TV programmes are sexist in order to increase ratings or simply due to lack of originality, Ally McBeal is knowingly and deliberately sexist. What is worse, it is always being celebrated as feminist. It may be about a bunch of female lawyers who deal with feminist issues in almost every episode, but the unspoken conclusions at the end of each one are certainly far from feminist. Although many women seem to identify with the female characters and wonder at the fact that a man can ‘write women so well’, it seems to me that Ally, Ling and Nelle act a lot like men.

In each episode, Ally and friends take on a case which deals with some sort of issue relating to feminism.

In each episode, Ally and friends take on a case which deals with some sort of issue relating to feminism, battle it out in court, get it confused with their personal lives, and eventually decide that the feminist argument is just not realistic in today’s world. In one episode, a slightly overweight woman sues her boss for firing her because of her appearance. Initially Ally doesn’t want to represent the boss, but when she discovers that she herself was hired for ‘being a babe’, rather than for her Harvard qualifications, her initial horror turns to acceptance and she argues in court that companies have the right to take care of their image. The overweight woman loses her case and everyone heaves a sad sign and accepts that the world is a superficial place, even for the thin pretty ones like Ally. This pattern repeats itself unfailingly, week after week.

Another cunning way Kelley tricks us into thinking we’re watching a feminist programme is by reversing the traditional gender roles in an attempt to show that women are just as sexist as men, therefore we’re all OK. Most of the male lawyers are weak, effeminate and totally under the thumbs of their female colleagues and girlfriends, while the women are generally strong, ruthless and sexually aggressive. The cases they handle in court deal with situations such as an older woman being sued for sleeping with an underage boy, and a woman suing her internet lover for neglecting to tell her he was three feet tall before marrying her. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s always the secretary, Elaine, sexually harassing every man in sight, just to remind us that we’re as bad as them really. Just because there are a few cases where the power is reversed, Kelley would have us believe that the effects of centuries of living in a male dominated society can suddenly be ruled irrelevant and gender inequality is no longer an issue.

The thing which really gets to me is the way the female characters lust after men

However the thing which really gets to me is the way the female characters lust after men, constantly obsessing over the manly chest of a stranger in the street or fantasising about a new client’s muscles. Maybe I’m missing something here but this doesn’t seem to be how most women operate. Of course women like attractive men and discuss them with friends, but in my experience they don’t fetishise and detach the bodies from the person in the same way that men do. I’m not saying women are better, nor am I saying men who discuss women in this way are necessarily sexist; all I’m saying is that women are different and in ignoring this difference Kelley makes it clear that he completely misunderstands women and feminism.

Why, then, do so many women love the programme and seem to relate to the female characters? This may sound paranoid but I would argue that real women often tend to imitate the media’s portrayal of women in programmes like Ally McBeal, making it increasingly difficult to judge to what extent fictional television characters are realistic. This is perfectly understandable as it’s very tempting to buy into the media’s quick fix solution to the problems of the patriarchy and believe sexism can be countered so easily by acting like the opposite sex, but I always thought the goal of feminism was to get the world to appreciate women for themselves, rather than to praisethem for doing good man impressions. By ignoring the differences between male and female sexuality, programmes like Ally McBeal are making it increasingly difficult to discuss the causes and effects of these differences and try to reconcile them with feminism.

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