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Picture this: You enroll in Harvard Law School with the love of your life. You
and your beau spend a dreamy semester lolling about in the grassy quads, envisioning a future of co-counsel bliss. But then he doesn’t make Law Review(!). Torn between his career and his big-eyed girlfriend, he chooses his career. He transfers to Michigan, leaving you all alone to somehow make your way. Years later, you join a firm run by beautiful yups who win all their cases and find out…he’s your colleague. And
What woman can’t relate to this scenario?
Well, none, actually. But never mind that, because the ones who say they can are preparing for another season of gushing bliss over Ally McBeal, which got an incredible 10 Emmy nominations and is Entertainment Weekly’s favorite for outstanding actress in a comedy series. During the show’s first season, the legions of fans held weekly Ally parties and taped the hilariously bad Songs From Ally McBeal CD for their friends. (A sample from Vonda Shepard’s “Will You Marry Me?”: “I guess you sunk in/Oh yeah you made it in/Now I’m fumbling somewhere deep within/Will I raise my glass/Or will you kick my ass?…I know love is pain/I know your life’s insane/I want you anyway/I’ll probably complain.” Sales to date: 950,000.)
Legions of McBeal fans have marched into Georgetown salons and requested the “Ally” cut, which is a soccer-mom version of the Jennifer Aniston layer cake. They’re crafting new Ally Web sites followed by Web sites ranking other Ally Web sites. Followed by Vonda Shepard discussion sites followed by unofficial home pages about some creepy dancing baby. Stand back: Clueless white girls have found a hero.
Ask them, for God’s sake, why? And they’ll tell you without a flash of self-awareness that it’s because Ally is Everywoman. Just like me, they’ll say, Ally is a study in contradictions. She wears tiny little skirts, but still commands big-girl respect. She has a sturdy moral spine, but is ready to bend over when her boss demands. She knows what she wants, but at any given moment is paralyzed by self-doubt. She cares about her career, but has to fight to find focus through all the bathroom romances and biological-clock apparitions. Just like me!
A sampling from the Inside the Mind of Ally McBeal Web site. (Hits to date: 102,367): What is it about her that makes people stop and notice? Perhaps it’s her girlish voice, her complex insecurities, her quirky yet realistic thoughts, her simple nature….In any case, Ally McBeal is a reflection of human essence. Intelligent yet underestimated at times, funny yet lacking a sense of being, dark yet focused, insecure yet hopeful.
That’s why Ally is a role model. She stammers and blushes and makes bad decisions. And just like me, she gets pilloried for her honesty. Because she values her own opinions, she’s accused of being self-absorbed. When she takes time out for self-reflection, she gets called neurotic and flighty. Just because she’s thin, she’s labeled a waif. That’s what you get for being an ambitious woman of the ’90s who owns up to her feminine vulnerabilities.
You also get a Golden Globe award for best actress in a TV comedy, your face on a Time magazine cover story about feminism, and a chorus of superlatives: In March, the Washington Post’s TV column called Ally McBeal “a defining image of prosperous, pre-millennial America.” US magazine called Ally a “mold breaker.” Fox pitches the show as “unique” and “innovative.” After People magazine labeled Calista Flockhart one of its “50 Most Beautiful People” of 1998, it described Ally as a Gen-X revolutionary: “Outwardly secure in miniskirts, postfeminist Ally also can blurt out such pronouncements as ‘I want to change the world. I just want to get married first.’” The show’s Emmy nominations include outstanding comedy, outstanding actress, and outstanding writing.
But before Ally fires up another pioneering season, let us pause. Something tells me we haven’t come such a long way after all, baby.
Recently, I got a familiar, nauseated feeling while watching Desk Set, a 1957 “Classic Screwball Comedy!” produced by 20th Century Fox. Only I’d never seen it before. I had, however, seen Ally McBeal.
In the 1950s version, Katharine Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, head of research at a major TV network. The research department is “staffed with a bevy of beauties,” as the video jacket states with undeniable accuracy. And Hepburn is the leader of them all, swirling about in a frenzy of competence and bimbosity. One second she’s quoting Longfellow, and the next she’s tearing her office apart looking for a lipstick. When they’re not being brilliant, she and her girls wonder aloud how they’ll ever meet the perfect man. And then they go get coffee.
Enter Spencer Tracy, a management expert brought in to assess the department’s efficiency and ease the arrival of the office’s first computer. Next to Hepburn, he’s an icon of masculinity all business and bottom line, a champion of the cold and cost-effective computer revolution. Under Tracy’s constant watch, Hepburn plays it glib and cool. (“Is this an interview? I mean, I would have had my hair done or something,” she says, with that hearty Hepburn laugh.) But watch out! When Bunny’s pushed too far, she can be quite a tart. Her face gets pleasantly flushed, and she twirls around in those lovely skirts. She vows revenge. She holds her head up. She participates in tiny acts of disobedience.
But underneath all the knowledge and confidence, she’s just a giggly, insecure schoolgirl hoping to get hitched. She’s just a girl named Bunny.
Sounds familiar. Then and now, men like Bunny/Ally because she’s cute and vulnerable, too. Nothing radical about that. Women like her because she makes them feel grounded by comparison. But most of all, she gives them a comforting script, hypocritical as it is, for how to be a woman and a girl at the same time. For how to subscribe to Glamour and BusinessWeek with a minimum of pesky cognitive dissonance.
So cut the cries of revolution. Ally McBeal is not so novel. In fact, aside from the obvious talent disparity, the only difference between Ally and Bunny is that Ally is just a mousy little girl with no excuse for her bad behavior. Bunny, after all, had yet to hear of “the problem that has no name.” Ally’s got a JD from Harvard.