Tube Tied: On the Legacy of Ally McBeal
As you've probably heard by now, the actress Portia de Rossi gave an interview on Oprah this week about the eating disorder she struggled with in her twenties. One of the exacerbating factors in her illness, she says, was her role on Ally McBeal.
(In case any of you are too young to know the reference [OH GOD AM I THIS OLD], Ally McBeal was a mid-nineties David E. Kelley show, starring Calista Flockhart as the eponymous young lawyer. Like all David E. Kelley shows I am aware of, it started out playing its narrative straight, an excellent if ordinary show about a young lawyer and an imaginary dancing baby. But within about three seasons it degenerated into Kelley's particular brand of "quirk," which made it frequently incomprehensible. I'm sure it's Netflixable.)
I've been reading the coverage of de Rossi's interview this week feeling it all as a bit of a blast from the past. It's long been an accepted cultural narrative that the Ally McBeal set was plagued by a certain competitiveness among the actresses about their weight. Though she denied it for a long time, the show's star, Calista Flockhart, was long suspected to have an eating disorder before her 2006 admission of the same. Courtney Thorne-Smith and de Rossi have also publicly talked about becoming ill during the course of the series run. Personally, I always found claims about the larger "body image" effects of the show—beyond the effects on the actresses themselves—unconvincing. I of course would never deny that every time we build up thinness in this culture, no matter how small the gesture, it has some effect. But the deification of extreme thinness predated the show, and indeed, continues to be a major cultural force long after people have forgotten the show.
What I've been thinking about instead is the alleged crucible the show was for a certain critique of feminism. Ally McBeal has now fallen so far off the cultural radar that it's almost hard to believe that it had the kind of vast influence it was thought to at the time. Remember when TIME did that cover, asking if the show's popularity heralded the "death of feminism"? In the accompanying article, entitled "Feminism: It's All About Me!" the critic Ginia Bellafante charged that McBeal was "ditsy" and "in charge of nothing, least of all her emotional life," and thus made for a terrible feminist role model. Critics pointed out that this was "just a television show," but Bellafante's argument was that, at least if one measured the relatability of the show by its popularity, Ally nonetheless seemed to speak to a certain sensibility among young, educated women in urban settings. These are echoes of the same lines one hears so often in feminist infighting: young women take their privileges for granted, have mistakenly reinterpreted them to apply to their sex lives alone, and are too uninterested in political action. Some of these charges are more fair than others. But it does seem to more or less prove Bellafante's argument that twelve years on, the main legacy of the show is a narrative about its encouragement of body insecurity and eating disorders.
More than that, it strikes me as funny that now, twelve years after that article was published, I have a hard time imagining any television character providing the same kind of fodder for intra-feminist debate, let alone one big enough for the actual cover of TIME. I can't even think of a character on network television who purports to be some kind of embodiment of the "contemporary woman" (for lack of a better phrase). (Julianna Margulies' Good Wife might come close, but I don't watch that show.) It seems we've refocused our sights on real political figures—now media narratives about feminist infighting mostly revolve around the question of whether Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell can properly be called "feminists"—and for those of you who are skeptics about the political power of popular culture that might even be, in your view, a positive development. The obvious explanation for that is the shrinking cultural power of television in the age of the Internet. But it might also be that as women are, finally, emerging in the public sphere as viable participants in so-called "hard politics," some heat will necessarily be taken off the depiction of women elsewhere. We have "real" role models now to analyze and criticize.
Maybe that's what progress looks like. Now if only those role models could be progressive women...
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