WASHINGTON DIARIST MAY 6, 2002
How the mighty have fallen. Four years ago the face of Ally McBeal graced the cover of Time magazine over the headline "Is Feminism Dead?" "[F]eminism," wrote reporter Ginia Bellafante, "has devolved into the silly" with "powerful support" from "a popular culture insistent on offering images of grown single women as frazzled, self-absorbed girls." And no one embodied that support more powerfully than Ally, "the most popular female character on television." But times change. As of last week Ally's a goner—not only not the most popular female character on television but, after the twentieth of May, no longer a character on television at all.
What happened? The causes are complex. But one thing we know is that in the last season, Ally grew up. Having spent every Monday night for the last four and a half years looking for love, she finally found it—just not with any of the maladapted men she spent those years chasing. Rather, she found it with a kid. Of her own. A child—created from an egg she donated for an infertility study—now ten years old, smart, sassy, and sophisticated. What's more, Ally was made the first female partner in her law firm's history. Capping off her run of good (if decidedly implausible) fortune, Ally even found someone to stay home and take care of leaky pipes and perky child, to plan birthday parties, offer romantic advice, and pop open a bottle of wine at the end of a long day. So what if, technically, he's the handyman and she pays him to hang around? He's the perfect wife—with the face of Jon Bon Jovi to boot (literally: the '80s rocker has put aside his guitar to play TV's hunkiest Mr. Mom).
In short, what's happened to Ally this season is a feminist fairy tale about how women's lives should work. And the feminist analysis is clear: As soon as Ally got everything the movement hoped for her, she got canned. In a way, that's probably right. The problem with Ally in the end was not, I suspect, that "audiences have tired of her frazzled single woman," as the New York Times Style section suggested this Sunday. (The author of the Times obit was none other than Bellafante herself, who we know had already tired of the frazzled Ally years ago.) Rather, the people who enjoyed watching Ally cope with her hand-wringing, hair-twisting, hallucinating-about-dancing-babies doldrums were the millions of viewers who gave up on Ally when she grew up. And one reason we gave up was that the old Ally and the issues that engaged her were simply more interesting—more true to our lives—than the new, improved version.
Partly this is because the new Ally is living out a familiar and oddly dull narrative that so many working women already follow: Rush to work, fire the junior staffer to meet budget, rush home, deal
with the kid. But it's not only that the old Ally was more entertaining when she was tripping over her tortured self; she was also, strangely enough, more engaged in questions of feminist politics than the I've-got-it-together reincarnation, who makes being a single working mom look like a piece of birthday cake. Contrary to Time's suggestion, the movement had a pretty good ally when Ally was going out of her mind on a regular basis; it lost her when she reached the end of the self-fulfillment rainbow.
From the get-go, the hour-long drama made serious efforts to make the political personal. Certainly any woman in a coed office wonders whether it creates a hostile working environment when her male colleagues ogle a pretty delivery girl (two episodes during season one); and six years after Anita Hill, we were still interested in watching Elaine, the firm's secretary, try to sue her employer on those grounds. We also still worry about workaday fashion—any working girl will admit it's a neat trick to find a balance between looking attractive and drawing attention—and the flaps over Ally's postage-size mini or her roommate Renee's visible cleavage sent us back to our closets with a sharper eye. Should a woman feel guilty for discarding a man after a one-night stand (an episode entitled "The Blame Game")? Can a woman sue for sexual harassment after refusing to have sex with her boss, when all the other women in the office did—and got promotions ("The Playing Field")? How should a man feel when the woman he falls for turns out to be a man ("Homecoming")? In the explicitly feminist circles I moved in when the show premiered, we talked about these things, and things like them, and a TV show opening up the discussion—with sympathetic characters in the mix—was more than half-welcome.
But what made the early "Ally McBeal" episodes appealing wasn't just that this scrawny young woman was living out our political discussions. It's that she—and the entire make-believe firm—was living proof (OK, make-believe proof) that the personal and the professional are not necessarily divided by a Berlin Wall; indeed, they interact in messy, and sometimes helpful, ways. Ally was forced—by the power of her own overwhelming personality—to accommodate the demands and foibles and wisdoms that we mostly carry only as far as our office doors. Indeed, such flexibility helped her understand her clients, and her clients helped her understand herself. Sure, Ally's emotional life often did more than spill over—it burst the dam. And sure, the life lessons she brought to the office mainly had to do with how to handle the man of the moment and her own inner loneliness. But her struggles, however psychically distorted, did give her compassion. Had she learned those lessons from her daughter or her mother—as, say, star and Executive Producer Amy Brenneman does on another popular drama, "Judging Amy"—people would have praised her for her hard-earned wisdom instead of despising her for loving her navel.
Let's be clear: I, for one, am not looking for a boundaryless office. But arguably, unwillingness to confront the personal—more precisely, the feminine personal—is the biggest failure of the Second Wave. It's why the movement has refused to deal with the fact that even after the Revolution, many women want to marry men and bear their children. It's why there's little effort to understand office romance except through the prism of sexual harassment law. It's why day care is nowhere on the feminist (and consequently the national) agenda, and it's why the emotional and practical tolls of having no one tending the home fires has gone completely unremarked by the movement. It's why, just this month, Time ran on its cover yet another installment of the Baby vs. Career story that drove women I know to tears for reminding us of the incredible double bind. When Pat Ireland hung up her hat as head of the National Organization for Women last summer, she told The Washington Post she hadn't had children because "I decided that I couldn't do what I wanted to do with my career and have children. Maybe it's because of the way I was raised—very 1950s ... but I couldn't see how you could do all that and have kids.... And to be honest, I still don't." Makes you wish there were a feminist like Ally still hanging around.