Tube Tied: On the Legacy of Ally McBeal

Michelle Dean
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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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15 Comments Have Been Posted

what about Tina Fey or Amy

what about Tina Fey or Amy Poehler's characters as fodder for a Time Magazine cover on the (impossible) death of feminism? Parks and Recreation drops the F-bomb all the time. 30Rock and Parks and Rec are good examples of mainstream, critically acclaimed, award-winning shows that regularly deal with feminism and issues facing women today.

Yes, but would it be a cover story?

I agree with you, lady of leisure, that Amy Poehler is a great example of a television feminist. I think the difference between the media landscape now and the one that gave us <i>Ally McBeal</i>, though, is that <i>TIME</i> probably wouldn't run a cover story about television feminists today. I wish they would though!

true. looks like we need more

true. looks like we need more feminists working at Time!

Tina Fey's work on 30 Rock

Tina Fey's work on 30 Rock definitely set women back a couple decades. Her character can't solve a single emotional or personal problem without rushing to the big man upstairs (and by that I mean her boss) for guidance. Liz Lemon is the Ally McBeal of the 2000s.

Amy Poehler however is a great example of a modern day feminist. Her greatest strength is that she not only questions the opinions of people she disagrees with, but she also questions her own views as well.

Feminism & TV

What about Sex & The City, with lines like " If I could master a stick shift could a relationship be that far behind?" The four main characters are self-involved materialistic, narcissistic drama queens. It's like a popular culture train wreck, a time capsule that has been re-edited into some bizarre reflection of American cosmopolitan 90s femininity. Yikes!

nice women don't want the vote

To be a self-involved, materialistic, narcissistic drama queen is not counter-feminist.

Honestly for a woman or female fictional character to be internally motivated at all is still fairly revolutionary.

There are types of less palatable caracters that are way more feminist to cast women's roles as than nicer, more altruistic types - especially when their selfishness, ambition and avarice are rewarded instead of punished - just like in a traditional male-centred narrative.

There's plenty to criticize about the messages of S&tC, and plenty in it that a feminist critique would rightly deplore, but this in particular is an essential aspect of the program that IS feminist.

In my opinion!

Thin is the new normal

I recently watched a few episodes of Ally McBeal, for nostalgia. And the thing that stuck out to me was that those actors didn't look all that thin anymore. What I mean is, when Callista Flockart hit the screen, she was noticably thinner than most of the other women on television (even the other actors in lead roles). But now? Now women on TV are thinner than they were in the 90s and so the cast of Ally McBeal would probably look more 'normal' if the show was made today. Even Julianna Marguiles is rail-thin now compared with how she appeared in ER back in the 90s. I have no idea if we can attribute any of this ultra-thinness to the influence of Ally McBeal or not, but it struck me as interesting.

Could be your tv...

It could be a difference in your tv, not in the size of actresses. Ally McBeal was made before all the wide screen tvs, so if you are watching the old episodes on a wide screen tv or computer screen now, they are going to be stretched to fit making the actresses look wider than they actually were.

Thanks for the tip but that

Thanks for the tip but that is not what I meant.

The women of Ally McBeal still look very thin on my telly. But the women in television shows made around the same time (like early ER) do not look as thin. We know that the Ally McBeal cast were scrutinised for their tiny frames in the media at the time. The point I was making was that were the show made in 2010, their thinness may not have been viewed as so extraordinary since other television produced now commonly features extremely thin women as the norm. If you watch 90s TV for a while and then flick over to contemporary shows you may see what I mean.

Re: Thin actresses

I agree, Spilt Milk. I remember the recent controversy when the new 90210 series started, and the comparisons of the actresses to the cast of the original. Calista Flockhart looks "normal" now.

I agree with you. Actresses

I agree with you. Actresses have gotten much much skinnier. Or I should say skinnier has become the norm. I used to watch "Passions" when it was on. (laugh it up! >:( )- and was a big fan of theresa. Towards the end of the series she was ridiculously skinny, but I never noticed it. Then one day SciFi or something started playing episodes from the beginning and I noticed how plump (in comparison) she used to be. she looked like a normal person, as did the rest of the cast. Wihin the 7 or so years of this shows life the cast had become significantly thinner to the point of scary. I think the same trend is true for alot of other shows too.

Even with leading ladies in movies- I remember a time where curves were "sexy" and the "ideal woman" had huge breasts and hips, full faces and lips. Now it seems the "ideal girl" is basically a skeleton who looks like she might be prepubescent. Neither extreme is fair....I think women should be represented in all sizes, and ideally not as eye-candy- but the point is that skinny (dangerously skinny) is very much in and the norm has gotten tinier and tinier....

Feminism in Prime Time

What about Lynette Scavo, Felicity Huffman's character on Desperate Housewives as "contemporary" woman? The characters on that show might make for better intra-feminist debate than Sex and the City or anything else that's on prime time (at least that I watch!)

While I agree that Ally

While I agree that <i>Ally McBeal</i> was not a feminist show, I also do not think it was anti-feminist. David Kelley is quoted in the Time article you linked as saying "[Ally]'s not a hard, strident feminist out of the '60s and '70s. She's all for women's rights, but she doesn't want to lead the charge at her own emotional expense." No, she wasn't an outspoken, groundbreakingly feminist character, but she was never meant to be such. Perhaps the show's popularity among women was not due to them looking for a feminist role model, but instead because of the show's quirky humor. Or maybe they liked seeing someone who was worse off than themselves. I can only guess.

To be honest, I found Bellafante's article to be a bit all over the place. She starts out with Courtney Love and then continues to name drop more more women than I can count on my little feminist fingers, either extolling or denouncing them. If anything in the article pointed to a directly anti-feminist mindset, it was Nancy Friday's quip that Ally McBeal was "like a little animal" who you would "want to put her on a leash." Because dehumanizing other women is so progressive. Friday, by the way, was on Bellafante's "extolled" list.

One question for you directly is, how does <i>Ally McBeal</i> encourage eating disorders? It's true that this may have been (probably was) the case 10 years ago, when the show was on, but now that the actresses have admitted that they did have problems, isn't that a good thing? Isn't that saying to former fans and any potential new fans that hey, look at us, we weren't healthy back then? If anything, I think the narrative, as you put it, is one of recovery.

Sadly, this has made me want

Sadly, this has made me want to go and watch Ally McBeal again :/


I fail to see how a show that sent more than half of the actresses in it into a cycle of eating disorders and caused many women watching the show to try to achieve a completely unhealthy and unrealistic body image as being a sign of feminism...

If anything Ally set women backl

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