TVs lawyer-gal too neurotic to be an icon

(U-WIRE) CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — “You love her, you love her not,” reads last week’s cover of Entertainment Weekly. Above the caption is a photograph of Calista Flockhart plucking a petal from an enlarged flower. Flockhart stars in the new series, “Ally McBeal,” that recently won Golden Globe awards for Best Comedy Series and Best Actress in a Comedy Series, and which continues to grow in popularity despite the pointed criticism of viewers. If you don’t watch it you needn’t look far for someone who does. And if you’re not familiar with the disapproval it has provoked, you needn’t look far for that, either. One can hardly tell if lines like “I want to change the world, I just want to get married first,” have contributed more to her fame or infamy.
Some magazines articulate the arguments against Ally in lengthy lists. The Feb.’98 issue of Self magazine published one such list entitled “Seven reasons you can tell Ally McBeal is written by a man.” They essentially break down into three points of criticism. The show portrays an intelligent, successful career woman, obsessed with marriage and hopelessly neurotic. She wears a business suit version of Spice Girl attire. The show portrays her as a model of the new 90’s woman: smart, sexy and incurably discontent.
But television has always depicted women unrealistically. Popular series, in fact, have a long history of basing their characters on cultural ideals rather than cultural norms, whether that ideal is the angelic housewife of “The Donna Reed Show” or the “do it all” career mom of “The Cosby Show.” Ally McBeal, however, is uniquely disturbing because she does not seem to embody any ideal at all. Marketed as a 90s woman, she is unable to find sanity or fulfillment in her career, yet recognizes the impossibility of retreating into an antiquated Donna Reed existence. She is a miserable protagonist who wins viewers’ sympathy in lieu of admiration.
This brand of doomed heroine is in many ways more insidious than the most implausible of television role models; housewife or career woman. It portrays the 90s woman as someone powerless to choose the lifestyle she desires, be it motherhood or career. She is — according to the show — someone abandoned in the aftermath of women’s lib, whose personal misfortunes can be laughed at but never solved.
“Ally McBeal” is not the product of a sexist conspiracy — but this doesn’t mean it is devoid of social implications. There is an ongoing date between critics and fans regarding the reality of Ally. Critics insist she is a figment of the male imagination while fans believe she is a realistic account of today’s working woman. Neither prospect is very comforting. Most would be disturbed to discover that television producers are intent on marketing their own distorted concept of femininity. But is it any less disturbing to discover that Ally McBeal is, in fact, what viewers crave; that her frustration and fatalism is something that most young women can relate to? Both possibilities demand serious attention.
Of course, there are some who would disagree — individuals distinct from those who condemn or defend the program. These individuals question the relevance of such a debate, proclaiming that it is, after all, only television. Their proposal to “put things in perspective” is not devoid of merit. Although in a society where people use catch phrases from “Seinfeld” in their daily conversations, and the cattle industry sues Oprah Winfrey because thousands of consumers stop eating beef after watching her show, this may not be the perspective we need.

Kimberly Brooks’ column originally appeared in the Feb. 20 edition of the University of Virginia’s The Cavalier.