Elisabeth Friedman is an assistant professor of comparative politics at Barnard College, in New York City.
"Is Ally our ally?"
By Elisabeth J. Friedman
As a long time fan of Picturing Justice, I knew I had to check out the latest musings on Ally McBeal after finally catching an episode a couple of weeks ago following a summer hiatus. I was interested to see that the debate rages on over what we consider Ally to be: a model for a new approach to legal life or an old spin on the dumbing down of womens achievements? Is Ally another member of the same old kick-line, or a dancer to her own inner music? Obviously, wherever the Truth lies (and I suspect, as usual, its somewhere in the middle), her character and the series built around it challenges us to think about how we perceive current changes, particularly around gender dynamics but also more broadly, in the legal profession.
Not that, as a non-lawyer, Im feel that qualified to comment, but here's my take, for what its worth. In the episode I saw, Allys ex-boyfriend and fellow lawyer ruminates in his closing argument defending a boss who was sued by an employee for instituting a bathing-suit friendly beach day at his workplace: "arent we all taking this a little too seriously?" Maybe this sitcom is not meant to mirror real life exactly -- so perhaps we should cut Ally some slack on her miniskirts and obsessive navel gazing. And maybe we should put aside our objections to members of a law firm who spend many a billable hour bumping into each other, and falling into toilets, in the coed bathroom -- when they arent out bumping and grinding in the local bar. And maybe we should just enjoy a show that manages to combine equal parts (?) law and love, or is that sex, in such a way that keeps us coming back for more, whatever our moral, legal, or sartorial objections.
I could stop at this: its a comedy, so why don't we laugh at it, instead of trying to pull it apart? It obviously doesn't take itself too seriously, so why do it the favor?
But a while ago someone asked me if I, as an academic who specializes in gender and politics, could comment on how feminist I found the show. And thats where the sitcom seems not so funny anymore. Im just as happy as the next person to watch a show that manages to lighten up some of the more serious issues professional women and men face in todays confusing world of personal and workplace transformations. This one is certainly silly and downright irreverent. But as is made clear by this web column, and the amount of play the show has gotten in the media (let alone around the water cooler), not all of the issues that surface are all that funny.
And thats where Ally starts skating around on thin ice. The problem is that when you start exploring issues such as sexual harassment, rape, and discrimination, you come upon things that are no laughing matter. But time after time, Ally & Co. dance around the more fundamental societal problems underpinning such issues: the entrenched and unequal relationships of power between men and women, as well as among people of different races.
In Ally's world, we dont have to worry about the male hierarchy in the firm, or whether the women will be taken seriously because of their clothing, or whether there are sanctions or fallout from intimate relationships between co-workers (or partners and associates). Why not? Because instead we get to follow the adventures of the kooky boss, the loveable nerd, the spunky secretary, the neurotic girl-lawyer, the fire-breathing dragon lady, and the comforting girlfriend. As long as were only dealing with individual characters, and not the social relations and structures they live in and form part of, we can laugh at their foibles and flirtations and not grapple with the tough stuff: the threats to withhold pay or jobs for sex or submission, the passing over of qualified candidates for promotions on the basis of racial or gender stereotyping, the subtle or not-so-subtle ways discrimination can make your life miserable. Those pressing problems still exist, and deserve some more realistic, compelling, and yes, even possibly amusing TV attention. Just dont expect to get it from Ally.
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