Girl Lawyers and Boy Lawyers
by John Denvir, USF Law School (November 1997)
The new television season throws up two more "lawyer" series: Ally McBeal and Michael Hayes And while both series featured talented actors in well-written scripts, they also incorporate the most stereotypical treatment of gender.
Ally McBeal revolves around the trials (mostly personal) of a recent female law school graduate of Harvard Law School who practices with a "boutique" Boston law firm. Ally is (of course) talented as well as beautiful, but somehow unlucky with men. She really shares more with Mary Tyler Moore than the Katherine Hepburn of Adams Rib.
And while law is no more central to Ally McBeal than local television news was to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, its images of law are both powerful and negative. Ally seems to resigned to the fact that she has entered a profession dedicated to greed, and seems comfortable arguing cases she doesnt believe in. In fact, at one points she opines "Im always more persuasive when I dont believe what Im saying." To be fair, her lack of idealism about law may stem from the greed and sexism she finds pervasive in the profession. Her partners are only interested in money, and often she feels her role as associate is more decorative than professional. As she puts it after an evening of smiling at potential clients, "three years of law school and what matters most is my teeth."
Law plays a small role in Ally McBeal. It is clearly not a "law" show (like Law and Order), but a "relationship" show in the Friends vein. Most of the plots appear to revolve around Allys quest for an appropriate mate. This, I guess, should not surprise us since it is conventional wisdom that women are "relation-oriented." However, in focussing on the "personal" rather than the "professional", the shows producers are knowingly perpetuating a gender stereotype and trivializing Allys status as serious professional. I dont think shes "partner" material.
If Ally McBeal sees law as a context in which to search for love, Michael Hayes sees it as an avenue to justice-- or at least revenge. Michael Hayes (played by former NYPD BLUE star David Caruso) is a working class kid who worked as a police officer while he attended night law school at St. Johns and now is Acting U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York. He sees the world as the a manichean struggle of good and evil (need I add that hes an Irish Catholic), and he views the legal process as the bludgeon with which to set things matters right. The first show shows him avenging the death of a young girl murdered by a mob boss; the second shows him starting a trial in which he will avenge the bombing of his boss, the suicide of a good friend, and the maiming of his girl friend. Life and law for Michael are one long grudge match.
This too is another gender stereotype: the lone ranger who brings justice to the corrupt town. Caruso draws heavily on his NYPD Blue character, but also is in a direct line of descent from Alan Ladds Shane and Clint Eastwoods Dirty Harry. So there we have it. "Girl " lawyers play "house" while the boy lawyers play "cowboys and Indians." Will it ever end?