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Ally McBeal was ahead of its time in depicting women's inner fantasy life
"I like being a mess. It's who I am."
When most think of Ally McBeal, they think of skirts and dancing babies. That's fair. Those are the elements the zeitgeist most ran with. They're the same elements that made so many people — from dismissive male critics to the most ardent feminists — view the show as damaging drivel featuring the most heinous villain in all entertainment: the at-times unlikable and selfish woman.
The language used to discuss just how much they detested this character was violent and over the top to the point of parody. Glenda Cooper wrote this in the Independent: "I can't help it. I just hate Ally McBeal with a pure vengeance. Not the series — I have great affection for Richard Fish, Renee, Elaine et al. I would just find it perfect if they could take the eponymous heroine out of it. A sort of Not Ally McBeal. Or Ally McBeal Without That Irritating Woman ... Show me a shot of Calista Flockhart with that cute little scarf round her neck and I get a Pavlovian reaction. I feel my blood pressure rising and an involuntary snarling at the back of my throat. I want Dancing Baby to stop grooving and squash her." Even a mostly glowing piece from the New York Times was headlined "You Want to Slap Ally McBeal, But Do You Like Her?"
Much of this negative coverage was under the auspices of feminist theory. Entire academic papers were written about the character's potential negative impact. And famously, Time magazine featured this cover:
Ally McBeal: wearer of skirts, haver of sex, killer of feminism. Daenerys Targaryen only wishes her titles could be so powerful.
But beyond what the late-'90s media portrayed the show to be, or, more accurately, the character (the rest of the show was apparently fine, smacking of "I'd watch a show about/see a movie about/vote for a woman, just not that woman"), Ally McBeal itself — and Ally herself —was something much different. Both more and less powerful than the covers would have one think. Ally McBeal couldn't destroy an entire social movement. She could barely pull together her life and career, existing in a constant state of frazzle and insecurity, and clinging to the comfort of an inner fantasy world that helped make the real one make a bit more sense. That's why they hated her and that's why I loved her.
"I like being a mess. It's who I am." That line I opened the piece with is what I think of when I think of Ally McBeal. Today, the entertainment world is filled with neurotic women attempting to navigate love and career and society's expectations. I love them all, too, even the ones that same media that saw Ally as some harbinger of Gilead would later write off as "quirkalicious" or "manic pixie dream girls." Like Ally McBeal, these characters all suffer from the same impediment: being women wrong.
Ironically, the public perception and backlash to Ally McBeal was reminiscent of the way female insecurity and anxiety manifests. That we're failing, that we're too much or not enough, that we're causing problems, that we are problems.
Is it any wonder then why Ally repeatedly turns to her fantasies?
Enter the Dancing Baby, the arrows to the heart, and the revenge fantasies against bad men and telemarketers with poor timing alike.
Using the narrative device of fantasy, something used quite commonly onscreen today, we see Ally's inner fantasies as visual components of the show, and we better understand her and the way her mind works, the way she sees the world. Like so many of us, Ally wants love, wants sex, wants connection, and when those things are difficult she looks inward. Imagination became a respite from her unhappy home life as a child and she turns to it again and again in adulthood.
She's a mess. It's who she is. And the world she creates may be messy, but it's hers. As her best friend and colleague John Cage (Peter MacNicol) says, "At some unconscious level, I think you know that the only world that ultimately won't end up disappointing you is the one you make up."
Maybe that's true of all of us. The real world can be disappointing. Society demands so much, our careers and emotions demand more, and sometimes entire magazines blame you for the downfall of women as a gender. Ally McBeal took all of the things that make existing as a woman hard and gave us a heroine who felt and experienced every bit of it. And yes she was selfish and flighty and wore short skirts. She was a mess. So are a lot of us. Messy, and insecure, and hyperfocused at times on the things that will ultimately hurt us or do us no good. But she was also smart, funny, a true romantic, and a character who deserved better than what she was given.
In another episode, John told Ally, "The world is no longer a romantic place. Some of its people still are, however, and therein lies the promise. Don't let the world win, Ally McBeal."
Here's to not letting the world win, to embracing fantasy, and to remembering Ally McBeal as more than her clothing.