Ally McBeal: Between Success and Despair
by M. A. Muqtedar Khan (source: GlocalEye, read about the author here)
Ally McBeal has captured the fascination of millions of Americans. The recent Emmy has not only confirmed the success of the show but has added to its appeal. The success of the show and the "connection" that Ally is able to make with American audiences is both enigmatic as well as revealing.
On a show, which is a cross between a soap opera and a sitcom, she presents a complex picture of the modern, liberated, Western woman. What is not clear to me is if Ally is a critique or a model of the emerging notions of "womanhood" in the era of feminism.
Ally is a feminist’s dream come true. She walks tall in a Man’s world. She goes to an elite law school (dumps her childhood boyfriend for a higher ranked and prestigious college), works for an exciting yet controversial and high profile law firm packed with successful and beautiful young people. Everything is hunky dory except for the fact, that there is no man in Ally’s life. The show takes her success for granted and focusses more on the despair that constantly prevents Ally from enjoying her success.
While understandably the situations conjured in the show are designed to generate mirth, they end up highlighting the extent of Ally’s alienation and frustration at her numerous failures to find a man who would love her for who she is. Ally is often so desperate that she will stop at nothing to find or get a man. Curiously Ally often approaches her problem as a man would (I mean in the days when there was difference between what a man was and what a woman was). The rumor that a nude model at an art school is extraordinarily endowed prompts her to join the class to ogle and eventually sleep with him. She even hires escorts to help in an elaborate schema to snare a doctor.
The show has spawned many articles and T.V. shows which have analyzed the reasons behind its success. The general consensus seems to be that Ally’s existential dilemmas and social plight has resonated very strongly with a large constituency of American women whose life she mirrors. I find it terrifying that there are millions of Ally’s out there. The jokes apart, Ally is unpredictable. She is a powerful, intelligent, successful but highly alienated and frustrated being prone to quixotic peccadilloes very time she is overcome by despair. Indeed the singular theme of her life is the triumph of despair over success.
Why is Ally McBeal so miserable? She has everything any person would want. A prestigious degree, a great job and a sexy roommate! Is her life a critique of the direction in which contemporary feminists are shaping womanhood? Is her story an empirical proof that there is indeed such a thing as "womanhood"? The show raises more questions than it answers. Wonder if it will ask the big one. Will Ally give up her successful career for a happy life with the man of her dreams? Perhaps her career and her politics have no room for a man who might make such a demand, even if her heart dares to fall for such a man.
Call me old fashioned if you like, but I think the feminist project to bridge the gap between Man and Woman is actually resulting more in women aping men than transforming the relationship between them. Increasingly success for women is becoming more like a man or having what men have. While they are successful in emulating successful men, it may not necessarily lead to happiness. The current notions of "success" are also defined by men as was the pre-feminism conception of womanhood. If women are going to advance an alternate conception of what it means to be a woman, shouldn’t it also include a definition of what it means to be a successful woman? I think Ally’s life is a good pointer to the fact that success inextricably entwined with despair may not be a great lifestyle. Is Ally’s life, so full of promise and so full of opportunities, so sadly drowned in despair, a victim of this lacuna in the feminist agenda? I think its time we began to ask, not how women can have what men have? but rather what can make, both men and women, happy?