The Secret Story of Ally McBeal

And you thought the unisex bathrooms were supposed to be funny?

In reference to the vast right-wing conspiracy, I am pleased to report that I have discovered its nexus: Ally McBeal.

The television industry is surely controlled by the extreme right. How else to explain two trends in televised entertainment: the raft of police shows that revel in the denial of Miranda rights to minority suspects and the equally impressive number of sitcoms in which the female characters are portrayed as man-starved, clothes-obsessed, dimwit weaklings? The hand of Gary Bauer is apparent.

Ally McBeal, the Fox show that the official publications of the entertainment-industrial complex tell us we either “love or hate” and which stands at the center of the conspiracy, is being treated by the commentariat as an important cultural artifact, even though its portrayal of yuppie self-absorption is dreadfully unoriginal. Ally McBeal is less interesting as a cultural phenomenon than as a political one.

As soon as I watched my first episode, I realized that Ally McBeal was nothing more than a stalking-horse for the federal commission that recently recommended the segregation by sex of soldiers in basic training. The commission based this recommendation on the recent scientific discovery that men and women are different and that hormones sometimes divert a soldier’s attention from the training tasks at hand. The recommendation was controversial, however, in the camp of progressive thinkers who believe that sex differences should not matter in the workplace and that the Army is just another workplace.

Week in and week out, Ally McBeal rebuts that viewpoint. The show is situated in a locale far less intense than the Aberdeen Proving Ground–the offices of a Boston law firm that takes only piddling cases–and yet the men and women who work there are incapable of focusing on the law as long as there are breasts to be assessed and crotch lumps to be analyzed. It is the best advertisement in the popular culture today for the complete and permanent separation of the sexes in any sphere of endeavor in which actual work is supposed to get done.

I do not necessarily believe that Ally McBeal is funded by the Family Research Council or by a cabal of retired generals. But its producers certainly provide ammunition to those cultural conservatives who believe not only that women and men are incapable of working together but, more important, that women are in the workplace only to find a man who will impregnate them.

I discovered the right’s affinity for Ally McBeal during a recent flight from Jacksonville, Fla. to Washington, D.C. I was seated next to a woman who wore a shirt that read “Women of Faith.” She was reading a book that was entitled either God on a Harley or God Is My Harley. It was dark, and I didn’t get a good look.

I did ask her to identify the Women of Faith. It turns out to be a sort of women’s auxiliary for the Promise Keepers. I am one of those people who find the Promise Keepers almost entirely benign, if not a bit pathetic. So I expressed my sympathy for her cause, and she opened up like a great big fundamentalist flower.

We spoke of the things one would expect to speak about with a woman reading God Is My Harley: family, faith, and child-raising (the child I am raising was seated on my lap–a great icebreaker with evangelicals, by the way).

She noted that the country is returning to pro-family ideals and that popular entertainment is reflecting this shift. I was intrigued and probed deeper. She pointed to Ally McBeal as proof of her thesis.

Ally McBeal just wants a family,” she said, referring to the line Ally delivers about wanting to change the world but wanting to get married first. “She’s not happy working, and why should she be? She wants what all women want–a man and a family.”

Isn’t Ally McBeal a bit too risqué for people of your religious persuasion? I asked. This is a show that cannot go for five minutes without mention of the word “penis.” And it is, notoriously, a show that features that bogeyman of the anti-Equal Rights Amendment right, the unisex bathroom.

“That’s the point,” she said. “That bathroom is put there on purpose, to show how crazy it all is to mix men and women like that.”

Ally McBeal’s bathroom is a far-right plant?

Iwanted to check this, so shortly after my return to Washington, I dialed up my friend Phyllis Schlafly. Like many on her side of the divide, she refuses to admit that she watches television and feigned poor knowledge of the Ally McBeal phenomenon. I sang a few bars of the show’s annoying theme song to jog her memory.

“What we’re seeing now in popular culture is the realization that the feminist movement is based on a rejection of human nature,” Phyllis told me. “It’s as if they’re saying, ‘God goofed by making men and women different, and we’re going to change that with unisex bathrooms.’ It’s like anatomical differences don’t matter.”

So behind the success of Ally McBeal are women viewers who recognize a biological reality that feminists don’t? I asked.

“Most girls want to get married and have babies,” she said. “There are a few girls who don’t. But most do. Ally McBeal is touching a real situation. Do you remember that stupid movie Kramer vs. Kramer?”

Yes, I said.

“How could you have a dumber plot than that? But it touched on something. It said that there was nothing wrong with that marriage except for women’s lib. She just got to thinking that she wasn’t fulfilled or fully recognized so she just walked out. And then she gets an affirmative action job and then she wants her kid back. It was such a dreary plot, but it must have touched people somehow.”

A>lly McBeal touches women, she suggests, because “girls” (her word) in their 20s and 30s have watched the first generation of feminists become barren for political purposes.

“What I ask the feminists is: Was the ideology worth the empty womb?” she said. “The girls who followed the feminist line, they’re about 40 now and time has passed them by, and they’re very bitter about it. The feminist movement told them it was better to pass up homemaking and babies and go whole hog for the career.”

Hollywood writers, she says, “are smart. They know that Ally McBeal is touching a real situation. But it’s not as if right-wing extremists are writing the scripts.”

I, for one, am dubious. It’s only a matter of time, I assure you, before Gary Bauer is writing for South Park.