During my formative years (the ones that involved GCSEs, A-levels and discovering pretty boys don’t fancy people like me) I watched Ally McBeal. Uh oh, formative you say? This was never going to end well.
Fortunately at a young age I realised Ally was a vain, neurotic reflection of what professional women hoped they weren’t. Ten years on, I finally watched the two series I missed while on my GAP year.
It’s embarrassing how sheltered these supposedly ‘kooky’ characters were: uncomfortable dating a man living as a woman, unable to imagine a marriage without children, alienating a character that doesn’t enjoy sex. Ten years on, these are ideas that have permeated the mainstream, sure they’re not accepted universally but these are choices that intelligent, consenting adults make. How far we have come in less than 10 years.
Meanwhile, Ally turned from a confusing woman who seemed strangely skinny into one of my peers (at 38 Calista Flockhart was playing 32 with disconcerting ease). And the decisions she made did not sit well with the 21st century. Not least her lack of mobile phone.
A few years ago Lori Gottlieb wrote a brilliant article exploring whether she should have settled (‘Marry Him!‘) because a decade down the line being picky becomes a handicap rather than the romantic venture it feels when you’re young and your breasts are still perky. Ally McBeal as a character is not only childlike in her physique, she’s childlike in her perception of what makes a relationship (a plumber and a lawyer? yuck). As someone watching the series in the early days of 2012, it makes for uncomfortable viewing.
I won’t excuse my affection for the series: it has endearing and eccentric characters that make you feel less weird in the grand scheme of people around you. John Cage and Elaine Vassel can survive the 21st century, perhaps Nell too with her asexuality (and great hair) but Richard Fish, who wants money but appears not to earn it through skill, Renee who sexualises herself and everyone around her, and Ally. These stereotypes no longer recognisable have no place in a century that seeks value in the workplace, fears sexual harrassment on any corner and demands a sincerity from its women that Ally simply can’t attain. These stereotypes are so 1990s.
It makes me proud to part of the new century.