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February 2023
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Gender bias and Ally McBeal

This might be a long post.

I’m watching the TV show Ally McBeal because it is one of Linda’s favorite shows. While watching it, I kept remarking on how much I love the character Nelle and disliked any male character that acts like an asshole. This started to trouble me (I had to take a moment), when I realized that some of the exact same behavior that I denounced in the male characters, I would applaud or forgive when it came to Nelle or Ling. My father has said that I was raised in a family that abused men by basically putting them below women. That criticism has always stuck with me despite my dismissing it as stemming from a traditional male idea of a family hierarchy. I.e. Men should be the head of the family. Every once in a while though, there seems to be a kernel of truth to it. Hence my taking a moment when I had my realization about my feelings towards fictional characters.

I’m dizzy and this is harder than it should be. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. So. I have realized that the writers actually did some clever things with the show. Richard and Ling are actually male and female versions of the same character. They don’t like to admit that they are human and have soft spots so they go around pissing people off and saying things that force people to have emotional and physical space from them. In Richard’s case, the few times his humanity and emotions catch up to him, he actually seems surprised underneath. Ling seems to know she is human and knows these things come up, so her efforts are mostly focused on making sure that other people have a damned hard time seeing her in those moments. I like both Richard and Ling. I get them. Sometimes I think I have more than a little in common with them.

The other interesting thing is that Ally and Billy are complements. Like Ying and Yang. They actually should have gotten married. Billy actually did want a 50s kind of wife and Ally wanted a 50s kind of husband. Ally said on the show that she wouldn’t mind quitting to take care of kids. That she wants kids. That she went to law school just because Billy did. Billy, for all the show set him up as being crazy towards the end because of his brain aneurysm tumor, really did want a wife to make him feel like a man instead of being in a true partnership where the relationship is more fluid and thus at times, more difficult. The reason (I think) that the whole 50s family is appealing to some people is that it gives structure and meaning and rules instead of having to make up your own. Billy tried with Georgia to have a modern relationship/family and he was just too insecure. Ally was betrayed because Billy had probably given her every indication that they were on the same page and then he left her with no male to fill the traditional role. She was a wife without a husband, a mother without kids, and a lawyer who no longer knew why she was even a lawyer.
(ETA: Linda corrected me. It was the tumor that made him crazy.)

Georgia was not there to prop up Billy’s self esteem or self worth. She was there to be a lawyer, have a husband and some kids and live her life. When she found out her husband was too afraid to figure shit out with her and wanted to revert to a life that put her in certain role, she left him, cut her hair and changed jobs. She didn’t JUST change jobs, she went to work for an all female-partnered law firm. She didn’t just walk away from the idea of being a wife and mom and home maker, she removed herself as far as she could.

Which brings me to Nelle and John. If Richard and Ling are mirrors and Ally and Billy are interlocking pieces to a coin, then Nelle and John are magnets. At times they pull at each other and at times they push away. Nelle didn’t want to remove herself from marriage and the traditional 50s wife. She wanted to turn it on its head. She wanted to at times make a mockery of it. She wanted a lover and maybe a husband, but one who flouted tradition with her. She thought that John was it. He was weird and yet successful and strange. But John, for all that he was so far from the typical male, is very much about hearth and home. John didn’t need to cling to the rules and traditions that Billy needed. He walks his own path because he finds his own joys and his own meaning. He doesn’t care about other people’s traditions and rules. He was baffled by Nelle’s need to look down her nose and mock. She needed to prove she was above it. John exists outside it entirely.

Then, finally, to the last two characters of the show that I have any tiny speck of interest thinking about: Elaine and Larry. So Elaine is basically there for comedic relief. They use her for stuff like the jog bra and let the other characters look down on her. She’s a woman who wants a husband and a job to pay the bills and to have fun. She tends to not care what others think until they marginalize her with their opinions, then she speaks or acts up. Except for the fact that they made her so mannerisms INCREDIBLY annoying, I might find her the most refreshing part of the show.

Finally, Larry. They changed the ENTIRE show for his scenes. The lighting seems different, the sound effects are different, the delivery of lines is different. Larry is RESPECT. He’s the antithesis of Billy. He’s the normalcy to John’s bizarreness. He’s SO unremarkable that on any other show, he’d be boring except for two things. 1) This is Ally McBeal, not any other show, so he’s brings astonishing relief. 2) He’s played by RDJ. Suddenly after Larry shows up, Ally has respect for herself, she cares for the people around her more, the people around her care for HER more. Before Larry, John had remarked on how Ally always made it about her. After Larry, RICHARD of all people, remarks on how Ally is taking care of everyone else when they were supposed to be supporting her through her hard time. If Larry weren’t played by RDJ, I’d be pissed. If it weren’t for the fact that his character is so very much about love and respect, I’d be pissed. Because if you look at Ally, then basically the show seems to be saying that as long as you have a man in your life, your life straightens out. The other perspective could be though, that when you surround yourself with people who accept you for who you are, suddenly you are more capable of being treated as a real person and treating other people as a real as well. The reason I find this second perspective so hard to believe though is that Ally supposedly has Renee before Larry and yet it doesn’t mean anything until it’s a MAN.

So in reality, if I just wanted to answer the question about my gender bias, I could have stopped after analyzing Nelle and Billy. But I think without realizing how the show contradicts itself on the issue of female and male roles, it’s hard to realize why Nelle’s character is easier to forgive for her transgressions than Billy. Where Nelle went wrong was in her personal unwillingness to give respect and interact with certain people, Billy tried to impose his persona on his wife and the law firm (Billy’s girls). Also, I suspect I do have a bit of a gender bias.

  • Linda

    Yesterday, I was watching RDJ sing Christmas Carols and the play the piano. My heartttt. 

  • mef

    Yes. That was a very touching and sad scene.

  • adelnye

    Wow! What an analysis!

  • mef

    Thanks for reading it! I know it’s a bit long.