“Ally McBeal,” Heteroflexibility, and Lesbian Visibility on TV

 
 

In contrast to the high number of female same-sex encounters on the series, actual lesbian characters (women exclusively attracted to women) only appear twice, and both times are portrayed as not-quite-women.

The first is Margaret Camero (Wendy Worthington), a women”s rights advocate whom Ally's colleague Richard Fish (Greg Germann) describes as a “man-hating, vicious lesbian”who “looks like a man” (2.19). The second is a very feminine woman whose husband is suing for an annulment because she did not disclose her sexual orientation before their marriage.

In both cases, the lesbians are portrayed as refusing to adhere to their assigned roles as women — the first because she eschews conventional images of femininity, the second because she failed her duties as a wife. On Ally McBeal, therefore, "real women" are heterosexual (or heteroflexible), while lesbians are something lesser-than.

But the show also occasionally provides a platform for exploring
a lesbian perspective, such as when Camero tells Ally, "I guess I just
reject the notion that your life is empty if you don't have a man"
(2.23).

It is also realistic about the persistence of homophobia, even
as it claims not to condone it; in Episode 13 of Season 3, for example, Ally
sadly acknowledges the homophobia behind her own decision not to date a bisexual
man, but comments "sometimes prejudice wins out."

Bisexual women do not come offlooking any better than lesbians
do on the show.

When Heather Locklear guest-stars in the fifth season as a bigamist
on trial for being married to two men, the prosecution attempts to discredit
Locklear's character as "aberrant" by introducing Lara Flynn Boyle's
character as a woman with whom she formerly had a sexual relationship. Even
though both women identify as heterosexual, in the absence of any actual bisexual
characters on the show and given the persistence of American cultural stereotypes
about bisexual women as promiscuous and confused, viewers are likely to believe
these characters actually do represent bisexual women.

In
this way, Ally McBeal‘s depiction of sexual relationships between women
is simultaneously conservative and liberal, homophobic and gay-friendly; it
both reinforces cultural stereotypes of lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual
women and subverts them.

Ally
McBeal's
contradictoryperspective
on this topic is representative of contemporary American culture's conflicted
attitude towards sexual relationships between women; as Suzanna Danuta Walters
writes in All The Rage, “no series has so delved into the strange heart of the heterosexual at once disgusted by and desirous of gay sexuality as Ally Mcbeal.”

This contradiction is revealed through multiple statements by
many characters over the course of the show, but in particular by Ally herself,
who in the same episode, says both that enjoyed kissing another woman, but that
she's "not even ashamed to admit that I don't want to be gay.”

In another episode (2.23), Ally denies that she doesn’t like lesbians
and states as proof that she “wrote ABC when they canceled Ellen“, while in yet another episode (3.13) admits “I’m far more homophobic than I ever imagined.”

The way the Ally-Ling kiss was portrayed is another manifestation of this conflict, according to Walters:

Perhaps this episode speaks with forked tongue, displaying a most obvious homophobia at the same time that it protests too much. It also reveals a bit more than it should about the fragile state of heterosexual love, about the frantic defenses put up against its homosexual doppelganger, about the desperation to place homosexuality back where it belongs — in dreams, in bars, in male fantasies, in that nook marked 'sideline to the real show.’

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