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


When Ally McBeal premiered in September 1997, lesbian kisses and lesbian characters were infrequent and controversial on television, as illustrated by the media frenzy over the coming-out of Ellen DeGeneres‘s sitcom character that same year.

But by the time Ally McBeal finished its last season in May of 2002, same-sex kissing between women — gay and straight — had become almost commonplace on television.

Despite the many ways in which the show routinely rendered lesbian and bisexual women invisible, Ally McBeal is one of the reasons lesbian visibility has improved on television in the last few years.

David E. Kelley‘s hour-longseries about post-feminist lawyer Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) was a ratings hit for Fox in its first few years because of its witty, un-“p.c.” dialogue, quirky characters, and unusual mix of drama and comedy.

It was also frequently controversial (usually deliberately so), and thrived on exploring contentious topics like homosexuality — especially when it involved homosexual encounters between attractive young women.

Through frequent conversations between the (heterosexual) characters about lesbianism orbisexuality, as well as several kisses between the female characters, homoerotic dancing, and the occasional lesbian character, the series contributed to the increasingly popular belief in American culture that most women are secretly attracted to other women, but (almost) always in addition to — and subjugated to — their attraction to men.

This curiosity by heterosexually-identified women isn’t new, but the increase in public awareness and public acceptance of it is a recent development. It is best described by the term “heteroflexible,” which Salon.com writer Laurie Essig explains as the willingness to explore same-sex encounters while clearly and publicly maintaining a preference for heterosexuality.

“Heteroflexible,” Essig elaborates, “is a lighthearted attempt to stick with heterosexual identification while still ‘getting in on the fun of homosexual pleasures'” (Nov 15, 2000).

For some women, to paraphrase Ally’s roommate Renee (Lisa Nicole Carson), heteroflexibility is what happens when opportunity and curiosity collide (Season 3, Episode 2).

Unlike heterosexual women, heteroflexible women are open to homosexual experiences, as long as these experiences stay firmly in the “experimentation” camp. And unlike the bisexual woman or bisexual straight woman, the heteroflexible woman makes no claim to bisexuality and has no interest in developing a romantic relationship with women outside of sex. Quite the opposite, in fact — her identity is securely rooted in heterosexuality.

In this way, a heteroflexible woman’s sexuality functions much like a weeble wobble, the popular egg-shaped plastic child’s toy from the 1970’s with a round, weighted bottom that causes it to spring back into place whenever it is knocked down or pushed over: she might occasionally dabble in Sapphic encounters, but she eventually and inevitably returns to heterosexuality as her normal state of being.

There are numerous scenes and storylines throughout the lifetime of Ally McBeal that propagate the concept of heteroflexibility; in the second season alone (1998-1999), Ally McBeal discussed or portrayed sexual relationships between women in five of the twenty-two episodes.

But it is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the now-famous kiss between Ally and Ling (Lucy Liu) in Episode 3.2 — which aired in November, 1999 — in which Ling’s erotic dream about Ally causes the women to briefly flirt with the idea of having a sexual relationship. After a few days of wondering and talking about it, their desire culminates in a kiss, which both women admit they enjoyed.

Although both women ultimately conclude that what they really want out of a relationship is “a penis,” they were at least willing to consider the possibility that they might be “gay,” as Ling verbalized in her statement prior to the kiss that conveyed she was “afraid” she might end up with a woman.

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