BOB GARFIELD: Monday, marks the last episode of Ally McBeal, the Emmy Award-winning best comedy series which was said to symbolize everything from the modern face of feminism to antiquated notions of female beauty -- or maybe it represented a joke that just got old, a television landscape that became edgier or a culture whose attention span is smaller than the typical Ally McBeal mini-skirt. The largest single reason that we'll remember McBeal as a touchstone is that Time Magazine cover article which put Calista Flockhart's [sp?] face next to Gloria Steinem's as the new face of feminism. Ginia Bellafante wrote that story. She also recently wrote an Ally McBeal obit for the New York Times. Ginia, welcome to OTM.
GINIA BELLAFANTE: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Well let's go back to those reflective days of yesteryear. [LAUGHTER] In 1998, what was Ally said to symbolize and why was the show so controversial in its time?
GINIA BELLAFANTE: You know, on a very superficial level, people originally were very worked up just about her sartorial, you know, presentation. She, she was-- meant to be a serious attorney who'd benefitted from the women's movement. She got to go to Harvard Law School and she's sort of flitting about in the tiny skirt and the sandals.
CALISTA FLOCKHART AS ALLY McBEAL: [ROCK MUSIC UNDER] I am human. I am temperamental. I am guilty. And-- [MUSIC CUTS OUT] I'm ovulating!
GINIA BELLAFANTE: But Ally McBeal did speak to a growing population of educated unmarried women in cities and the lives they led. I mean it certainly was more than just a, a TV show.
BOB GARFIELD: Well what do you suppose was the major cause of Ally McBeal, the show's, demise?
GINIA BELLAFANTE:It became very one-note. Week after week it would focus around just a complete-- you know an utterly ridiculous trial that always somehow had to do with relationships or gender wars and was completely unbelievable in every way, and it, it was weird in that way because we were meant to take her sort of romantic issues very seriously -- they were supposed to be realistic, and it was set in this very kind of completely unrealistic working environment.
BOB GARFIELD:Well let's go to a more modern iteration of a similar character -- Sex in the City -- which is a show that has been an unqualified success for HBO. It's about single women--
GINIA BELLAFANTE: Yeah--
BOB GARFIELD: -- and is it a triumph because Sarah Jessica Parker's life is more realistic than Ally McBeal's or is it that the jokes are just funnier and more sex?
GINIA BELLAFANTE: I think perhaps it's neither. I don't think that-- those lives are particularly realistic. However, what is realistic is the relationship among the four women, and many single women living in cities across America are very, very dependent on those kind of female tribes to get through things, and I think what made Ally so unappealing to women, and it was predominantly going to be women who watched that show, was that Ally really didn't have any genuinely believable female relationships. She had a relationship with her secretary with - obviously there's - you know the power differential there. It made her less sympathetic not to have that world of female friends and what women relate to in Sex in the City, I think, predominantly is the friend group as family.
BOB GARFIELD:Well I guess feminism itself has changed. Ally McBeal was an icon of post-feminism when you were allowed to, you know, worry about getting a man while also have a significant role in the workplace. But now we're in a s--I, I don't know if there's a, a formal title for it, but I -- post-post-feminist period where Elizabeth Wurtzl's [sp?] and their confessional self-involved literature don't seem to be as provocative as they once were. To what degree do you think that the evolution of feminism just simply made Ally McBeal irrelevant?
GINIA BELLAFANTE: By the time Ally McBeal arrived on the air, what passed for feminist literature in the culture was really just-- memoir. It was very self-obsessed. It didn't stand for any kind of larger political or social condition.
BOB GARFIELD: It was shocking and it was titillating but it wasn't in any way universal.
GINIA BELLAFANTE:Right! And it was, it was passing for a movement and for theory, and it, it, it just wasn't. Ally McBeal's own self-obsession I think - it just came along at the right time, you know.
CALISTA FLOCKHART AS ALLY McBEAL: Even if I get past all my problems, I'm just going to go out and get-- new ones!
BOB GARFIELD: Your piece in Time Magazine on 1998 followed the evolution of feminism through the prism of popular culture. If you were writing a similar piece today, what programming out there do you see that speaks for the larger question of where the society has gone?
GINIA BELLAFANTE: There was a show - a reality show that ended just a few weeks ago on about called The Bachelor. It-- it was another show that really hit emotional hot buttons with people, again about gender. I don't know if you know the premise of the show, but there was a-- a bachelor in his early 30s, and he got to select from 25 women who were competing to be his wife, and it really is just the worst sort of pre-feminist [LAUGHS] nightmare.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you see the Time Magazine cover with the bachelor on it with the headline Full Circle?
GINIA BELLAFANTE: Yes. [LAUGHS] I can. I can, especially after the ratings, because the final episode was in the Top 10.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Ginia Bellafante, thank you very much.
GINIA BELLAFANTE: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Ginia Bellafante, formerly of Time, now writes for the New York Times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Coming up, the GOP uses TV to sell the party to Spanish-speaking voters, and drug companies use commercials to punch up prescriptions.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from National Public Radio.