Anti-Ally: The MisogyNoir Behind Ally McBeal

*DISCLAIMER* – mentions of rape and mild reference of child abuse*

If there’s one thing I learnt in 2020, it’s how much early 90s to early 00s sitcom I can consecutively consume. While national lockdowns trapped me in a vicious cycle of binging on box sets, I stumbled upon Ally McBeal. I vaguely remember watching Ally McBeal as a child but to me, it was essentially a show with random breaks, dancing babies and a scarily thin white women, however the critical acclaim made feel compelled to re-watch. My naiveté failed to realise how critics (as well as award shows) are pillars of white patriarchy, with judgements that admonished anything that deviates from mainstream or multifaceted and complex portrayals of black women. Living in post “Me Too” movement, it’s troubling to see how archaic the portrayal of consent and reductive portrayal of black women

Ally McBeal – Season 1

I was always aware of society’s dedication to reinforce harmful depictions of outdated black stereotypes, however, I didn’t realise the extent or level of ferocity with which mainstream media violently perpetuated misogynoir. For those unfamiliar with the legal comedy, Renee Raddick is the only black main cast member in the show. The only other black females are fake “Pipettes” who are simply there to play back up to Elaine’s vein attempt to compensate for her insecurities. Product of objectification, the “Pipettes” are there to ooze sex appeal on demand, further conforming to society’s desire to hypersexualise black women in attempt to justify their dehumanise and eventual brutalise. In Renee, we see the Anti-Ally McBeal, her role as District Attorney places her in the villain and positions her in combative situations against the conventionally likeable characters and main protagonists. The juxtaposition between the fragile, pale and petit Ally McBeal (a hyper sensitive and flawed heroine who lacks control of all her mental faculties) against the curvaceous, vivacious and intelligent Renee Raddick (a pragmatic and confident woman) was intentionally harsh. I understand for the sake of plot the firm and must always win and by proxy Renee must always lose. But I found Episode 2.19 ‘Those lips, these hand’ deeply unsettling, specifically when Ally, in true W.W.W, devalues Renee’s aptitude and proficiency. Renee’s desire to be competent at her job frequently frames her as the aggressor. In ‘Those Lips, these Hands’ Renee is the villain for wanting to convict an individual who by his own admission, cuts off his wife’s hand. Renee is portrayed as the Anti-Ally, confident and competent and therefore the bully is incredibly disappointed especially when placed in the context of shows in the same era (e.g. Girlfriends). Unlike her counterpart, Renee Raddick is not driven to incompetency by her desire to find a husband and settle down. Reductive in their decision to resort to the angry black female, the writers seek to demonise confident black woman. If you’re scared of black women just say that.

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The most overt representation of misognoir is the Episode 20 ‘The Inmates‘. In this episode Renee is on trial for breaks the neck of her date (Michael Rivers) who, when because frustrated at her failure to follow through with her flirtations and coquettish indications, tries to force himself sexually on her. In this altercation Renee first of all offers Michael a warning slap, which is retaliated with a slap from him before she is forced to produce a roundhouse kick. In his testimony, Michael talks about how Renee oozed sex appeal, how she grabbed him by the butt and how she invites him back to her flat. He fails to talk about her exclamations to “slow down… be practical”, her overall change in body language and her demand for him to leave. Men’s suppression of female voices and stripping of our ability to dictate terms or pace of sexual interactions, stems from an inherit entitlement perpetuated by monotheistic religions and is my main gripe with organised religion (article pending). Pick me female and rape apologisers will argue the fact that she “assaulted” him first, despite the fact that American law allows individuals to stand their ground and supports acts of self defence. The moment he failed to adhere to her verbal and non verbal protests, was the first act of violence in that altercation. Despite its outdated portrayal or consent, its not the case that I found troubling but more Ally’s response to the case as her lawyer and as her friend. Ally in her typical W.W.W (white woman ways) demands that Renee take accountability for her hypersexualised nature in a manner adjacent to victim blaming and body shaming. She infers Renee’s decision to “lead him” and dress provocatively made her somewhat culpable in his attempt to rape, validating his sense of entitlement over body and to a justifying his case against her. I have never felt such rage in my life, as someone who wholeheartedly believe there’s a special place in hell for female victim blamers, I was ready to swing.

Although Renee’s accuser was a black man, the entire story arc (which spanned over 2 episodes) had strong undercurrents of racism. The dissection of Renee’s hypersexuality was traumatic; specifically the explanation of how Renee’s body developed early and how her curves were a source of shame was triggering. It echoed society’s failure to protect black girls based on fallacies of “appear grown” and sexually matured. The subscription to rape culture on primetime TV was sickening and made white women’s co-option of the “me too” movement all more infuriating. Ally McBeal’s portrayal as a modern feminist highlights why intersectionality needs to be at the forefront of feminism.

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