Who Would You Rather Go Shopping With, Ally McBeal or Villanelle?: Some Excerpts from my New Book on TV

Susan Bordo
Apr 16 · 12 min read
Screenshots by Rachel Youdelman
“Though she be but little, she is fierce”

Powerful women have never been that hard to find in the movies or on television. Often, however, they are the villainesses: the schemers, the man-stealers, glammed up to the point of caricature, like Alexis Carrington. Others have been what Susan Douglas calls “bionic bimbos”: their powers are of the super-human variety, and represent, according to Douglas, a “media compromise with feminism”: “They would show us women with power, but in comic book settings that could never be mistaken for feminism.” Some were compromises of other sorts: the angels had guns and knew how to use them but at Charlie’s bidding. These shows were entertaining and transgressive in some ways, but comfortably unrealistic. More earth-bound female characters who have fought for, owned and acted on their power have come to us largely via cable and BBC: Jane Tennyson (Helen Mirren) of Prime Suspect, Carrie Mathieson (Claire Dines) of Homeland, the inmates of Litchfield in Orange is the New Black, Jackie (Edie Falco) of Nurse Jackie. Note however, the price of being a fearless female, even on cable: Jane is an alcoholic with a crappy love-life, Carrie is bipolar and so driven by her work that by the final season she seems to have totally forgotten she has a child, Nurse Jackie is a drug addict, and the women of OITNB are….in prison. Still, none of those characters are cutesy or silly or spend their days, like the women of Sex and the City, drinking cocktails or shopping for grossly overpriced shoes. And their issues are not gender-dependent or gender-coded; the men of cable are similarly fucked-up, and worse (e.g. Dexter, Breaking Bad.) You don’t find untarnished characters, male or female, on postmodern cable.

The networks are something else; the “one hand gives; the other takes away” phenomenon, with its wariness of giving offense to traditional viewers, remained the rule for much longer. In the background of resolving the tension between “progress” and “tradition,” always, is the fear of (a stereotype of) feminism…]

[…Ally McBeal, which ran from 1997–2002, is a great example. The show had nothing but scorn for the “second-wave” that Mary Jo of Designing Women proudly asserted on her T-shirt and in her concluding speech to the Hill/Thomas episode (discussed in another chapter.) Ally (Calista Flockhart) flirts with male clients without any thought to sexual harassment laws, and watercooler talk with the men about penis size is not only ok, it’s practically obligatory to demonstrate that the heroines are not those kind of feminists. You know, the kind who don’t wear make-up and can’t take a joke. Frequently, “those” kind of feminists are themselves the butt of jokes; for example, when Ally’s roommate Renee (Lisa Nicole Carson, who of course being Black is portrayed as less uptight about everything, especially sexuality) tries to convince Ally there’s nothing wrong with being attracted to a male model with a large penis, she points out that men are attracted to her “golden, lofty, globes.” Ally: “But we’re different…we have double standards to live up to.” In another episode she sums herself up: “I am a strong, working career girl who feels empty without a man — the National Organization for Women, they have a contract out on my head.” In fact, however, as a “career girl,” Ally is a mess, who can’t even hold her shit together at the sight of an attractive male. In fact, any kind of excitement makes Ally lose her cool. When she gets angry, she screeches like a little child having a temper-tantrum. When she’s upset, she sputters, stammers, and (as she so adorably admits) generally lose control over the English language. Often, her sexual attractions are represented through the magic of digital fantasy: Ally’s tongue grows huge and hangs out at the sight of a young male client. But lest you think there’s a full-grown, desiring woman inside that skinny kid prancing around in oversize pajamas, she hallucinates dancing babies, too.

Screenshots by Rachel Youdelman.

[…A more recent, less obvious example of the “one hand gives, the other takes away” phenomenon is Tommy, in which Edie Falco plays Abigail Thomas, the newly appointed police chief of Los Angeles. In some ways, the show appears to pander shamelessly to feminism. In “I am Spartacus” moment, half dozen of the women in the courtroom stand up when the defendant in a murder case (she claimed she’d been sexually assaulted by the man she killed) was asked to “please rise.” And “Tommy” goes out of its way to check all the boxes: In the very first episode we learn that Tommy is gay, has a biracial daughter (in a former life, she had been married to a Black man), and although no-nonsense and no-frills, has a very warm heart and offers to take home an immigrant child in danger of deportation. She is also a rape survivor who had been disbelieved (the rapist was a high-ranking cop) and many suspect she has been hired (to replace a chief accused of serial harassment) “only because she is a woman.” She feels the burden of that suspicion acutely: “if I fail it will be 20 years before they give another woman this job.” Yawn.

But after this shower of feminist clichés, it’s important for the show to reassure viewers that Tommy isn’t part of some coven. She describes herself ruefully as having become a “feminist icon” when she lost her own rape suit (I mean, who wants to be worshipped by thousands of women?); “I’d rather have the ten years of my career back” she says. Later, the show takes an equally sarcastic poke at feminism when another character refers to Tommy as the “Feminist savior of the LAPD.” OK, so despite her other credentials (and Edie Falco’s truly impressive lesbian police chief stride) we know Tommy isn’t that kind of feminist — you know, the “political” kind — but the kind that disdains “labels.”

[…The feminism of The Good Fight, a spin-off from the successful The Good Wife, is more complicated. Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) neither disowns “second-wave” feminist politics (as in Ally McBeal) or exploit its tropes of sisterhood (as in the Spartacus moment in Tommy) but shows just how much more complex we are than as painted by the stereotypes — whether they come from the Right or the Left. We know, from The Good Wife, that Diane is a supporter of Emily’s List. But in The Good Fight, even the best “fight” has a downside. In the fourth season’s opening episode (paralleling the opening episode of the first season, in which Trump is inaugurated) Diane, temporarily blacked out, has a dream in which Hillary is POTUS. She’s dumbfounded but delighted — until she realizes that in this alternative reality, #MeToo doesn’t exist and Harvey Weinstein is doing his stuff unimpeded. “I’m not sure I like this world,” she is dismayed to realize. But don’t leap to the conclusion that she’s an advocate of “zero tolerance”! “People who make history and do good are complicated,” she says in one episode, not so much in defense of the behavior of the firm’s founder, who had sexually exploited his secretary and stenographer for years, as against the politics of purity, whether evangelical or left-leaning. In another episode, when a “progressive” young woman who runs a website called “Assholes to Avoid” berates her (and her entire generation of feminists) for being too soft on men, she replies, “You know what your trouble is? You think women can only be one thing.”

Diane, on the other hand, is many things: glamorously long-legged in her absurdly glittery power-suits — hard to believe a real lawyer would dress as if going to a Broadway opening — but good-natured and tolerant in her relationships. Neither “shrill” nor silent, she likes to laugh — but she’s also often the “adult in the room,” quietly thoughtful when discussion deteriorates into squabbling. She despises Trump and for a while, disgusted by the fragmented, ideological chaos of Democrats, participates in an all-female radical resistance group. She’s unwilling to follow them, however, when they propose mucking around with voting machines. She’s open about her own feminist politics but married to a Republican ballistics expert (Gary Cole.)…]

[…The other women are complicated, too. They all have romantic lives, But it’s the characters’ brains rather than their relationships that are highlighted. From named partners Diana Lockhart and Liz Reddick (Audra McDonald) to associates Lucca Quinn (Cash Jumbo) and Maia Rindell (Rose Leslie), to aspiring investigator Melissa Gold (Sarah Steele) are really, really smart. None of them neatly satisfies any gendered or racial stereotypes either, which is in keeping with the show’s refusal to partake in white liberal self-congratulation even as it relentlessly skewers Trumpism. Melissa is the most recognizable in her feminism, the one most insistent on “believing the woman” in a rape suit; but she has no problem becoming the advisor to a GOP colleague trying for a judgeship…]

[…And then there’s Killing Eve. It’s hardly the first show to feature a psychopathic killer as a central character. But what we typically enjoy about these characters is the chill of pure evil, e.g. Hannibal Lector, who savors a fine chianti and fava beans along with human body parts. Supposedly, psychopaths can be quite charming when they want to be — it’s how they ensnare their victims — but it’s hard to think of a fictional psychopath who charms the viewer. Our one lovable killer, Dexter, doesn’t count, as he has the redeeming feature of having been taught by his father to channel his psychopathy into killing only bad guys. The show never goes beyond good and evil; it’s about the struggle between good and evil.

Killing Eve does go “beyond” — everything: genre, recognizable politics, sexual stereotypes, conventional notions about love and sex, and even what counts as a fashionable outfit. Villanelle, the female assassin (Jodie Comer), may be evil — but she’s also whimsical, undefinable, and irresistible, and much of the pleasure of the show comes simply from watching her: her ever-changing facial expressions (giggling or pouting like a five-year-old one moment, coldly eyeing her next victim in another,) her clothing (sometimes fashionably butch, sometimes as pink and poufy as a little girl at a beauty pageant, other-times like a little boy who couldn’t care less, sometimes simply bizarre), her unpredictable moves and moods. It’s impossible to figure her out. Did she kill the boy in the hospital bed next to hers on impulse, to steal his stickers, or an act of euthanasia? Does she herself even know? Whatever, she looks far more fetching loping down the street , her tummy bulging out of his Target boy sleepwear than Ally McBeal did prancing around in her oversized pajamas with the little sheep on them. We can almost forgive the fact that she is a sadistic murderer because she gives us so much pleasure with her fashion choices, and they give her so much pleasure too. (She is barely able to force herself to wear a nurse’s dowdy slippers, in order to escape from the hospital.)

It’s fairly easy to understand the magnetic pull she exerts over Eve (Sandra Oh), who discovers that she needs doses of danger to keep her heart going, but what’s the nature of Villanelle’s attraction to Eve? It’s sexual but not primarily, it’s not about Eve’s great, big hair (which Villanelle does love), and it’s not just admiration — although it’s clear Villanelle does admire something in Eve that other people lack. But what is it? Villanelle may be a trickster, but Eve is just….unfathomable. She seems “normal” in many ways. But it’s a foggy sort of normal, a walking sleep which only Villanelle is able to wake her out of. And even when “awake,” she seems not to know what she’s doing with herself half the time, even as she has an instinctive brilliance for investigation. Eve and Villanelle seem to be in love with each other (which causes them to “do crazy things” — as Villanelle says — like try to kill each other) but to make those words “in love” apply, they need to be reinvested with something that isn’t within my vocabulary — and certainly isn’t found in the conventions of romantic/sexual relationships, depicted in moves and tv, even the kinkier ones.

Screenshots by Rachel Youdelman.

Some reviewers have tried to slot Killing Eve within recognizable, if transgressive, categories: Melanie McFarland, in Salon, describes it as a “feminist thriller” for the era of #MeToo, that “slakes one’s desire to see piggish misogynists get what’s coming to them”[i] by having them dispatched cold-bloodedly by the disarmingly pretty and seductive Villanelle while complicating the simplicity of sisterhood by making her as dangerous to the woman she’s irresistibly drawn to — Eve (Sandra Oh) — as to the men she disdains. Along those lines, Willa Paskin in Slate writes that the show warns the viewer that underestimating women is dangerous.[ii] They may appear, as Villanelle frequently does, as hyper-feminine; but her hair-pin is a deadly weapon.

But Villanelle isn’t your typical femme fatale. Her emotional life is more like that of a child. She likes to play, to goof around. She is drawn to toys, then throws them away carelessly. At one point, after murdering its mother, she picks up a baby and seems to take genuine delight in playing with it. But she soon tires of it, is annoyed by its crying, and when Dasha Durzen (Harriet Walker), Villanelle’s former trainer and mentor, dumps the baby in a nearby trash can, she indifferently walks away. The scene is both shocking and darkly funny, and reprises a similar sequence of events that takes place when we are first introduced to Villanelle, in an outdoor café, where she is staring at a little girl eating ice cream and smiling at her mother. Wanting to catch the little girl’s attention, Villanelle works at copying her smile, and it isn’t clear whether this is someone with an absence of human emotion trying to fake it, or she’s just awkwardly being friendly. The little girl is wary at first — why is this stranger smiling at me? — but eventually smiles back — and is rewarded by having her ice cream dumped onto her dress. The scene is a perfect introduction for a character who will always keep us off balance, and a feminist message seems forced and irrelevant to either her, Eve, or their relationship with each other. They are profoundly strange people, the show is “hilarious, bloody, [and] unclassifiable,”[iii] and it’s enough that it’s so enjoyable to watch.

[Want more? I discuss “Murphy Brown,” “Designing Women,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Mad Men,” “The Sopranos” and others. Get TV from Amazon, from Bloomsbury, or check out my website for other places to order. ]

Weaving together personal memoir, social and political history, and reflecting on key moments in the history of news broadcasting and prime time entertainment, Susan Bordo opens up the 75-year-old time-capsule that is TV and illustrates what a constant companion and dominant cultural force television has been, for good and for bad, in carrying us from the McCarthy hearings and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet to Mad Men, Killing Eve, and the emergence of our first reality TV president.

TV is part of Object Lessons, a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.

“In this lively and engaging analysis of what television has done for us and to us, the feminist cultural critic Susan Bordo takes us from Father Knows Best and Walter Cronkite to OJ, Mad Men, Fox News, and much more. She shows how TV has shaped our politics and our purchases, our minds and our bodies, our definition of truth and our concept of reality. `We live in an empire of images,’ Bordo writes-one could not wish for a more knowledgeable and entertaining guide.”
Katha Pollitt, poet, essayist, and The Nation columnist, Her most recent book is Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights
“Susan Bordo is old enough to remember when television was a thing-a set, a box, an electric window on a made-up world-and she pays wise, charming, and personal tribute to its meaning for a generation and a culture raised in its blue light. And that’s the way it was.”
Jeff Jarvis, TV critic for People and TV Guide and founding editor of Entertainment Weekly

engendered

Using gender as a lens to examine power, privilege, and oppression in culture and society

Susan Bordo

Written by

Cultural historian, media critic, feminist scholar. Website: bordocrossings.com

engendered

An intersectional feminist publication normalizing anti-sexism, uplifting survivor voices, and decolonizing hearts and minds, one story at a time.

Susan Bordo

Written by

Cultural historian, media critic, feminist scholar. Website: bordocrossings.com

engendered

An intersectional feminist publication normalizing anti-sexism, uplifting survivor voices, and decolonizing hearts and minds, one story at a time.

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