Hallucinations and Happiness: Quirky Fantasy in Ally McBeal
Despite being constantly referred to as "The" postfeminist text, Ally McBeal (1997-2002) has been marginalised in television history, remembered most for protagonist Ally’s (Calista Flockhart) shrinking body, self-indulgent nature and so-called "obsession" with men. This status is unfortunate, as the series captures a critical transition between two discourses of feminism: the second wave and postfeminism. In doing so, it represents a key moment in history – a 1990s environment that witnessed the height of postfeminism and saw a new generation of adults raised under the discourse of neoliberalism.1 Where Ally’s legacy lies is perhaps not in its postfeminist elements, but rather in its ability to represent the plight of the neoliberal subject that strives for fulfilment in life – something that remains relevant today, 16 years after the show first aired. The neoliberal ethos is revealed in Ally McBeal’s quirky interaction with fantasy, which for Ally is a part of her identity, and something that brings happiness to her everyday life, if only for a fleeting moment.
In her book The Promise of Happiness, Sarah Ahmed describes happiness as "the object of human desire, as being what we aim for, as being what gives purpose, meaning and order to human life" but she also acknowledges that "if happiness is what we wish for it does not mean we know what we wish for in wishing for happiness."2 This conception of happiness as an elusive and abstract desire that is forever chased but never caught is the central thread of Ally McBeal. The show’s ability to represent the pressures associated with attaining happiness in a postfeminist and neoliberal world is, I believe, its most interesting quality. Ally McBeal reveals the plight of the neoliberal subject, asking what happiness means in a world where the pressure to constantly strive for a better self is overwhelming. Ahmed states that "classically, happiness has been considered as an ends rather than as a means."3 And in the ethos of neoliberalism and particularly therapy culture, happiness is such an end, forever promised, never delivered. Ally McBeal demonstrates how neoliberalism complicates happiness: the ethos implies that an end state of happiness is achievable, but constantly suggests that one can always better themselves through self-monitoring and therapy, thus an "end" is never actually able to be reached. Happiness, therefore, is something that is always out of reach.
Happiness can be found in some fleeting form however, in Ally's fantasy life. It is here that Ally’s eccentric form, characters and narratives, demonstrate what James MacDowell calls a "quirky sensibility" – a kind of spectrum upon which films that display a tension between "judgment and empathy detachment and engagement, irony and sincerity" may be placed.4 While Ally has been previously read as a postfeminist dramedy, it is in fact a series which fits into this category of "quirky", sharing many conventions with the American Indie films that MacDowell explores. In fact, the show arguably has more in common with this sub-genre than with the feminist sitcoms to which it is always compared. Quirky elements, such as the use of fantasy, aid in Ally McBeal’s portrayal of the plight of the neoliberal subject in pursuit of happiness. MacDowell notes that the quirky film "requires we view the fiction as simultaneously absurd and moving, the characters as pathetic and likeable, the world as manifestly artificial and believable."5 Ally fits this description precisely: she is forever the centre of ridicule, resulting in her appearing naive, foolish, erratic and endearing – often all at once. What sets her apart from the celebrated feminist "role models" of iconic shows like Mary Tyler Moore (1970-1977) and Murphy Brown (1988-1998) is the fact that she is eccentric and neurotic – and embraces it! Ally hallucinates, retreating to a fantasy world in her imagination as a means of getting through the day. And one perfect example of this is in the episode "Seeing Green" from the show’s third season.
In this episode, Ally seeks therapeutic treatment from the parodic therapist Dr Flott (Betty White), for ongoing hallucinations she has had involving the singer Al Green. Ally explains that she thinks she has fallen in love with her fantasy. She battles with the decision to heed her doctor’s advice and begin medication to eliminate her neurosis – presumably becoming "well" and "normal" (and boring) – or not. The episode reaches the height of absurdity when Ally begins to hear music whilst contemplating the medication in the unisex bathroom. Ally tries to convince herself that she doesn’t hear Al singing "Let’s Stay Together" and runs out of the bathroom into the office in an attempt to escape her hallucination, but the fantasy takes her over and becomes her reality. The office suddenly becomes dark and empty; only Ally and Al in sight, until a spotlight shines on Ally's co-workers dressed in sparkling costumes, until all are singing to her (complete with a church choir). Ally, Al and her friends sing together – a moment which, though it is a fantasy, reflects the typical manner in which music is used in the show to bring people together, referencing the classical form of the Hollywood Musical. When the fantasy ends, Ally finds herself singing and dancing in the middle of the room with everyone staring at her uncomfortably. She later discusses the events with Dr Flott, concluding that the presence of her friends allowed her to see that she has a "song in [her] life with them," that it was a "transition fantasy" and that she can shake the hallucinations without drugs. Dr Flott ignores her, handing over a prescription saying "mental health will soon be yours, and then the only problem you'll have left is whether or not your friends will recognise you!"
On the one hand this scene demonstrates the way Ally can find a kind of fleeting happiness in her fantasy world – but on the other, it is clear something must be done about her hallucinations if she wishes to function "normally" in society. Ally’s fantasies are "magical"; they nourish her spiritually and emotionally and are a source of happiness in her everyday existence. She decides against losing such moments, valuing them over being a "normal", stable person – a revolutionary character trait for women in television. The episode ends with Ally saying goodbye to Al without the aid of medication, as she dances with him one last time before setting him free. This is one moment in the series in which she seems genuinely happy within herself, and it has not been achieved through therapy or medication. Ally is happy not being "normal". She remarks to her friend John: "I'm less afraid of being alone, less afraid of not fitting in. I don't fit in John, cheers!"
While Ally’s happiness is found through fantasy in this episode, it nevertheless remains fleeting and infrequent. This is further emphasised in the conclusion of the series where Ally’s final comments to the viewers are: "looking backwards, many of the saddest moments in my life turned out to be the happiest. So I must be happy now... Yeah, this is gonna be good. Why else would I be crying?" Here it seems that the illusion of happiness often results in unhappiness, and a state of happiness can only be realised with perspective or in conjunction with sadness or loneliness. This poignant moment reinforces the show’s view of happiness as an elusive and abstract desire that is promoted as attainable by the ethos of neoliberalism. Although the escape into a fantasy world proves to provide some happiness for Ally, the conclusion of the show is similar to a final conclusion MacDowell draws from the quirky sensibility: the presence of irony in the happy ending.6 While the final episode of Ally McBeal ends of on a hopeful note, the notion that Ally will live "happily ever after" is questioned.
Ally's fantasy moments with Al Green, and Ally McBeal as a whole present the notion that the real "happily ever after" only exists in fantasy – and this is one of the show’s most unique and interesting qualities. Ally, in embracing her insanity and unique self, demonstrates the search for an authentic, happy life. Through the aid of fantasy she attains a momentary happiness – an implicit criticism of the world shaped by neoliberalism. The almost cynical, yet simultaneously empowering message of Ally McBeal, may be that you are never going to be fulfilled or happy or normal, so don't try to be. Just embrace being your own strange self, even though the rest of the world probably won't. Quite remarkable ideas from a quirky 90's postfeminist dramedy – which I believe deserves a second look.