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Instead, much of feminism has devolved into the silly. And it has powerful support for this: a popular culture insistent on offering images of grown single women as frazzled, self-absorbed girls. Ally McBeal is the most popular female character on television. The show, for the few who may have missed it, focuses on a ditsy 28-year-old Ivy League Boston litigator who never seems in need of the body-concealing clothing that Northeastern weather often requires. Ally spends much of her time fantasizing about her ex-boyfriend, who is married and in the next office, and manages to work references to her mangled love life into nearly every summation she delivers. She has fits in supermarkets because there are too few cans of Pringles. She answers the question "Why are your problems so much bigger than everyone else's?" with the earnest response "Because they're mine." When Ally gets any work done, how she keeps her job, why she thinks it's O.K. to ask her secretary why she didn't give her a birthday present--these are all mysteries. Ally probably wouldn't seem so offensive as an addition to the cast of Seinfeld, but because this is a one-hour drama filled with pseudo-Melissa Etheridge music and emotional pretense, we are meant to take her problems more seriously than George Costanza's. "Ally McBeal is a mess. She's like a little animal," notes Nancy Friday, a sex-positive feminist if ever there was one. "You want to put her on a leash." And what does Ally's creator David Kelley have to say about Ally as a feminist? "She's not a hard, strident feminist out of the '60s and '70s. She's all for women's rights, but she doesn't want to lead the charge at her own emotional expense." Ally, though, is in charge of nothing, least of all her emotional life.
As if one Ally McBeal character were not enough, America is discovering another, the heroine of an enormously hyped novel called Bridget Jones's Diary, by British author Helen Fielding. The book, a best seller in England for months, is a sometimes funny but ultimately monotonous chronicle of a year in the life of an unmarried thirtysomething London editor whose thoughts never veer far from dating, the cocktail hour and her invariably failed attempts at calorie cutting. A typical Bridget reflection: "Cannot face thought of going to work. Only thing that makes it tolerable is thought of seeing Daniel again, but even this is inadvisable since am fat, have spot on chin, and desire only to sit on cushion eating chocolate and watching Xmas specials." Few women alive haven't dwelled on relationships or their appearance, but most manage to concern themselves with other things too. The problem with Bridget and Ally is that they are presented as archetypes of single womanhood even though they are little more than composites of frivolous neuroses.
Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones are the product of what could be called the Camille Paglia syndrome. In her landmark 1990 book, Sexual Personae, author Paglia used intellect to analyze art, history and literature from classical times to the 19th century and argue that it is men who are the weaker sex because they have remained eternally powerless over their desire for the female body. It is female sexuality, she said, that is humanity's greatest force. Her tome helped catapult feminism beyond an ideology of victimhood.