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Tracey Owens Patton, Journalism and Communications, (515) 294-0485 Steve Sullivan, News Service, (515) 294-3720


AMES, Iowa -- Despite its diverse cast, "Ally McBeal" is as guilty as any television show when it comes to stereotyping women and minorities, according to an Iowa State University professor.

Tracey Owens Patton, an assistant professor with Iowa State's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, cross-examines the quirky Fox comedy's depiction of woman and minorities in a paper published in the November issue of the "Journal of Black Studies."

"I really enjoyed the show when it first started. I admired its diverse cast, I thought it was doing something different," said Patton. "But, as I continued to watch it, I became disturbed by the construction of the characters. It began to recycle the same stereotypes seen in every other program."

In the paper, Patton analyzes how the show's title character, the neurotic lawyer played by Calista Flockhart, epitomizes a stereotypical view of "white womanhood."

On the surface, Patton said, Ally McBeal appears to be a positive reflection of a white, career woman. She's a competent, successful lawyer. She seems open and accepting of others. She's dated interracially, befriended a transvestite and has an African American roommate.

"However, McBeal is often portrayed and socially constructed as innocent, vulnerable, angelic, delicate and pure," writes Patton. "For example, we often see McBeal with soft lighting, beautiful music, halos over her head, and walking on air. . . The virginal attributes that McBeal possesses reinforce stereotypical notions of what is a woman and, in particular, what is a white woman. McBeal's qualities, whether through script or lighting, reinforce some of the stereotypical and socially constructed ideals of white womanhood."

This stereotype protects McBeal, who is far from virginal. She has a very active sex life. Other female characters are not treated so kindly. Elaine, McBeal's law firm secretary, for example, is very sexually active, but portrayed more as the office tramp. Lawyer Nelle Porter is portrayed as a rather cold woman, lacking the safety and warmth of McBeal's ideal womanhood, said Patton. Former colleague Georgia Thomas was threatened by McBeal because she used to date her husband, Billy.

"What happens is that the stereotype protects McBeal, and, by virtue of the way her purity is played against supposed shortcomings of the other characters, the stereotype of white womanhood is preserved and protected," said Patton.

Patton also examines the portrayal of minority characters on the program, specifically Renee Radick, an African American district attorney and McBeal's roommate; Dr. Greg, an African African man who had a platonic relationship with McBeal; and Ling Woo, a colleague of McBeal's.

"In the beginning, Renee was this intelligent, savvy, strong, competent black woman, which you rarely see on television," said Patton. "But, her character became completely sexualized. She became more about her breasts and less about being a competent D.A."

Ling Woo, meanwhile, is the embodiment of sexuality and constructed as a "dragon lady," which is a typical stereotype of Asian women, said Patton. Woo is portrayed as a seductive temptress and expert in eroticism, according to Patton.

"One of the biggest concerns with the construction of the Woo character is that there is so little to counteract this sexualized depiction of an Asian woman, because there are few, if any, positive Asian characters on other programs," said Patton.

On the flip side, Dr. Greg has been de-sexualized. He and McBeal were attracted to each other, but never did much more than kiss.

"For McBeal to have a sexual relationship with a black man would challenge her stereotype, it would contradict the stereotype of white womanhood," said Patton.

So, why fall back on stereotypes and why continue to protect them? Because it's safe and being safe maintains ratings, said Patton.

On the other hand, why pick on a television show that may best be known for controversy over Flockhart's weight and former cast member Robert Downey Jr.'s drug problems? Because American television is exported, said Patton. She points to Fiji, where eating disorders and sales of skin lightener increased after American television was introduced to the country.

"We are exporting these stereotypes, these images that television considers safe, into other countries," said Patton. "We're depicting our own society from the white norm. Not only does that affect the way other countries view American culture, but it also affects the way non-white cultural groups in American society are seen and viewed."

Patton credits some shows with doing a good job at providing healthier depictions of minorities, including Lifetime's "Any Day Now" and NBC's "ER."


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