Rants & Raves

AMAZONS AND WAIFS: Fat and Thin in the Art of David E. Kelley
By Lynne Murray

Let start off with a quiz. I am going to describe two women.

Woman A is charming, romantic, hopelessly idealistic, wistful, adorable and a little wacky.

Woman B is angry, intelligent, abrasive, disillusioned, manipulative and a little scary.

Now, which one of these women is fat?

Before I answer that question, let's talk about David E. Kelley. I must confess I had never heard of Mr.. Kelley until after the August 1998 Million Pound March in Los Angeles. A friend who was fan of both "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal" told me he had created both series. I was familiar with "The Practice" because of the amazing Camryn Manheim. I'd heard of "Ally McBeal" but never found a reason to watch it.

A few hours on the Internet confirmed that Mr. Kelley not only created and produced, but also wrote most of the scripts for "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal." He also created, produced and wrote many of the scripts for "Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope."

The television series "Picket Fences" (now a couple of years defunct) is memorable to size acceptance activists because of an episode featuring 500 pound actress Darlene Cates (who so memorably acted in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape"). In the "Picket Fences" episode, Ms. Cates played a woman accused of killing her husband by squashing him in bed. Whether Kelley or someone else wrote that episode, it certainly puts into dramatic form an irrational fear that many men seem to have about large women.

Modern American audiences, both male and female are fascinated by extreme thinness.

I was fascinated that the same person could writes scripts for a show that features the abundant Camryn Manheim so beautifully, and "Ally McBeal," which stars Calista Flockhart, who has been persecuted by the tabloids as anorexic. (We'll cover the tabloids another time.)

I began to watch "Ally McBeal." Actually, I found it highly disturbing.

Some people might find "The Practice" upsetting because it features the down and dirty side of a small criminal law firm in Boston. One notorious episode has a client wandering into the office with a severed head in a briefcase. As a practicing mystery writer that sort of thing doesn't bother me much—we're talking fiction here, not real life here.

Watching "Ally McBeal," however, literally gave me nightmares. And I'm not just saying that out of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from my having worked as a word processor in large corporate law firms for 20-some years.

"Ally McBeal" features a waif-like, eccentric young lawyer who obsesses about her love life or lack thereof. The character is SO highly vulnerable that it's hard to imagine her standing up under the grind of legal practice. Of course Ally's firm appears in the Fantasy Island District Court—I'm not sure what part of Boston that occupies. Her job exists mainly as a source of office romance, allowing Ally to make impassioned and idealistic speeches and bringing in a wide variety of eccentric characters.

But there are cobras among the candy canes investing this brightly-colored Toyland vision of a slick law firm. There are echoes of Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" and "Pennies From Heaven" here. Surreal moments occur as songs and dances in a "unisex bathroom"—no doubt imported from an extremely high-income co-ed college dorm. Verbal attacks are shown as actual physical attacks with arrows, fists, feet and knives—even teeth. These images no doubt produced my nightmares.

Because the main character is a young, delicately built woman, she is allowed to attack feminists—literally. Well—fictionally.

A picture of Flockhart appeared last year on the cover of a national news magazine, suggesting that Ally McBeal was the feminist incarnation of the 90s. Not long after that an episode of the series had Ally dream that a rabid feminist badgered Ally in the street demanding that she gain weight and become a serious role model for young women. Ally responded by biting off the woman's nose. She confesses her naughty dream to a fellow attorney he gently tells her it "troubles" him.

The Ally McBeal character, with her klutzy frequent falling down, yearning after love and incurable romantic idealism, seems to pretty clearly represent the vulnerable inner child—a modern fairytale heroine with whom a very wide audience can easily identify. In this sense, the rumors of star Calista Flockhart's anorexia are more of an intriguing possibility than a debilitating and possibly fatal illness.

The modern American fascination with extreme thinness has a parallel with the Victorian era's admiration for a heroine who appeared to be soulfully wasting away from tuberculosis.

We have television commercials, such as the recent one for Meridia, that specifically tout the medication for inducing anorexia. Even our medical professionals can by hypnotized by the myth that by leaving half the food on one's plate, one will attain the so-much-desired weight loss. Anorexia and even extreme thinness is a malady devoutly to be wished by millions of American women.

I don't mean to suggest anything about Ms. Flockhart's health. Her body is her business just as my body is mine. But I was startled when Connie Chung broached the subject of her extreme thinness in an April "20/20" interview and Flockhart retorted, "Are you envious [that I am so thin]?''

The cult of anorexia is alive and well in the most upwardly mobile part of America and anorexics are secret heroines to many. When the eating disorders are mentioned there are two kinds:

The thin girls, the admirable victims, the would-be models, ballet dancers, gymnasts and yes, actresses. Anorexics are trying to be perfect. They demonstrate the kind of control that the audience would like to have—just not so much of it.

Then there are the fat girls—despised, disgusting and rebellious. All of them are assumed to be compulsive overeaters, self-indulgent and the opposite of perfect. Fat girls are a physical demonstration that the flesh is willful and the tiniest self-indulgence is translated into that visible mark of weakness—fat.

Diet pushers have evolved new ways to market starvation by calling it something else. The fact that their new strategies of food deprivation have no more proven success than the old is discarded as irrelevant.

Any science that throws out 98% of its data is no science at all. But the idea that fat people are constantly self-indulgently overeating is a prejudice so dear to the heart of this culture that the majority of doctors will toss aside scientific evidence to embrace it—and push for low calorie diets, stomach stapling despite their dismal failure rate and horrific side effects.

It's a very simple equation FLESH = BAD, STARVATION = NOBLE.

What I find fascinating about David Kelley's use of Camryn Manheim in "The Practice" is how differently the fat woman is perceived by the same writer who appears to see the thin woman as the "inner self." Several magazine articles have indicated that the role of Ellenor Frutt was not conceived as a fat woman, but after Manheim made an impression on Kelley, he re-wrote the character as a large, powerful take-charge woman.

While Ellenor is never shown damaging any of her lovers as in the notorious "Picket Fences" episode described earlier, she herself is injured by an unhappy love life. The head-in-the-briefcase-toting client is an ex-boyfriend, while another boyfriend is found to be running an insurance fraud scam.

While Ally yearns hopefully, Ellenor appears to have concluded that the deck is stacked against her in the romance department and she might as well put her abundant energy into manipulating her fellow lawyers and maximizing her profits in the firm. To Kelley's credit (and even more to Manheim's), Ellenor is not presented as a greedy troublemaker, but more of a deeply disillusioned woman for whom the term "Frustration Leads to Aggression" is a way of life.

Kelley clearly plays with the echoes between light and dark, fat and thin and his two series twine around each other with characters from one appearing in the other. Screams and dialog from the head-in-the-briefcase episode of "The Practice" play in the background when McBeal enters her apartment to find her roommate in bed with a married man.

Extra-thinness, fragility and a child-like appearance are high-status attributes for women in this culture, evoking interest among the upwardly mobile males and envy among the less lean ladies. If a slender woman is assertive, it may be tolerated as cute in a kittenish sort of way. The same actions from even a slightly sturdy (let alone fat) woman are more likely to be seen as ugly and strident. The fat woman is demanding something that is not being offered her—such as everything that is being offered to the childlike waifs of the world.

A large woman who asserts herself is seen as a dangerous and angry Amazon. Such a woman might even be able to overpower a male (whether or not she could crush him in bed when he is most vulnerable). Such a woman, perhaps tired of waiting meekly for notice that never comes, might take matters into her own hands. No wonder she is frequently mocked or feared—and ironically becomes even less sought after the more efficiently she goes after what she wants.

I watch the evolution of David Kelley's art with a certain interest (and trepidation because the visual wounding and frequent falling on "Ally McBeal" is so disturbing to me).

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Kelley was responsible for an almost pure size-acceptance episode. This past season (1999) on "The Practice," Ellenor Frutt defended a supersized woman who was suing a carnival for allowing its barker to publicly humiliate her in front of a laughing crowd, simply on the basis of size. The point was amply made about size being a permissible area for unsolicited rudeness, where race, and disability were not. And as we so often see in Hollywood and so seldom in real life—the good guys won and Ellenor won her case.

The answer to the quiz at the top of this article is, of course, that either of those women could be fat—or thin.

If you are a fan of "Ally McBeal" as well as "The Practice," and you feel like a little stretching exercise, try this.

Visualize the highly gifted actress, zero-sized Calista Flockhart—I am not making that up. TV Guide reports that Flockhart wears a size zero. Imagine her playing the part of the driven, damaged Ellenor Frutt.

Now close your eyes. This should be an easy exercise for the Fat Admirers in the audience. Imagine the fantastically talented plus-sized Camryn Manheim playing a ditzy romantic lead a la Ally McBeal.

Interesting, isn't it?

May all of your real-life dramas have endings even happier than Hollywood could devise.


© Lynne Murray