When Ally McBeal premiered on September 8, 1997, David E. Kelley’s offbeat dramedy became an instant hit. The titular heroine’s short skirts, the flurry of witty dialogue, the visual gags (particularly the dancing baby in the dawn of the internet), and the show’s laissez-faire attitude toward sex and political correctness (exemplified by the then-scandalous notion of a gender-neutral bathroom) propelled it to ratings gold and multiple Emmy noms, including a win for Outstanding Comedy Series in its second season.
But in courting controversy, the libidinous lawyers of Cage and Fish also invited a lot of criticism, even inspiring a Time magazine cover pointing to McBeal as the death knell of feminism. A 2003 AfterEllen article took a critical look at the “heteroflexibility” of the show’s female characters, citing frequent lesbian overtones—including an infamous kiss between stars Calista Flockhart and Lucy Liu—and observing that Ally McBeal’s depiction of same-sex relationships is “simultaneously conservative and liberal, homophobic and gay-friendly,” both reinforcing and subverting stereotypes.
There’s no better example of this than “Boy to the World,” the 10th episode of the first season, featuring Wilson Cruz as a transgender prostitute named Stephanie whom Ally attempts to save from the streets and the criminal-justice system. “She’s a boy!” Ally’s roommate, Renée, suddenly blurts out after Ally begrudgingly accepts the case, revealing that Stephanie was born Stephen. “Oh,” Ally responds with a shock masquerading as worldly nonchalance.
Ally, as ally, says supposedly sympathetic things about her new client, like, “He’s obviously not well.” (“He,” not “she.”) To keep Stephanie out of jail, Ally suggests an insanity defense—“transvestite fetishism”—arguing the idea of gender identity as mental disorder. (This is also perhaps the first time mainstream America heard the term “gender dysphoria.”)
“You mean, like, I’m sick?” Stephanie protests. “I don’t want to say I’m sick. The reason I left home was because everybody called me sick.”
Cruz, for his part, is terrific, exhibiting the same shades of vulnerability and depth that made him a standout on the short-lived My So-Called Life, in which he played gay teen Rickie Vasquez. In one scene, bucking Ally’s insanity defense, Cruz rips off his wig, exclaiming, “This doesn’t make me sick! This doesn’t make me a freak!” By then it’s pretty obvious Stephanie won’t live to the end credits.
While Ally is working on her case, she finds Stephanie on the streets, turning her old tricks. “You’ll die this way,” she warns her, and the audience. But Stephanie, too, is well aware her odds of survival aren’t high. Her sole dying wish is that she shuffle off this mortal coil with a full face. “I gotta go to my grave pretty,” she says.
For a second, though, it seems that Stephanie will avoid the inevitable fate of most trans characters in ’90s film and television. Ally gets her a job at Cage and Fish, where the always inappropriate secretary Elaine (a pre–30 Rock Jane Krakowski) makes “reassuring” comments about how their pervy male co-workers won’t want to undress Stephanie for fear of what’s underneath her dress.
It’s too bad Stephanie didn’t find a more permanent place with Ally, working as a temp at the law firm, and pushing the envelope far more than any of the show’s lesbian lip-locks or double entendres ever could.
Instead, Ally and Renée get a phone call. Someone matching Stephanie’s description has been killed by an enraged john. Rushing to the crime scene, Ally finds Stephanie’s lifeless body, her wig off, and one shoe missing. She cradles her as the camera zooms out. A too-familiar tableau. The episode ends on a somber note with Ally in the morgue, dutifully making up Stephanie–pretty to the grave, like she always wanted.
After decades of being portrayed as villains, monsters, or comedic foils, trans characters in the ’90s were often used as props to show how caring and open-minded someone was; Ally was able to prove to herself that, yes, she could love someone like Stephanie, but her love was predicated on pity. Cruz’s performance adds complexity to the character, but the series went for the easy, cliché ending.
Although Ally McBeal was groundbreaking, it ran out of steam and tricks, ending with a whimper after its fifth season in 2002. For all the gender-neutral bathrooms and post-PC talk, the pre-eminent lady lawyer of the ’90s (and her impossibly high hems) still feels very much like a product of her time.