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Essay by
Judith Schroeter.
Edited by
David Gauntlett.

The Ally McBeal in us: The importance of role models in identity formation

By Judith Schroeter

There are links to related material at the end of this essay.


Role models and their influence is a frequently discussed topic in public discourse. In general, role models are understood as "other persons who, either by exerting some influence or simply by being admirable in one or more ways, have an impact on another" (Nauta & Kokaly 2001). Not surprisingly, famous people from the media are often said to be role models. The behaviour of pop icons like Britney Spears and Eminem, as well as actors, politicians or celebrities ranging from Prince William to Big Brother contestants is examined in detail and held up as a good or poor example. Even fictitious persons serve as models, and (young) adult women have a long history of television role models - starting with the typical housewives of the fifties like June Cleaver or Donna Reed to the more modern characters of today including Buffy, Monica and Rachel from Friends, the women from Sex and the City and of course Ally McBeal.

A survey research study from 2001 conducted by Margaret Nauta and Michelle Kokaly has confirmed that the influence of 'famous role models' should not be overlooked. But why do role models seem to be so important? What exactly makes people base their character, values and aspirations upon other persons especially if they are not personally known or not even 'real'? Social psychologists usually call in the 'social learning theory' to explain: According to this theory people learn behaviour by observing it in others and repeat it if it appears to be beneficial to them. Yet it is essential to bear in mind that whole lifestyles are not directly copied. People may appreciate some traits in another person and try to imitate them, and, at the same time, completely ignore other characteristics (Bandura 1969 and 1986, Gleitman et al. 1999: 590). However, in a psychological sense, it still remains unclear how role models actually work - how exactly they influence various aspects of development processes (Nauta & Kokaly 2001).

Another way to expound the importance of role models in forming one's identity is to draw on sociologist theories. Ulrich Beck, along with Anthony Giddens, is one of the leading theorists of the 'late modern societies' we live in today. His concept of 'individualisation' offers various accounts of possible roles for role models in our daily lives.

This essay attempts to explain from a sociological point of view how role models might contribute to the formation of identities, including a study of Ally McBeal, arguably the most discussed female television character today. The analysis will be carried out in two parts: First is a brief presentation of Beck's concept of individualisation. I will concentrate on aspects like detraditionalisation and reflexivity as central characteristics of our society as well as the crucial role of media and especially of media role models in the formation of an 'individual identity'. Underpinned by this theoretical basis, the second part will focus on Ally McBeal as role model. After outlining the nature of the public discussion, I will explain that Ally McBeal is not a role model in a traditional sense. Supported by statements from e-mail interviews I conducted with fans, I will argue that she personifies typical conflicts that arise from an increasingly individualised society - thus, conflicts that we all face in our daily life. Consequently, Ally McBeal can provide support and help us to cope with them. The conclusion will answer the question outlined above and briefly go into some criticisms that address the concept of individualisation.

The concept of individualisation

According to Ulrich Beck the most dominant and widespread desire in Western societies today is the desire to live a 'life of one's own'. More and more people aspire to actively create an individual identity - to be the author of their own life. The ethic of individual self-fulfilment and achievement can be seen as the "most powerful current in modern societies" (Beck 2000: 164f). But what drives people - may they come from Britain, Germany, Poland, Spain, Canada or the USA - to increasingly take control of their lives?

It is not the rise of a new era of egoism as media debates over the 'Me first-society' suggest. The concept of individualisation does not mean unconnectedness, isolation, loneliness or the end of all kinds of society. As Beck puts it, it rather means the exchange of industrial society ways of life by new ones, in which individuals must 'produce' their biographies themselves. The term individualisation thus covers a complex phenomenon, or more precisely, a social transformation. In other words, the trend to more individuality is not based on the free decision of individuals; Ulrich Beck argues that the conditions we live in today force us to live a life of our own (Beck 1994: 5f, 13).

One main characteristic of late modernity is its reflexive character, which implies that the certitudes of industrial society are no longer taken for granted, but that they are constantly questioned. Especially tradition, seen as a "collective way to organise time" and a guidance for the future, changes its status. [[Footnote: In previous times people were born into social classes and fixed gender role which involved certain rituals with a binding character that, in turn, determined people's life and identity.]] It would be wrong to talk of a society in which traditions completely disappear - they are rather called upon to defend themselves against other types of conducting and arranging life (Kaspersen 2000: 95).

However, it is crucial to our society that social activities cannot be carried out only guided and influenced by tradition. This has a profound effect on many dimensions of our life. For instance, as traditional gender roles are routinely subject to interrogation, this leads to changes in labour market structures as well as the nature of relationships between men and women. On the whole, with an increasing reflexivity and an undermining of tradition, more options to lead one's life are created for each individual, but, on the other hand, this means that more decisions have to be made. Individualisation therefore means that "the standard biography becomes a chosen biography, a do-it-yourself biography" (Beck 1994: 15). As role stereotypes and historical, inherited models for living fail to function, one's one life becomes increasingly an 'experimental life': People test out several identities and ways of life. Thus the opportunities of the biography increase, however, the ambivalence and risks individuals have to handle alone increase as well. The level of self-responsibility rises (Beck 1994, Beck 2000, Kaspersen 2000, Benton 2000). [[Footnote: However it is wrong to assert that individuals are completely left alone. According to Beck, binding traditions are exchanged by many sets of institutional guidelines (in the educational system, the labour market, or the welfare state). The crucial difference between them is that modern regulations "compel the self-organisation and self-thematisation of people's biographies: […] individuals should run their own lives on pain of economic sanction" (Beck 2000: 166).]]

Living in Western societies today confronts the individual with a infinite number of choices how to live one's life, but it offers only limited guidance in how to make them. People are expected to actively construct their identity, their 'project of the self'. However, to a lesser and lesser extent they can fall back upon the symbolic content of traditions that was passed on through face-to-face communication.

Instead, so argues John Thompson, self-formation has become increasingly interwoven with mediated symbolic forms. By providing individuals with a range of diverse ways to arrange and conduct their lives, the media functions as a constant guideline; it becomes a resource that people draw on and incorporate reflexively into their projects of self-formation.

In some cases, they come to rely very heavily on mediated symbolic materials - they become "an object of identification to which individuals are strongly and emotionally attached (Thompson 1995: 218, 233). Some people build up a kind of relationship to people they only know though the media like pop icons, show masters, actors or even fictitious characters. In contrast to relationships between friends or partners, these connections are characterised by their non-reciprocal nature. Nevertheless, these 'distant' others can be "regular and dependable companions" who can provide not only entertainment, but also advice and support. They can therefore serve as role model. Thompson understands the process of becoming a fan as a "strategy of self": By consulting 'their role model' individuals explore possibilities and imagine alternatives of how to create 'one's own life'. Thus, they are experimenting with the project of the self (Thompson 1995: 220-223).

Ally McBeal - what the media says

Ally McBeal, played by Calista Flockhart, is a young lawyer from Harvard and the main character of the successful programme launched in 1997. The series quickly became one of the most talked-about shows, and in 1998 won the Golden Globe Award for best comedy and best actress in a TV series for Flockhart. In the same year the show was nominated for ten Emmy Awards and also won two "Q" awards for "Quality Television. In 1999 it received an Emmy for best comedy. The series centres around Ally's Boston law firm and colleagues, the courtroom and their trials as well as Ally's relationships with men, or more precisely, the desperate search for her soul mate. On the whole, Ally McBeal is not a typical central female figure: She is constantly insecure, narcissistically obsessed but at the same time never really happy with herself.

The question of whether or not Ally McBeal is a good role model has been played out in public discourse several times already. The media seems to have a fixation with two issues. The first is with the anti-feminist aspect of Ally McBeal and the portrayal of women in this show in general. The second fixation focuses around actress Calista Flockhart's weight and question if she is anorexic or not.

Time magazine put Flockhart on the cover alongside Gloria Steinem and Susan Anthony, America's First Suffragette, asking the question "Is Feminism Dead?" Author Ginia Bellafante argues that

"feminism has devolved into the silly, having powerful support from popular culture offering images of grown single women as frazzled, self-absorbed girls: Ally answers the question 'Why are your problems so much bigger than everyone else's?' with the earnest response 'Because they're mine'" (1998).

Bellafante especially argues that Ally McBeal is presented as "archetype of single womanhood even though she is little more than a composite of frivolous neuroses".

In the American Prospect Jane Rosenzweig aims at the same direction:

"Ally has basically created a new category of women on television: pretty young things who, in the guise of successful career women, are actually completely defined by an inability to find a husband and have children. Her contribution to the putative death of feminism, her diminutive cuteness, her short skirts, and her perky pouts all combine to make her an insult to any actual Harvard law graduate or any graduate of any school in any field, for that matter" (1999).

On the women's internet portal Joyce Millman concludes:

"Ally McBeal suggests that women today are so beyond feminism that we've come out the other side - it's strong to be self-diminishing, smart to be indecisive, brave to be a wimp. Ally consults the husband-acquiring handbook 'The Rules'. She complains to her roommate, after a chaste second date with a hot prospect, "I am a sexual object, for God's sake! He couldn't give me a little grope?" (1997)

Subject of severe criticism has also been the fact that Ally McBeal is very skinny, or even 'waif-like' as many describe her. For instance, in the Guardian Anita Chaudhuri sees cause for concern: as Calista Flockhart is "drastically underweight" she might well set a poor example to young female fans. Chaudhuri gets expert support from Deanne Jade, director of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, who argues:

"It's not only irresponsible, it's deceitful, these women [Calista Flockhart, Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Victoria Beckham and Helen Hunt] talk about eating whatever they like and it makes young women feel like freaks because it doesn't seem to work like that for them. For teenage girls, dieting becomes an endorsement of being female; talking about having to keep their weight down makes them feel like 'proper' women. It is hard to see how any of these women, particularly Flockhart, can possibly be appealing role models, with their grey skin, lank hair and sad expressions" (Jade as quoted by Chaudhuri 1999).

[Note: For further articles dealing with Ally McBeal being a poor role model in terms of her weight as well as how she is portrayed as women see Wong (1999), Kinnes (2000), Zahra (1999). In an interview with Scott Catamas, Calista Flockhart shows surprise about the hype around her: "I certainly never expected to be a role model and I don't think that the intention of Ally McBeal was indeed to be a role model." (Catamas 1998)].

Ally McBeal - A new type of role model?

As pointed out above, the media mainly focused on feminist issues as well as the possible impact of Ally's skinny figure on her fans, and as a result, labelled her as a poor role model. Although her critics made some fair points, the question arises how the show could become so popular with a leading character that is such a poor role model or even allegedly an "insult for women"? One reason is definitely the humour of the programme. It is very entertaining to watch Ally and her colleagues in their daily struggles.

However, what might be of the same importance is one aspect mentioned by Mercedes Bunz, Jon Katz and Aliza Sherman in their essays. Accordingly, Ally McBeal is amongst the new kind of television series that do not show reality as it should be, but rather as it is. As Bunz puts it, the show addresses problems with gender identities that arise because the traditional way of life in which the roles of men and women were clearly outlined (men work while women stay at home and raise the children) are exchanged by a new model of life that is not yet defined (Bunz 2001: 274). Ally McBeal has to cope with the same clichés and somehow unclear role expectations that the target group of the programme - women between 18 and 49 - see themselves confronted with. Being a successful career women and, at the same time, trying to find a man, or more precisely ones soul mate and having a family is only one of the difficulties they face (Bunz 2001: 273f, Katz 1998, Sherman 2000).

This hypothesis is supported by the e-mail interviews I conducted with female fans of Ally McBeal. One of the most important reasons why the young lawyer is important for them is the fact that they can relate to her - especially to her concerns and problems that arise from (changed) gender role expectations; it provides (emotional) support.

I think what makes it such a good show is because of its touching subjects that other shows don't normally touch. For example the 'internal clock' of a woman ticking away as we get older, and her concerns about that - also her feeling that she will never find true love. That is a very big concern for many women today. Men and women have so much problems today. Ally McBeal is just a show that a lot of today's women can relate to and be able to chuckle at. It makes us feel not so 'alone'! Here's a woman that on the outside has it all, money, popularity, looks, but she is all alone inside. So are a lot of us!

(Cherie, 31 years from California)

I like Ally McBeal because I like the way her life is shown in the show. She is a typical modern young woman: a powerful career woman, but not perfect and always doubting about what she really wants. I like to watch Ally's behaviour towards men she likes or towards them who like her. Everyone who watches this recognises situations in his own life. That makes it very funny!

(Anne, 23 from Sweden)

One young female from Spain even mentioned she gets practical help from the programme in solving some of her own problems:

I started liking the show as any other, but as I started watching it more often I realised how human the character is and how much I relate to her, even though I am more than 10 years younger than her. The show is important to me because it's the only show that can make you cry and laugh, it doesn't end when the episode ends, because then you can think about it and relate it to your life, and sometimes you can even solve problems thinking about how they solved them in the show.

(Elena, 17 years from Spain)

Taken the media's opinion of Ally McBeal described above as well as the interviews with her fans into consideration one can arrive at the following conclusion: Ally McBeal, seen in her entirety, is not a good role model in the traditional sense. Besides the reasons already outlined, she is far too neurotic to function as an example.

However, to a certain extent, Ally McBeal can be seen as a typical human in modern society that desires to live a life of her own and struggles with identity matters that arise from the conditions of late modernity. Thus, she can serve as a role model in that respect that she provides 'emotional' support and through that, a kind of guidance. This corresponds with the results of the role model survey of Margaret Nauta and Michelle Kokaly which "suggest the importance of recognising that persons perceived as role models may be able to facilitate [other persons'] development via their support and guidance as well as via the degree to which they provide inspiration and modelling" (Nauta & Kokaly 2001).

Anyhow, it is essential to bear in mind that role models are not entirely copied and may influence other people in specific life decisions rather than have an overall impact. Thus her fans may appreciate the way Ally deals with the challenges of the working world, but ignore her skinniness or insecurity in many private situations.


In this essay I have made the point that role models, in particular role models known through the media, can have an enriching effect on the formation of identity. Today we live in a society largely influenced by individualisation processes. As we - following Ulrich Beck - cannot decide whether or not to participate in this social 'movement', we have to face some significant challenges that affect us every day: We have to show more individual initiative and have to work out our roles 'alone'. As life in general has become more reflexive, our biographies are removed from external control and universal moral laws, hence, becoming open and dependent on decision making. At the same time, however, inherited recipes of how to build up this 'life of our own' do not seem to work anymore. So where do people fall back upon when constructing their identity?

One suggestion is that they increasingly use the symbolic material available through the media to form their 'self'. People from the media as well as fictitious characters can provide a kind of guidance that can be used in the practical context of their day-to-day lives and thus serve as role models. Yet, that does not mean that they have to be completely imitated as the example of Ally McBeal shows. Overall, she seems to be a poor role model as she is said to portray women sometimes in a misleading way. However, as she is facing the same struggles as many women today, Ally can become a reliable companion that gives support and guidance. To turn to Ulrich Beck again, Ally McBeal has been especially criticised by strict feminists for constantly being on the hunt for 'her' soul mate (the major goal in her life as some indicated). But, as the academic insists, this is one of the most essential issues we deal with - especially in an individualised society: On the one hand, love, family and relationships function as a kind of security system in our uncertain surroundings. On the other hand they become dependent on decision making and more independent of traditional ideas of how a relationship is defined, which implies that they may become far more complicated (Beck 1994: 14, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995: 2).

One issue that is quite frequently discussed when considering the implications of modern life on identity formation, is the question of whether the concept of individualisation is actually new and therefore relevant. Haven't there always been individualisation processes? Foucault's study of ancient Greek societies is often referred to at this point. It is true, retaining a certain individuality has always been a general human desire. However, what makes 'individualisation' a viable concept to explain other phenomenon such as the importance of role models on identity formation, is its mass character and general positive evaluation: Living a life of your own is a highly esteemed way of life. Although individualisation processes should not be understood as abrupt changes, suddenly affecting everyone - such new ways of life are naturally adopted faster in places like London or Berlin than in Cornwall or in the Münsterland. They have to be seen as social movement, occurring in all industrialised Western countries as "a side-effect of modernisation processes designed to be long-term" (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995: 8).


(For internet links, see below).

Bandura, A. (1969). Social learning theory of identification process. In D. A. Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialisation theory and research (pp. 213-262). Chicago, IL: Rand McNally.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Beck, Ulrich (1992), Risk society: Towards a new modernity, Sage, London.

Beck, Ulrich (1994), 'The Reinvention of Politics: Towards a theory of reflexive modernisation', in Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash, Reflexive Modernisation, Polity Press, Cambridge (pp. 1-55).

Beck, Ulrich (2000), 'Living your own life in a runaway world: Individualisation, Globalisation and Politics', in Hutton, Will and Giddens Anthony, eds., On the edge, Living with global capitalism, Jonathan Cape, London (pp. 164-174).

Beck, Ulrich and Beck-Gernsheim, Elisabeth (1995), The normal chaos of love, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Bellafante, Ginia (1998), 'Is feminism dead? Who put the 'me' in feminism?', Time Magazine 151, 25, at 1998/dom/980629/cover1.html (accessed: 15 January 2002).

Benton, Ted (2000), 'Reflexive modernisation', in Gary Browning, Abigail Halcli and Frank Webster, eds., Understanding contemporary society, Theories of the present, Sage Publications, London (pp. 97-111).

Bunz, Mercedes (2001), 'Sind wir nicht alle ein bisschen Ally? über das neue Verhältnis von Fernsehserien zur Realität', in Guido Zurstiege und Siegfried J. Schmidt, eds., Werbung, Mode und Design, Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen (pp. 269-276).

Chaudhuri, Anita (1999), 'Thin, thinner, thinnest', in The Guardian (18 October 1999), at Article/0,4273,3913436,00.html (accessed at 15 January 2002).

Gleitman, Henry, Fridlund, Alan and Reisberg, Daniel (1999), Psychology, Norton, New York.

Kaspersen, Lars Bo (2000), Anthony Giddens, An introduction to a social theorist, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.

Katz, Jon (1998), Deconstructing Ally, at katz/98/11/katz1a_text.html (accessed: 15 January 2002).

Kinnes, Sally (2000), 'He's the weirdo lawyer in Ally McBeal whose nickname is the Biscuit. Sally Kinnes takes a bite', in Sunday Times (2 July 2000, at 2000/07/02/sticultvv02002.html (accessed: 15 January 2002).

Millman, Joyce (1997), Ally McBeal. Woman of the 90's or Retro Airhead? at 1997/10/20ally.html, (accessed: 15 January 2002).

Nauta, Margaret and Kokaly, Michelle (1999), Assessing role models influences on students' academic and vocational decisions (presented at the 107th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Boston MA in August 1999, pdf document).

Rosenzweig, Jane (1999), 'Ally McBeal's younger sisters', The American Prospect 11, 1, at /V11/1/rosenzweig-j.html (accessed: 15 January 2002).

Sherman, Aliza (2000), The Ally McBeal in Me (and My Sister), at /fun/tvgrrl/art1221/ (accessed: 15 January 2002).

Thompson, John B. (1995), The media and modernity. A social theory of the media. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Wong, Melissa (1999), 'Ally McBeal's Warped Feminism', Daily Pennsylvanian, University of Pennsylvania, at lycos/article/0,4683,c1-i76-t0-a16872,00.html (accessed at 15 January 2002).

Zahra, Tara (1999), 'The Feminism Gap', The American Prospect 42, 1, at 42/zahra-t.html (accessed: 15 January 2002).

This essay was completed in January 2002, when Judith Schroeter was a visiting student from Germany, taking the module 'Communications Theory' at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, UK.

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