Harry’s Law is a new series on NBC starring the Academy Award winning actress Kathy Bates as Harriet “Harry” Korn, a recently fired, high-powered, patent attorney who starts her own criminal defense firm in a vacant, Cincinnati, shoe store. The show is produced by David E. Kelley, known for such legal comedies and dramas as Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Public, and Boston Legal. Kelley is also known, and has been heavily criticized, for his portrayal of women. Most notably, the silly, neurotic, anorexic-looking attorney, Ally McBeal, sparked debates among feminists and television critics during the 1990s about issues such as stereotyping women in the workplace, the representation of women in media, and the appropriate gender role models for children. The character of Ally McBeal was so controversial Time Magazine placed her image on the cover under the heading, “Is Feminism Dead?” Because much of what we learn about gender comes not from our families or school, but from the media, I will examine a few instances in the pilot episode in which the main character in Harry’s Law conforms to and challenges stereotypical representations of women in the workplace and on television.
Law is undoubtedly still a male dominated profession. As is the case in many “male” fields, women must continually toe the line between being overly feminine or too masculine. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, social norms concerning women and their proper roles in the workplace die hard. Harry strikes a balance by vacillating between gendered extremes. First, Harry displays many characteristics commonly associated with masculinity and the legal profession.
She is invincible. In the first ten minutes of the pilot episode, a man attempting to commit suicide by jumping off a building lands on her and she is hit by a car. She survives both accidents without a scratch. While Harry may chalk this feat up to being a little “stuffy”, thereby calling our attention to her none stereotypical feminine physique, the audience gains a sense of her invulnerability. She is tough, she is a fighter. Harry is fired from her job, but she picks herself up and dusts herself off and starts all over again.
Harry is also aggressive. While aggressiveness is often a prized characteristic in the law and other professions, too much aggression or display of other “masculine” characteristics by a woman, like independence or competitiveness, may backfire in the workplace. Women who assert themselves or take dominant positions in the workplace are frequently labeled as “manly women” or the “office bitch.” In this first episode, Harry calls one lawyer “an arrogant, little snot” and another “an asshole.” She interrupts opposing counsel during the trial. She refuses to submit to the neighborhood bully offering “protection” for money and even pulls a gun on him. She is assertive and decisive in her plea negotiation. When performed by a man, these actions would likely be lauded or expected. Maybe Harry receives the same accolades, but unfortunately for other women, they are seen as just “overcompensating for being women.”
Harry’s lack of femininity is further emphasized by her appearance. For example, Harry is not young, or beautiful, or skinny. She is not the typical female lawyer as sex object—think Ally McBeal or every female attorney featured in the Law and Order franchise. She wears pant suits, has gray hair, knows nothing about shoes, and instead of swaying her hips from side to side, she waddles when she walks. During a recent interview with NPR, Kathy Bates discusses her styling choices for Harry and states, “We finally got the permission to just let me look the way I wanted to look, which was my initial response when I read the screenplay. It was originally written for a man, Harry…and he was a very rumpled sort of character, and he didn’t strike me as the type of guy who would dye his hair.”
One additional characteristic frequently associated with masculinity is risk taking. While many women are viewed as tentative, restrained, insecure or risk averse in the workplace, Harry is a gambler. She strikes out on her own by opening a practice in a broken-down neighborhood, in an area of law she is unfamiliar with. Harry takes the impossible case, one which cannot be won, going for broke with both judge and jury, and manages to come out on top.
Yet, despite all of these seemingly empowering, liberating characteristics, Harry still conforms to traditional feminine representations of women. For instance, despite the attempts to reign in her emotions, Harry is nearly brought to tears in her closing argument in which she defends a young, impoverished, college-bound, drug addict. She is deeply pained by the plight of this young man and almost loses her composure. Harry also may also be viewed as a mother figure to her staff and clients. In one scene, her new associate is sprayed by a gunshot victim’s blood. Harry responds, “Are you okay? …Are you sure you’re not hurt?…You need to get tested.” In another scene, Harry reminds the jury that “it takes a village.” Despite the hard exterior, Harry is a compassionate nurturer. Finally, there is one scene in which Harry plays an innocent child-like woman. After bumbling over her cross-examination of a witness, Harry is called to the stand and asks the judge, “Did I do something wrong?” While Harry is clearly using this stereotype to gain an advantage in her case, and perhaps turning the stereotype on its head, this scene clearly speaks to the underlying assumption that women are less competent, less capable, and in need of male guidance in the workplace.
In the coming weeks, Harry’s character will undoubtedly develop and become more complex. Will Harry conform to stereotypes of women in the workplace or defy traditional gendered representations? I expect, as with the first episode, Harry will continue to do both.
Harry’s Law airs on NBC, Monday 10p.m./9c. You may also access past episodes at http://www.nbc.com/harrys-law/.