Friday, April 25, 2014

Chick Flick Deconstruction: Legally Blonde (Part One)

Interesting thing: I asked a few people I know what Legally Blonde, the 2001 comedy starring Reese Witherspoon, is about. Some had seen the movie when it came out, some hadn't seen it at all, for most it had been a good long while. But they all gave an answer along these lines:

It's about this dumb blonde who becomes a lawyer, right?

It breaks my heart just a little bit, because I adore Elle Woods. But that reaction right there says just about all you need to know about how we are programmed to view a movie character who looks like this:

(Content warning: discussion of homophobia, homophobic and ableist slurs, spousal abuse.)

The first ten minutes of the movie, before the conflict is introduced, firmly establish two things: that Elle Woods takes fashion very seriously, and that Elle Woods is fiercely intelligent.

The opening credit sequence has Elle preparing for the date where she believes her theoretically perfect boyfriend Warner will propose to her. Her sorority sisters meanwhile are passing around a card wishing her good luck. (I want to highlight that fact right now: in the first minute of the movie we see women supporting each other and being happy when their friends are happy.)

The fact that Elle is smart is established multiple times right at the start of the movie. Elle is passionate about the things she likes (in her case, fashion) and consistently gets top grades for her school work. She is shown to be extremely knowledgeable about her field of interest when a saleswoman, dismissing her as a "dumb blonde with daddy's plastic" tries to con her into buying an off-the-rack discount dress at full price. Elle's knowledge about fashion helps her see right through the lazy scam, and she is more than confident enough to let the cheating saleswoman know that she will not be lied to and dismissed.

It's a shame the movie doesn't take Elle's initial interests and passions a little more seriously. For all its frivolous representations in popular media, fashion is a cutthroat business with high stakes and high rewards for women like Elle, who are both very knowledgeable and confident in their talent and ability. Because make no mistake: Elle is firmly presented as an expert in her field of study, not, as you might expect, just a popular girl who wears expensive clothes because that's what you do when you're rich and popular. Throughout this movie though, her talent for and knowledge of fashion will be portrayed as "lesser" than her aptitude for law. The movie throws fashion industry experts under the bus on several occasions and that's a damn shame, because there is no narrative point to it. For a movie that subverts a lot of stereotypes, this feels like a missed opportunity.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Elle goes on the date, hoping that her boyfriend will propose to her. Instead he unceremoniously dumps her in a crowded restaurant.


(It occurs to me right now as I'm typing this that one of the many things Jackie-O was known for was her impeccable fashion sense, but I guess it takes a paternalistic sack of male privilege like Warner to ignore that fact. Oh well.)

So Warner is unambiguously portrayed as an irredeemable jackass and will remain as the movie's designated background jackass until the very last minute. This is his entire character: he stands around being smug and douchey. (In fact the three named male characters are completely two-dimensional and hardly even exist outside of their stereotype. There's the jackass Warner, and later we'll be introduced to Supportive Love Interest and Sexist Villain. Because the only way to uplift women is to diminish men. Clearly. Don't get me wrong, in a world where we have plenty of the opposite, I'm not complaining too much. It's just lazy writing is all.) He dumps her the way most of us scrape gum off the bottom of our shoe. But Elle decides to believe what he says: that he wants a different sort of woman. What he said is "I don't want to date you". What she chooses to hear is "I will continue to date you if you become what I want."

This is her major flaw, the one that she will work to overcome in the first act: she determines her own worth by her boyfriend's metric. Warner makes it abundantly clear that he does not want to be in a relationship with her. Instead of accepting this as truth, she sets out to become the woman he claims he wants and decides to go to Harvard to study law.

Because Warner has been painted as such an irredeemable douchebag at this point, we know that getting him back isn't going to be the arc of the rest of the movie. Still we have to go through some predictable beats, down to a montage in which Elle works hard to qualify for Harvard. One thing of note here is that once again, her sorority friends are shown to support her in what she does. They don't understand it. They probably don't even approve. But after some gentle probing and Elle reaffirming that this is what she wants, they are consistently shown to help her achieve her goals, even if they don't approve. Their friendship is not dependent on Elle being just like them and doing what they do. In a genre that often thrives on the mean girl exclusiveness of female cliques, female cattiness and Exceptional Woman narratives, it's refreshing to see the much-maligned sorority women actually banding together and display genuine, unconditional friendship.

In the form of a lucky scrunchy. Because this ain't no Thelma and Louise.

(Oh, they play up the other sorority women as being lesser than Elle, especially when it comes to intelligence, but the stereotype of the airhead sorority bimbo gets delightfully skewered when, in the midst of a rant directed at her Korean manicurist, the "bimbo" friend switches effortlessly from English to Korean. No explanation given, best joke of the movie.)

This is where the movie takes a minute to show that absolutely nobody supports Elle in her decision or believes in her abilities. Her parents don't take her seriously. Even her guidance counselor is extremely skeptical. Elle remains determined and either doesn't notice their disapproval or doesn't have much cause to care. Once again it's clear that she is someone who, when she sets her heart on something, is used to working until she has it. Elle cannot conceive of a course of events where she will not get into Harvard, and she does it without any malice or desire to "show them". She wants what she wants for her own reasons, and other people's criticism and discouragement do not pierce that bubble. It's actually rather nice to watch.

But I never said it was subtle.

Of course Elle gets into Harvard, because we wouldn't have a movie otherwise. And after gathering steam and lots of gold stars, this is where the movie hits its first real sour notes.

Let me just stop the scene-by-scene deconstruction right here to talk about what has to be one of my least favorite tropes in pop culture: the aggressive, clueless feminist stereotype. This movie has one. She is, of course, frumpy and mean. At one point, she is heard raging against the term "semester", claiming that it illustrates the university's male bias and preoccupation with semen, and how she plans to petition them to change it so "ovester" next year. Har. Of course she is also a lesbian. (And boy, does this movie have a problem with QUILTBAG folk, let me tell you. Don't worry, I am going to get to that with a vengeance.)

It's baffling to me that in a movie that touches on so many feminist concepts (female friendships, white male privilege and sexual harassment, to name just a few) there is such an egregious display of Feminists = Humorless Nags. This is why, in conjunction with this movie's baffling and upsetting hatred of gay people, and other issues, I can't in good conscience call it a feminist-friendly movie. It's a Grrl Power movie at best. Don't misunderstand, not every movie that displays this brand of pop-feminism is automatically barred from being feminist-friendly, but this one crosses the line way too many times, in several little subtle micro-transgressions and a few big instances, which I'll get to later. And that frustrates me to no end, because it could have easily cut the offensive stuff while keeping the narrative 100% intact.

In any case, Elle arrives at Harvard and everybody is mean to her because of the way she dresses and talks. She meets Humorless Feminist and various other Snooty Smart People, all of whom immediately hate her. It's at this point we get the feeling that Elle is someone who is very much used to being liked and has taken that as a given. It's very upsetting to her to be disliked, and the movie paints this as being 100% the side characters' fault. It's heavily implied that Elle is well-liked because she is genuinely nice. She brings muffins for everyone to study groups, throughout the movie she's consistently shown to be empathetic and willing to help others if she can. When confronted with outright bullying, she is consistently shown to take the high road. This illustrates another main flaw of Elle's: she has trouble adjusting to the fact that she cannot make people like her no matter how nice she is, just like she can't make Warner agree to marry her no matter how much she conforms to what she thinks he wants.

Things get even worse for her when she meets Warner's new fiance. And this is where the movie takes a real nosedive.

He really wasn't kidding when he said he wanted to date Jackie-O. Because this movie is SUBTLE AS FUCK.

I categorically do not like cat fights over a dude in my fiction. It's personal, and of course your mileage may vary, but this is something that is so incredibly far from my life experiences that it frustrates me that it is presented as something that all women just do. Hissy rivalries over boys are presented as just another rite of passage for growing women, and that just does not mirror my experiences at all. It doesn't in this movie either. There is no reason for the New Woman (Vivian) to be as hostile and mean as she is. She is later shown to be very confident and kind and has no reason whatsoever to believe her fiance will dump her for the girl he just got done dumping (and I dislike that word in that context, but believe me, it fits). The only reason for Vivian to be such a goddamn mean girl is because that's what the movie wanted for conflict in the first act: women fighting over a dude. The fact that Vivian and Elle become friends later on is no surprise, because that's just exactly how it's set up and it's hardly a surprising turn of events, but the subplot is handled so clumsily it leaves me with a very nasty taste in my mouth.

But again, getting ahead of myself. Elle is upset and heartbroken at this revelation (not to mention Vivian's ridiculous meanness) and seeks refuge is a nail salon where she meets divorcee Paulette. I'll just recap her entire subplot here, because there isn't much to it. Paulette is a manicurist who was done wrong by her ex-husband in the divorce. She misses her dog and wants him back. Elle, who originally stormed into the salon to cry and commiserate over Warner being engaged, instead listens to Paulette and genuinely feels for her. She isn't just being polite either. Later in the movie, she helps Paulette get her dog back from her ex. Keeping with this movie's theme of "all men are cardboard cutouts", this man is the nastiest wife-beater trailer park stereotype you will ever hope to see. Remember kids, men who live in trailer parks and look a certain way are evil and abusive! But yes, he is verbally abusive to her and given Paulette's posture and disposition around him, it's hinted that he was abusive in other ways as well during the course of their marriage. Of course Elle isn't intimidated by this man and uses big legal-like words to intimidate him into giving Paulette her dog back. Because in addition to being abusive and evil, people who live in trailer parks are stupid and easily frightened of young women. Oh well.

(Paulette's subplot is where most of the ableist slurs in the movie are introduced. Not all, see below, but words that are regarded as widely offensive are used super-casually with no comment. That's it. Nobody addresses this, Elle doesn't mind it. If you are triggered by such slurs, seriously do not watch this movie.)

Paulette has a crush on the delivery man who comes by the nail salon but is too shy to make any overtures. This leads to the most baffling scene in the movie, when Elle teaches her the "Bend & Snap." I'll let Elle explain it, because... wow. WOW.

Now watch me put way more thought into this than the movie ever did.

Elle mentions that this move was taught to her by her mother. We've seen this mother on screen once, her only line being about how baffled she is that Elle, the first runner up in the Miss Hawaiian Tropics contest, would want to do something as frivolous as study law. (Again, watch this movie throw beauty queens and fashion experts under the bus. The mother is obviously portrayed as a vapid looks-obsessed beauty queen, which was the stereotype I thought this movie was trying to subvert. Apparently only Elle is good enough to "rise above" this. Exceptional Woman narrative: 80% achieved.)

But internally, this makes sense. I couldn't for the life of me understand why Elle, who is shown to be outspoken and confident, would engage in this bizarre form of self-objectification. Because Elle does not self-objectify: she wholeheartedly rejects the notion that the way she acts and dresses is for the benefit of anyone but herself. But then I realized two things:

1) patriarchal values are often passed down through generations: mothers and female guardians/caretakers are the first touchstone for womanhood many young women have. If this female figure buys into certain social narratives (for example the benefits of self-objectification: dinner dates, attention from men) the young woman will often copy her. Elle is young and seems to be on good terms with her mother. She never had any reason to question what she has been taught.

2) The way Elle has been portrayed so far is very innocent. This illustrates that. In most other situations she uses her words to overcome obstacles and solve conflict. But in matters of love, she is inexperienced, while her less intelligent female friends are shown to be promiscuous. Whether this taps into virgin-whore-dichotomy I'll leave in the middle. But yeah, it does.

In the movie though, this is just a way to set up the fact that inelegant, clumsy Paulette will mess up the Bend & Snap for laughs. Sure enough, this happens later when she headbutts the delivery man in the face. This is the last we see of Paulette, apart from a title card at the very end.

Notice also the appearance of two out of the four women of color with lines in this movie (if you count the manicurist from before. They have three almost-lines between them. No SAG card for you!) Also the first of the three Mincing Gays. Pardon, coded gay. In this movie's universe (the bygone era of 2001) gay men are sassy and femmy and work in salons. The 90s had a serious problem with portraying gay people that trickled into the early 2000s, and man, this movie is no exception. If you're keeping score: that's one frumpy humorless lesbian feminist and one fabulous mincing coded-gay hairdresser. Har.

Leaving the Paulette subplot, Elle's mistreatment at Harvard intensifies. Her fellow students become openly hostile when she tries to join a study group that Warner is in, and Vivian of course takes the lead in this bullying. It's at this point that Elle, for the first time in this movie, has the chance to show her "true colors" as a mean girl. In this sort of comedy, it would be very easy for the writers to give her a snappy comeback and drop the mic, but that's not the route they choose to take. Elle is witty enough to do it, as we'll later see, but she doesn't. The Angry Lesbian Feminist chimes in (note that she was not part of any conversation, she literally butts in to say this) mockingly suggesting that "maybe, like, there's like, a sorority you could like join." That's feminists for you, always putting down women for their life choices. The happiness of women we don't approve of is our kryptonite. And that's where you expect a "drop the mic" moment, but to the movie's credit, Elle remains sincere and polite even when she's hurt and angry.

I believe her.

This, I think, is the touchstone moment for Elle. When challenged and thrown off-balance, she centers and reaches for the two things she knows to be true about herself: she is kind, and she is smart. These are the two things people constantly tell her she is not, but she doesn't buy it.

And I so, so wish the scene had ended there, but no such luck. The Angry Lesbian Feminist (I'd call her something else, like her name, but this is seriously all we ever learn about her) then accuses Elle out of nowhere of being the sort of person who would call her a "dyke" behind her back. Elle simply says that she would never do that. Okay, I kind of believe her. I wanted to applaud the movie for outright and forcefully condemning the use of homophobic slurs, but given how this movie treats its gay characters, it gets no cookie for this. And then the scene really should have ended, I so wish it had, but no.

Elle: "I don't use that word [dyke]. You must have heard it from Vivian."

Shame. Elle is understandably angry and hurt at this point, but this is not a documentary about the life of the real Elle Woods. This is a piece of fiction where the writers chose to have her deflect accusations of bad behavior on another woman she doesn't like. In-universe, it's understandable she wants to get a dig in. Out of universe, it's a shame this had to be included (because again, the cat fight subplot makes no sense and does very little to further the narrative.)

The bullying escalates when Elle is invited to a party. Why she believes Vivian when she tells her it's a costume party I'll never know, because again, isn't Elle supposed to be smart? But then she's also set up to be a little naive and unsure what to do with the completely new fact that some people don't like her. so she shows up at the party in a sexy bunny costume. This is presented as her low point in the movie. I personally do believe Elle self-objectifies at this point, because the only reason she goes to the party is to get Warner's attention. Of course everyone laughs at her. It's here that you would expect her to run away crying and have her transformative moment, but no. She is more frustrated than humiliated and proceeds to simply enjoy the party in her bunny outfit, because Elle is confident and awesome and knows that it doesn't matter what she wears, she is worthwhile. But it does lead to another moment I really, really dislike:

Hey, woman, have you been shamed for your sexuality today? Didn't think so. If there's one universal and unshakable truth in this mess of a universe, it's that women who have arousal or desire disorders don't get shamed enough. Legally Blonde has got you covered! This is either a slur against people with an arousal disorder or asexual people, so take your pick! If neither of those is you, don't worry, have a gendered slur for good measure.

I really wish Elle had been consistent in being above this sort of behavior. I guess the drop-the-mic moment was too tempting to resist, but it really damages the character and is completely incongruous with the Elle we know so far. Chalk it up to her finally cracking under the pressure of the bullying and judgement, I suppose. To her credit, she won't display this mean girl behavior again in the movie.

She meets Warner, and we get to the tipping point of the first act: she believes that she is now the woman Warner wants her to be. He tells her that she is not. She reminds him that she got into Harvard just like he did, but he dismisses her and suggests she only got in because of how she looks. When he says this, Elle comes to the realization that will inform her character for the rest of the movie.

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