Sunday, April 27, 2014

Chick Flick Deconstruction: Legally Blonde (Part Three)

It's at this point that I feel the need to remind everyone that I really like Legally Blonde, problematic though it may be, and I like Elle Woods. It's just...


(Deconstruction behind the cut. Content warning: discussion of homophobic stereotyping, bi-invisibility, more victim blaming)

I promise I won't focus on the victim-blaming anymore, but that's only because the movie doesn't either. Later in the movie, Emmett (remember him?) will set Vivian straight and tell her what she should have know from the first second, that Callahan was sexually harassing Elle. Vivian's words after this realization?

You think?

And that's the end. Subplot? Dropped. I am not kidding. Vivian and Elle don't interact anymore.

I wish I was kidding.

The incident itself is brought up one more time, when Brooke fires Callahan as her attorney and Elle takes over. In a nice and forceful character moment and a really genuine display of Elle reclaiming her agency, she basically threatens to expose him as a sexual harasser if he doesn't step down. And so he's out of the movie too.

So this is act three, where the movie turns into a courtroom comedy. (This isn't really presented in chronological fashion at this point. I decided to discuss the sexual harassment subplot separately. In reality it's sprinkled throughout the rest of the movie, but I thought it was better to handle it as its own entity.)

So in case you've forgotten, here are our principal players in the murder drama:

 Chutney, who totally did it.

 Enrique, who... Ugh. We'll get to him.

Brooke, pictured here looking innocent AS FUCK.

And the judge, who just can't even with this nonsense.

In a short confrontation with Enrique where he snaps at her to get out of his face with her last season Prada shoes, Elle has an epiphany, the first of two that will prove Brooke's innocence. She runs off to tell Callahan about her amazing insight. Enrique was not having an affair with Brooke like he claims! That's not possible, because he recognized the brand of shoes she was wearing, so he must be gay!



I use the term "coded" a lot. Coded gay means that while it's never outright stated that a character is gay, they are portrayed as possessing stereotypical mannerisms and speech patterns unfairly associated with gay men. This often means that gay men are portrayed as being femmy, sassy, mincing mean girls. Remember the hairdresser from the Bend & Snap bit? He's coded gay. They never tell us that he is, but he's presented in such a way that telegraphs to the audience that yeah, seriously, he is though. So while this makes not a lick of sense in actual reality, Elle lives in a world where people who are coded gay are, in fact, gay. Enrique wears sequined shirts, minces and prances, lisps and wears a sparkling thong to do his job. This character is as coded gay as they come. So yes, Elle, got it in one. That man who is made to look more stereotypically gay than a bigot's fever dream of a pride parade? He's totally gay. Well done.

This revelation of Elle's leads to Luke Wilson's only funny moment in the movie, where he tricks Enrique into outing himself in front of the entire courtroom (always a classy move.) Enrique tries to backpedal and claims that his boyfriend Chuck is "just a friend", to which Chuck, who is in the audience, responds by openly weeping and dramatically running out of the courtroom.

I do not have to get into how offense this stereotype is, right?

Also, bi-invisibility is a real problem. The fact that Enrique is in a relationship with Chuck is treated as the huge moment where it's revealed that Enrique cannot possibly have had an affair with Brooke, because he has a boyfriend, therefor he is gay!

No, okay? Last time I looked in the mirror, bi people existed.

So here's the final tally of your QUILTBAG people in this movie: the angry pseudo-feminist who hates women for their life choices, the sassy hairdresser, the lying, manipulative Hispanic pool boy who snaps at women about Prada shoes and his weeping boyfriend.

So that's one lying witness discredited, one more to go. (To the best of my recollection, after having watched this movie three times, we never find out what Enrique gained from his false testimony. I guess gay Hispanic men are just evil like that.) Next on the stand is Chutney, the step-daughter, and we already know she was the shooter. Elle discovers this fact by questioning her testimony: if she just had a perm that day, why would she be in the shower when the murder took place? (It's a little convoluted, but it comes down to the fact that Elle discredits her testimony through her knowledge of hair care.)

Now, since I have used the word step-daughter way back in part two, you already knew how this was going to play out. Because this movie gets way too much credit for skewering stereotypes.

The history of relationships between step-mothers and step-daughters (even more so than biological mothers and daughters) in fiction is a pretty one-sided one: the step-mother is evil. Is making the step-daughter evil instead of the step-mother a subversion of this trope? No, not really. The offensiveness of the trope lies in the assumption that women have to be biologically related to have even a smidgen of a chance to possibly get along while in the presence of a man they both care about. While the step-mother being the aggressor adds a layer of power abuse to the trope, the core of female competition over a man (the father) remains. Chutney outright states that the reason she hates her step-mother and wanted to kill her (killing her father instead was an accident) is because Brooke and her are almost the same age. It's the story of two women competing over the affection of a man and destroying him and each other in the process, which is totally fresh and not problematic at all. Note that when this is revealed, Brooke is shown as being elated and happy. She does not feel for her step-daughter, she does not empathize, she isn't shocked, she has no relationship with this young woman at all. As far as the audience can see, these women may as well be complete strangers.

For a movie that's so adamant about rejecting female competition over men, it's downright weird to me that they incorporated one of the most well-known and blatant examples of it. Oh well.

It's also here I have to question again why Elle wants to practice law at all. She's shown as being very unsteady on her feet when it gets right down to it. That's understandable, she's still just a first year intern at this point, but when she gets really into it it's her knowledge of fashion and beauty that saves the day, not her knowledge of the law. With both witnesses discredited and a full confession from Chutney, case closed, I just don't see why Elle wants to go back to Harvard.

She does, of course, and we flash forward two years, with Elle of course giving the graduation speech, which I cannot remember. Something about being true to yourself I'm sure. I would have personally preferred for Elle to go back home and do what she is clearly passionate about. The reason for that is that Elle's passion for fashion (so to speak) comes from within herself. She is internally motivated and genuinely interested in these things, and talented to boot. (Way early in the movie it's established that she designed her own clothing line at age 15, which the movie glosses over like it's no big deal, when if fact wow, no, that's a big deal.) Her pursuit of a law career, by contrast, is externally motivated: she enjoys the positive reinforcement she receives for acting against type and showing that just because she looks and acts a certain way, that doesn't mean she's not smart.

But Elle always knew she was smart. She was always determined to succeed and confident in her abilities. There's no arc there; she was smart and confident at the start f the movie and she's smart and confident at the end. The arc is solely external. People approve of her choices now. The fact that we're supposed to applaud her choice to give up fashion for law, to abandon her internal motivations to pursue external affirmation leaves me with the feeling that a decade down the line, Elle might regret some life choices she's made. Maybe this is addressed in the sequel, I haven't seen it, but as it is, the ending feels very bittersweet to me.

(A good argument could be made that Elle's arc is in fact that she goes from being a woman who defines herself by her boyfriend to a woman who, well, doesn't, which is all well and good, but the Emmett character completely invalidates that. At the very end, we're assured that they are dating and that Emmett is about to propose. See why I don't like the addition of that character?)

Also this:


Where's the scene where Vivian apologizes to Elle for her egregious victim blaming? Where's the scene where Elle shows that she knows calling Vivian a "frigid bitch" was wrong no matter what the circumstances? Don't get me wrong, I'm not doubting that they can be friends even with that track record. But this movie is so desperate to portray the Vivian-Elle arc as "two women stop being so catty over a dude and then they're friends because friends is more important than dudes" that it's way too lazy to just throw out a title card. Show don't tell maybe? I don't buy this. Not even a little bit. They have ONE scene together where they're not actively sniping at each other, two if you count the one where they manage a forced how-do-you-do. If you want to portray a budding female friendship, that's how not to do it.

And that's Legally Blonde. Now that the whole thing is deconstructed into it's building blocks, let's see what it all adds up to.

Is Elle a Mary Sue?

Eh, I'm undecided on that one. Is she presented as being absolutely flawless? Not really. I've dug deep enough to find at least one major flaw, like I explained in part one, but I had to dig deep. The movie is pretty consistent in showing that she is slower to adsorb new knowledge than her peers and that she struggles with the material, but after saving the day in court I can't in good conscience call that a flaw. I'd have to say yes, she's a Mary Sue.

But that doesn't have to be a problem. Mary Sues are wish-fulfillment characters after all. And the wish to be fulfilled here, as the movie presents it, is to rise above what people tell you to be and to become smarter, more successful and more confident as a result. I've already stated why I don't think that's what actually happened in the movie. But in a world where women's wish-fulfillment fantasies are overwhelmingly portrayed as "be in a hetero-normative monogamous relationship with a perfect man" (re: Disney), this is a welcome change nonetheless. And let's not forget that this movie was made in 2001, at the height of the Girl Power phenomenon, where positive portrayals of female friendships (which this movie still has in spades) were a lot more rare than they are today.

I like Elle. I would like to be her friend. She's fun, she's kind and she genuinely cares about people. Everyone should strive to be more like Elle.

What the hell is Elle's arc?

I honestly don't know. But have several theories.

I've already stated that I find the ending problematic and my reasons for thinking that, but I deliberately left out one bit:

That's Elle telling Warner, after he makes it clear that she is now good enough to be dated by him, that nope, not interested.

The movie banks heavily on symmetry here, which leads me to believe that this is the arc they had in mind for Elle. They even play the same song they played over the opening credits, something about a "perfect day". In the opening credits, it's a perfect day because Elle believes Warner is going to propose. By the time the end credits roll, it's a perfect day because Elle knows she is better than Warner, that being married to him would be bad for her, and because she has achieved something very difficult: graduating from Harvard law. Everything is mirrored, but better. Instead of a bad boyfriend, she has a good boyfriend. Instead of a frivolous career, she has a respectable career. 

Which... kind of works? I've already stated that I find this message incredibly diluted for two reasons: the addition of Emmett reassures us that despite everything, we shouldn't worry. Elle is paired up, and that's what's important. And again, I can't stress enough how little chemistry these characters have and how Not A Love Interest he is. Secondly, I'm still waiting on that scene where Elle shows not just an aptitude for law but also a genuine, internally motivated passion for it. I'm sure she's going to be a partner by the time she's 30. I'm not so sure she's going to be happy with that when all is said and done.

Is it empowering? Yes, in that Elle gains power through social approval and rises in status.

Is it healthy for her? I'm not sure.

And that's my problem with her arc as it's presented on the surface: Elle didn't really need an arc. She was fine at the start of the movie and she's fine at the end. She didn't need to change. All she needed was to get rid of her jerk boyfriend.

But here's another way of reading Elle's arc: through the lens of self-objectification as it relates to her clothing choices, and the Jackie/Marilyn dichotomy she is presented with at the start of the movie.

(I'm stepping onto very thin ice here, so I want to make one thing very clear: it is never okay to make assumptions about women based on how they choose to dress. Never. I would not under any circumstances do what I'm about to do here to a real woman, and neither should anyone. But Elle is a fictional character being dressed by a costume department, so I'm going to cautiously proceed, on the basis that if Elle as a character takes her fashion very seriously, so should anyone trying to deconstruct her arc.)

At the start of the movie, it could be argued that Elle is presented as self-objectifying: she judges her worth by male approval, in her case her boyfriend's approval, and is absolutely crushed when she does not meet his standards of what she should be, to the point where she rearranges her entire life to meet his expectations. She sets out to meet the expectations of others in a different manner when she does her best to fit in at Harvard, only to hit a low point at the party where she has her transformative moment.

The way she dresses follows this arc: at the beginning, her dress is quintessentially Elle: bright, pink, colorful and completely in line with what she wants to wear, clothes that makes her feel happy. As soon as she tries to fit in at Harvard though, she starts wearing more drab colors, covers up more and dresses the way she feels she has to dress to fit in. She still depends on the approval of others to determine her worth, with one very poignant exception: when she tries to get Warner's attention during a soccer game, she again dresses for appeal. And it's worth noting that at her lowest, most vulnerable point, she is wearing a very revealing, very sexualized costume that she was tricked into wearing specifically to humiliated her.

This is kept up throughout the movie: when Elle is on her own or with friends, she dresses the way she wants to, in a way that makes her happy. 

When she is in the Harvard/court setting, she dresses the way she feels she must dress to be taken seriously.

Also notice that as the movie gets into the court drama portion, Elle's clothing begins to mirror Vivian's (Jackie's) style down to the color scheme:

In that context, consider the two low points in Elle's arc, the party and the sexual harassment. In terms of dress, the party is the culmination, the extreme side, of the "Marilyn" side of the scale. The sexual harassment incident happens when she shifts to the other extreme, the "Jackie" side.

She keeps dramatically shifting between these two sides until she has her moment of triumph: walking into the courtroom with confidence, and wearing the outfit that's on all the posters: classy and respectable, but bright pink, which is Elle's signature color, as is established early on. The outfit references Jackie Kennedy's famous pink Channel, but a version of it that incorporates the style that makes Elle happy: Elle has't gone from being Marilyn to being Jackie like she set out to do. She has incorporated both these symbols of different types of womanhood into herself, as expressed trough the Ellefied version of the pink Channel. 

This can be read as Elle achieving balance. She values the opinions of others and will adapt when necessary, but no longer to the point where she becomes dependent on external approval and forgets how to be herself. In other words, there's no Marilyn and no Jackie, there's only Elle.

Then, literally the minute she rejects the Jackie/Marilyn dichotomy, this:

I'm not saying there aren't any less subtle visual representations of the concept of catharsis out there, I'm just just saying I haven't seen them.

The arc then isn't Marilyn and Jackie, two very different women as they are presented to us as symbols, becoming friends. Nor is it Elle going from being Marilyn to being Jackie. The arc is one woman rejection the notion that she cannot incorporate both.

Is this what I think the writers and costume department intended? I have no clue. But I personally like the arc that focuses on Elle's journey from object to subject a lot better than the one the movie puts front and center, which is still heavily and solely dependent on external approval.

Is Legally Blonde an Exceptional Woman Narrative?

Let me clarify that for a minute, because I use that phrase often: I define an Exceptional Woman narrative as a story with a female protagonist or main character who is perceived as being exceptional at what she does (fairly or unfairly) only because the women surrounding her are somehow "less" than her. One example would be Belle from Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Remember these ladies?

(They are, no joke, often referred to as "the Bimbettes", which... come on. Really? That's just downright mean.)

These are the women Belle is measured against, because remember, women are in constant competition and must be measured against each other to determine their worth. On her own, Belle is definitely a fine young lady, but she's hardly exceptional. She's smart and kind and caring, but not amazingly so. She only becomes exceptional when she is contrasted against other, lesser women. See also the trope about brides putting their bridesmaids in awful dresses to make themselves look prettier by contrast. You also see it a lot more often than you'd think in daily life: "wow, you're a really cool girl, not like those other women."

The Exceptional Woman Narrative is toxic for that reason, when it leaks out into the real world and starts affecting real women. Women, from a distressingly young age, are taught to want to be the Exceptional Woman, which automatically puts them in competition with other women. Men are taught to desire the Exceptional Woman, to the exclusion of all others. Because there are two ways to dehumanize someone: tear them down, or put them on a pedestal. Both of those actions are possible when the Exceptional Woman Narrative leaks into the real world, which is why I find it very important to call it out when I see it.

So, that's the main ingredient of the Exceptional Woman Narrative: basically, the main woman partially uplifts herself, or is uplifted, by pushing others down. She is exceptional mainly by contrast, not through any internal drive or ability or innate "specialness".

So does Legally Blonde qualify? I'd have to say no.

Yes, Elle is portrayed as being smarter = better than her sorority sisters. Yes, she is nicer = better than her female peers at Harvard. Yes, she is more sexual = better than Vivian. But at this point it's important to remember that this movie is absolutely packed with female characters, and some of them are absolutely presented as being superior to Elle. The judge, for example, is absolutely more on top of things than Elle can ever hope to be, despite the fact that she seems to be running some sort of wildly illegal rogue court where defendants are guilty until proven innocent. And there's professor Stromwell, whom I haven't mentioned because she contributes very little to the movie. She is Elle's professor and encourages her to keep at it when Elle is ready to give up. There's also Brooke, who gives Elle the chance to represent her by herself. In other words, while Elle is portrayed as being better than some other women, she is also uplifted by other women.

So, Exceptional Woman? Maybe. It really depends on how you read the interactions and the overall tone of the movie. For me, personally, the answer would be no, but that's me.

Is Legally Blonde a feminist movie?



Is this a good portrayal of female friendship?

Again I'd have to say yes and no (but mostly yes). The individual problems are obvious when you dig a little deeper, and extremely, headdeskingly obvious in the victim-blaming scene, but on the whole, the movie is very firm and forceful about one thing: it is healthier for women to be friends and rely on each other than to be in competition. The cat fight, while it is present and I dearly wish it wasn't, is presented as a bad situation where both the women involved suffer for it and aren't allowed to be the best they can be. This is not subtle. In fact I'd call it the main theme of the movie. And I absolutely, 100% support the movie in that message, even if they bungle the execution on several occasions. Honestly, I might even forgive the victim-blaming incident if they had bothered to include a resolution for it other than "and then they were besties."

Elle relies on the women in her life. They rely on her. They support each other, they even drop the word "sisterhood" at one point, and I really, really like that. The women here (and this movie is packed to the gills with all these women) form a real support network, just like women in real life do. Here's another thing I haven't shown:

That's Elle's sorority sisters from back home showing up to support her in court. All the women in this movie who have helped Elle or have been helped by her show up to support her either in court or for the graduation speech. The Sorority friends, her mother, professor Stromwell, Paulette, they're all there (no word on Angry Lesbian Feminist though.) In movies, screen minutes, even seconds, are a very precious commodity. I really like that they took those precious minutes and devoted them to showing that women can and will support women. That says more about the intent of the movie than anything else really.

While occasionally a toxic message does ooze through the cracks, as a whole the movie is very clear about the fact that female competition is damaging for all involved, and nobody benefits from it except the men who don't deserve it. That's nice. I like that.

Is it a good movie?

I think so, yeah. It treats its subject with kindness and affection while it could easily have scored just as many laughs by having us laugh at Elle. But it is firmly rooted in the turn of the century, the era of Will & Grace and third wave feminism and Girl Power. If you don't like those things (understandable position) then you probably won't enjoy this movie. But would I recommend it otherwise? Yes. For all it's faults and deeply problematic moments, Elle is a wonderful character, and the movie has its heart firmly in the right place.

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