Friday, April 25, 2014

Chick Flick Deconstruction: Legally Blonde (Part Two)

When last we saw our intrepid heroine, this happened:

And I had a little blub.

 (Content warning: description of sexual harassment by an authority figure, victim blaming.)

Again, Elle doesn't retaliate. From this point on, she completely ignores Warner and he becomes a complete non-entity. She feels no need to get back at him or anything of the sort. She just snaps out of it, realizes he is not worth any of her emotions, positive or negative, and moves on. (Apart from one unfortunate exchange later on, but we'll get to that.)

At this point I would have been very happy if the movie decided that Elle, realizing that she only went to Harvard to impress her ex, quits law and goes back to doing what she loves. In fact I may have preferred that. Elle has never up to this point shown a real interest in law, not like she has in fashion and beauty, and at this point she has no real internal impetus to stay. I would have liked it if this was the end of the third act, after which Elle goes home and dedicates herself to what she actually shows a passion for. Seriously, movie, fashion and beauty just aren't inherently "lesser" than law. It's a shame they persist in presenting law as serious and worthwhile and fashion as frivolous and vapid.

And we never really do find out why she stays at Harvard. It doesn't vibe with the character we've been watching so far. Up until this point (about 40 minutes into the movie) Elle has been motivated purely by internal factors. True, these factors have been mostly centered around internalized objectification (must get boyfriend back!), but they were internal all the same. Suddenly there's a switch and she becomes motivated by the external: a desire to show people that she can do this, not because she wants to (that's not addressed, so I don't know whether she does or doesn't) but because she has something to prove. After her realization, she literally snaps: "I'll show you!"

And that's her motivation from now on. She'll show him. She'll show them all.

This isn't a problem. I'm not saying that. External motivations are as valid and real as internal ones, but they can become a little problematic when not coupled with a matching internal desire. The problem is that from this point on, Elle's internal motivation sort of fades out and disappears. Consider this scene, where Elle expresses her genuine love and passion for her new field of study:

I don't understand why the movie never takes the time to establish that Elle actually likes law or makes an attempt to explain why she wants to be a partner in a law firm while that is so incongruous with her previous interests, but it just doesn't go there. The movie is content to assume law > fashion and expects us to go along with that. So... okay, I'm game. I guess. But I still think it's a missed opportunity. It wouldn't have taken much screen time at all to quickly establish that Elle likes what she's doing at Harvard. I 100% support her in her quest to "show them!" I'm also worried that this is her only motivation.

So at this point the movie stops being a Pygmalion transformation narrative and switches gears into full-on coming-of-age story. Elle understands now that chasing after Warner is useless, that she doesn't actually want to be with him anymore, and throws herself into her studies. Previously she's been shown to work at her studies, but struggle with the material. To the movie's credit, she doesn't now magically become a genius at law. Instead, they show her working hard and slowly grasping the complex material in front of her, at a slower rate than her peers, but she's getting there all the same.

Oh, shit, the love interest! I'd completely forgotten about him. If you've seen the movie, I'm sure you have too.

This guy! Remember him? I sure don't, and I'm watching this movie as I'm writing this.

Luke Wilson is Emmett, a third year student, and he seriously did not bring his A-game. He does what he can with what he's given, which isn't much. He's there to fill the Nice Future Boyfriend quota. I don't understand why. He's barely even in this movie, Emmett and Elle have no chemistry whatsoever, they have maybe one short scene alone (blink and you'll miss it) and the movie is heavily focused on Elle as a person and her journey as a law student. Emmett feels like a complete afterthought, a character hastily shoved into the narrative by studio decree, because we can't have a chick flick without a handsome dude, now can we? Hetero-normative relationship as a reward for growth is trite and reductive no matter which way it goes. But they stop at shoving him in there. He doesn't do anything at all.

I cannot adequately explain how much this designated love interest is not a love interest. He's nice to her when they're onscreen together and way at the end, a title card informs us that they're dating. It's the most complex romance this side of Wuthering Heights. And it pisses me off, because really? Did we need this character? All he does is diminish Elle by his presence. In a movie that's so obviously about her becoming a competent lawyer, why this character? Why are the creators so insecure about having no dudes in their movie, to the point where one dumped ex must immediately be replaced with a better alternative? Grrl Power is all well and good, but having the movie continue with no male characters at all is obviously madness. Madness! It's out of place, incongruous and detracts from Elle's coming-of-age narrative in a big way. I think Luke Wilson knows it too. He looks so bored. I feel bad for him.

Anyway, these are your men for the rest of the movie: Emmett, who loves to spout platitudes about believing in yourself and so forth, and Elle's professor Callahan. This is where the plot takes us next: Callahan has an internship for four students. He is impressed by Elle and asks her if she has a resume. Of course she does. I like that she does. Elle is presented as the sort of woman who thinks ahead and takes her choices seriously, so yes, of course she carries her resume at all times. It's pink and scented, which the men make fun of behind her back. I would like to point out that they talk about it for over a minute, which means that, hey, it totally worked.

Elle gets the internship spot, and so do Vivian and Warner and a fourth person I'm sure. When the four winners are announced, this happens:

Okay. So.

Here's how the movie wants us to read this (I know I'm asking you to take my word for this, which you're absolutely not obliged to do, but I hope I've established by this point that this movie is anything but subtle. If your take on this scene differs, I'd love to know about it!)

This comes on the heels of Elle's "I'm never going to be good enough for you" moment, where it's established she simply gets over Warner. But it's natural that there would be some lingering resentment. By confronting him in this way, Elle does three things:

  1. She affirms that studying law is more rewarding than the relationship she set out to have
  2. She is SO over Warner
  3. It never hurts to get another dig in at that bitch Vivian

Again, that's how the movie wants us to read it. (And this is the closest the movie ever gets to establishing that Elle actually enjoys studying law.) I saw it slightly differently.

For one, as I've already mentioned, I just do not buy into the assumption that this female cat fight is entertaining for me to watch. Too often movie makers assume that for women, watching other (lesser, meaner, prettier, take your pick) women getting their comeuppance at the hands of a Mary Sue is liberating and cathartic. It is not. I personally find genuine female friendships and rejection of female competition from the get-go cathartic, but YMMV.

Secondly, what is the binary opposite of slut-shaming? Because this is now the second time (and they haven't interacted all that much) that Elle implies that she is better than Vivian because Elle is sexual, and Vivian is lesser because Elle perceives her as "stuck up" and "frigid". This movie's sexual politics are wildly confused at best. They'll never land on anything either, and I wish they would. It's not necessary, this is not a movie about Elle's romantic relationships and sexuality, but if you're going to bring it up, you have to address it. Otherwise why bring it up at all? Which is it, movie? Are women who are happily sexual whores (like the sorority friend) or empowered (like Elle)? Are women who abstain from sex "frigid bitches" (like Vivian) or pure virgins (also, bafflingly, like Elle.) Make up your goddamn mind.

Third, no, this kind of dig has NOT OVER IT branded across it is sizzling twelve-inch letters. Elle is so often shown to be above pettiness and rivalry. She's shown to have a complete change of heart about Warner at the end of act one. She is generally done with this shit. Why not here? (Because it's a comedy, and this is a joke exchange, doy, but still.) It would be much more empowering for Elle, and much more like the character we know, to simply be happy with her accomplishments and let them speak for themselves.

And I'll point out here that it's no coincidence that Vivian is present for this exchange. Elle did not wait for Warner to be alone to deliver this line. She clearly want to get a dig in at both of them. Remember this, because the very next scene is this:

It's at this point that I want to grab the writers by the shoulders and shake them until they MAKE UP THEIR MIND ABOUT VIVIAN ALREADY!!!

So Elle clearly wants to bury the hatchet here. She's had the last word in the previous scene (like, really, just second before this exchange in real-time) and she wants this insipid rivalry to be over, and I'm right there with her. The tone here is one of sincerity, not sarcasm. She again tries to be nice to Vivian, who now reacts with a bit of side-eye but cautiously accepts.

Why? Why this change in Vivian's disposition? She was threatened by Elle before, she acted like a vicious stereotype. That exchange up there can only have made her more insecure. What changed? That Elle is no longer interested in Warner? Warner is clearly still into Elle (remember, she's Marilyn, not Jackie), but Vivian perceives this as less threatening to her relationship than Elle being into Warner. The message is clear here: men are not responsible for their (emotional) infidelity. If you are a woman and your male partner is unfaithful in some way, the blame falls squarely on the hussy siren who bewitched him into doing something he would never have done of his own free will. It's repugnant, and it's the only conclusion we can draw here. Elle being into Warner = huge problem to Vivian. Warner being into Elle = boys will be boys. It reeks.

What the movie is trying to do is of course to present us with a budding female friendship in a male-dominated field, which is nice enough and I genuinely appreciate the attempt, but at this point it's so uneven there's nothing worth salvaging. Vivian has gotten zero character development. We have no idea what she's like, what her past is, why she is so insecure, how she feels about Warner, just... nothing. We just know her as the bully who was mean to Elle because anti-blonde prejudice. Like I said, I prefer it when female friendships reject competition right out of the gate, but as a close second overcoming that competition will do too. But this is not what happens here. This is just the Mean Girl bowing to the awesome niceness of the Mary Sue with little to no internal motivation.

(And I hate referring to her like that. I genuinely like Elle Woods. I'm not using Mary Sue as an insult or a way to diminish her character, but I'll get into that later.)

Back in the movie, Elle and Vivian, plus Warner and some others, (and also Emmett is there, and some plants and chairs) start their internship. They are to assist Callahan in defending a woman accused of murdering her husband, whom the movie establishes is 34 years his wife's senior. The word gold-digger is thrown around, but it's established that Brooke, the accused woman, is independently wealthy and made her fortune as a sort of fitness and weight loss guru (I think, it's not entirely clear.) Of the entire six person defense team, Elle is the only one who gives their client the benefit of the doubt and believes in her innocence, which... Okay. That's some shitty defense team you've got there, lady. You're rich. You can't do better than this one dude and his first year interns? Okay.

The situation is like so: Brooke's step-daughter (Chutney) and cabana boy (Enrique) both claim that they saw Brooke standing over the dead body of her husband, covered in blood. Brooke says that this is a lie and they're setting her up. Elle believes her, but Brooke refuses to give her defense team her alibi. Elle takes it upon herself to procure it anyway by winning her trust and bonding with her. The scene in prison where Brooke tearfully confides in Elle is set up to be very touching and heartbreaking. The score tells us it is, and Ali Larter's performance here is the best in the movie by miles. She tearfully confesses to Elle that she couldn't have killed her husband, because at the time he was murdered, she was getting a liposuction.

Suddenly, farty comedy trombone.

This is funny I guess.

I don't see it. Brooke is confessing to something that can ruin her career as a fitness and weight loss expert (which is a category of professionals who get a huge side-eye from me, but never mind that) not because she wants to, but because she is forced to. She is deeply scared of having to spend her life in prison and does not want to confess to having had elective surgery, not even to Elle, whom she has bonded with. She is literally forced to disclose the details of a very private medical procedure to a relative stranger. And the movie plays this for laughs.

I think we're supposed to dislike Brooke because of this? I think this is the movie trying to be all 90s empowering: "See girls, all this fitness and weight loss stuff is crap, these people talk the talk but can't walk the walk any more than the rest of us!" Which... Ugh, fine, if we must go there. But then we kind of don't go there. At one point Emmett expresses his dislike for Brooke, saying that he distrusts people who make their living telling women that they are too fat, to which Elle angrily replies: "Brooke would never tell a woman that she's too fat!"

No, Elle, but she would imply it. She would let others do it for her and then capitalize on the hurt it causes. I don't want to be too harsh here, because it's never firmly established what sort of work Brooke does, but it's heavily implied that she caters to people like Elle: pretty, skinny white girls who buy into the idea that thinness is a firm requirement for attractiveness. This is a business that can only thrive when that lie is maintained. So no, Brooke probably does not accost individual women in her workshops and on the street and outright fat-shames them. But she does perpetuate a toxic beauty ideal.

And the movie goes there without going there. The two incidents described above (Brooke's alibi and Emmett's dislike of her work) are the only times this is brought up and the movie waffles as to which character we're supposed to sympathize with. It's like they wanted to take a dig at the weight loss industry and the perpetuation of unfair beauty standards, then realized 90% of their cast was skinny white girls and quickly scampered back. They drop this plot thread and never pick it up again. So the character of Brooke serves only two clear functions: to be the sort of person that inhabits the same sphere as Elle, and to establish Elle as the sort of person who would not break a promise, not even to further her career. So why not make Brooke a fashion industry mogul? Why not an editor for a glossy magazine? The owner of a cosmetics company or chain of high-end salons? These are all things that Elle has intimate knowledge of. But they decide to go with the diet angle instead, then drop it like a red hot bag of coal. Why? It makes no sense. Unless you agree with me (and you don't have to, but if you happen to agree) that this movie has no respect for people in the fashion and beauty industry. Then it makes total sense that Elle doesn't get to see a woman who becomes independently rich and successful in this field and could be a role model to her. I you go with that, in fact, it makes buckets of rich, creamy sense.

Either way, it's time for the second act low point.

I haven't talked about Callahan much (he's the professor who runs the internship program in case you forgot, and I wouldn't blame you), mostly because he's a man in Legally Blonde and therefor as realized as an 8-bit pixel sprite. But every once in a while, every so often, it's established that he's dripping with that old-white-dude brand of casual sexism. He asks his male interns questions while telling Vivian to make him coffee, for instance. This sounds egregious, but the movie plays it very subtly. In the only nice moment we have between Elle and Vivian, Vivian sadly expresses that she's noticed this about Callahan. The two women very briefly commiserate about how difficult it can be to be a woman in a male-dominated field, but again, the movie doesn't ladle it on. I thought this was surprisingly refreshing for a movie that lacks all subtlety otherwise.

Then, Evil Sexist Attacked!

Callahan has a private chat with Elle and tells her how impressed he is with her and how she did an outstanding job getting Brooke's alibi. He also commends her for keeping her promise to Brooke and not sharing the alibi with the defense team. She is visibly touched and honored. As well she should be. This is the first time in the movie she has been complimented. Then, sadly, Callahan goes on to say that a career in law is fiercely competitive and that she must decide how far she's willing to go to make it.

(I couldn't get a clear screenshot, but trust me, that's not Elle putting her hand on his. That's her violently shoving his hand away.)

And I'm torn.

On the one hand, this is something that happens to women in male-dominated fields every day and it is definitely, without a doubt, something that must be addressed out in the open where it can be rightfully condemned and combated. Let me be absolutely clear about this: I am categorically NOT condemning the movie for choosing to go this route. This happens, it happens every day, and it has. To. Stop. The end. No further discussion necessary.

On the other hand though, I can't help but wonder what the alternative would have looked like. Like I said, Callahan's sexism is already brought up here and there, as subtly as this movie has it in itself to do. And I like that portrayal of casual sexism too. One of my go-to phrases when explaining this problem is that sexism isn't a knife through the gut, it's death by a thousand cuts. It's the background radiation of our lives, a steady drumbeat of abuse that is only juuuust socially accepted enough to not qualify as criminal abuse. I thought that this was the route the movie was going to take, and I was happy with that, because it gave Vivian and Elle something to bond over. By taking the more overt route, all subtlety is gone. From this point on, Callahan will be portrayed as an Irredeemably Evil Villain. Which he is, definitely. But this is the portrayal of sexual abusers we know: evil, irredeemable, extreme and over-the-top. Again, I want to stress that men like this exist and what happened to Elle happens every day and is revolting. But the portrayal of the Sexist Man as evil can be very destructive, because it invisibles the fact that many men who we perceive to be kind, thoughtful, intelligent and nice can also be sexist monsters. It plays into the idea that many men have that since they are not evil, since they are in fact good people, it is not possible for them to harbor sexist, misogynist attitudes. The two are presented as mutually exclusive, and that's VERY problematic.

So should the movie have handled this situation differently? I don't know. Both options are valid and illustrate real problems that real women have. Again, it kind of goes there without going there. Point is, it doesn't matter, because ALL THIS DOES IS GIVE VIVIAN ANOTHER REASON TO HATE ON ELLE OMGWTFBBQ!!1!!

No! NO! BAD movie! BAD!!!

Here endeth my thoughtful and thorough deconstruction.

No, but seriously, why? Just a couple of scenes earlier, Vivian and Elle were commiserating about how sad and tiresome it is to work for a privileged man who constantly talks down to the women below him. Vivian knows that Callahan is a misogynist prick. We see a part of the scene from her POV, so I know for a fact that she can see the look on Elle's face when this touching happens. Never mind my hatred for the "walked in at the exact wrong time" trope, because that's not even happening here. This isn't some confusing moment where it looks like Elle might be flirting with Callahan. Vivian is literally, without ambiguity, a witness to the sexual harassment of a female peer by a male superior. It really isn't subtle: we (and she) can see Elle's facial expression change from a proud smile to a horrified grimace when this happens. And the natural thing for Vivian to do, according to the writers of this movie, is to assume that Elle is sleeping her way to the top.


Elle, on the verge of tears, flees the building, to be stopped by Vivian who holds the elevator doors (on a woman who has just minutes ago escaped a dangerous situation with a sexual predator, let me remind you) to deliver this gem:

I want to make it clear at this point, so that there's absolutely no talk of this being your standard second-act wacky misunderstanding, that this is what Vivian saw:

This categorically does not look like a young woman flirting with her professor to get ahead. In fact, this is exactly what it looks like. It's not clear from a single frame, but Elle's face visibly falls and she gets noticeably upset in these few moments. This is not your standard misunderstanding. The movie plays it like it is, but there's just no angle I can approach this from that justifies that presentation. It's just blatantly not there.

And the movie never addresses this. This is where I have to stop deconstructing the characters and just say no, fuck you movie. Women get blamed and shamed for having the audacity to be victims of sexual assault every single day. If you must have your second-act misunderstanding, sexual harassment and hardcore victim-blaming is not the way to go.

I am taking all the cookies I have given you and replacing them with NO!

So that's Vivian ruined. I mean, there's more, but we're basically done with her, right? How much deeper do I need to delve into a character who isn't a character at all, just a brick wall for the movie to repeatedly bash Elle's face into? Because make no mistake, that one scene where they commiserate and warm up to each other is only there so we can feel even more bad for Elle when Vivian slut-shames her.


Anyway, Elle storms out of the building. If she was close to tears after what happened with Callahan, she's openly weeping now. She decides to pack it all in and go back home. And I can't say I don't support her in that decision.

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