Sunday, 22 July 2012

Review: Legally Blonde

In my current mood I am rampaging through all the happy girly films I can think of, decimating my collection within days and making regular pilgrimages to a second hand store to pick up classics for £1-2.

Some people I know disparage my taste for happy girly films, especially the ones which are often written off as chick flicks or rom coms. For some reason (many reasons, which I won't get into now) those kinds of films are routinely disparaged, and my liking for them is met with incredulity. In addition to their obvious trashiness, my presentation, some seem to think, suggests that I would be into boyish trashy films rather than girly trashy films. (That connotative gap between "boyish" and "girly", by the way, could make a whole other post.) But while I enjoy a silly action movie with muscles and explosions as much as the next person (and I really do, I'm not being sarcastic), chick flicks have a special place in my heart, and when I need comfort, nurturing and joy, that's where I go.

I'm not saying that they're shining beacons of perfect filmmaking, although some of them are. I'm not even arguing that any of them are any good, in a technical sense. I wouldn't know a 'good' film if I saw it. But, like many a derided art consumer, I know what I like.

Last night, whilst eating my lonely supper and filing and painting my nails (in my newest shade, a pretty opalescent pink called, gloriously, "ethereal"), I watched an old favourite: Legally Blonde, starring the delightful Reese Witherspoon, the gorgeous Selma Blair and the teen-movie staple Luke Wilson.

Legally Blonde is gratifyingly silly. A 'dumb blonde' from California is dumped by her boyfriend, who wants somebody "serious", and when she discovers that one of his brothers is engaged to a first year student at Yale law school, she decides to follow Warner to Harvard and prove to him that she is worth his attentions. Shenanigans ensue. I'm not going to recount the whole plot, but there will be spoilers ahead.

There's plenty not to like about Legally Blonde. It has moments of awful homophobia and horrifying racism / xenophobia, some pretty fucked-up narratives about sexuality/prudishness, and more sexism and gender essentialism than you can shake a stick at. This is not about being blind to the faults in the thing that you love. As someone who's into social justice issues, and dislikes jokes that punch down at any marginalised community, there's really very little media that I can consume completely happily. Nothing's perfect, is what I'm saying, and if I wrote off everything that had an offensive joke or a problematic message, I would never get to consume anything, and that would make me sad. The trick, for me anyway, is to tread the line between 'perfect' (ie. nothing = sadness) and 'so offensive it ruins the whole thing' (many things = sadness). In between there is a wealth of stuff which makes me laugh, makes me think, makes me reflect, makes me happy.

Incidentally, there's something weird going on with feminism in Legally Blonde. There is only one openly feminist character - not that she calls herself a feminist or anything, but we are intended to understand that she is one of those militants because she has a degree in women's studies from Berkeley, including a specialism in the history of combat, is probably a lesbian (she suggests to Elle that Elle would have called her a dyke, although this doesn't necessarily mean that she is a lesbian, only that she imagines that Elle would assume that she is one), and argues with Warner about the subliminal domination of the English language, telling him that she is petitioning to have the Winter semester referred to as the Winter ovester in an attempt to combat the school's discriminatory preference of semen to ovaries. A straw-feminist if ever there was one. On the other hand, this little exchange is immediately followed by Elle, wearing the traditional sexy bunny girl costume, approaching Warner and being told "Wow! Don't you look like a walking felony?!" to which she replies "Thank you. You're so sweet" and Enid, our feminist friend, rolls her eyes incredulously and stalks off. Now it looks to me as if we're meant to empathise with Enid here, despite the fact that she has just been dismissed as a ludicrous feminist harpy. What's interesting is that this scene seems to disparage feminism by setting up a "god, feminists are just so ridiculous" moment using a trivial argument that I've never seen any feminist espouse, but follows it up with an actual feminist position (rape is not a compliment, one's attire does not invite rape, etc) with which we are intended to sympathise. Warner is an arse: he doesn't have one redeeming feature, and everything he says, from "I need a Jackie, not a Marilyn" to "You're just not smart enough, sweetie" to "If you tell him [the alibi] he'll probably hire you as a summer associate. Who cares about Brooke? Think about yourself" is intended to show us what an awful, vacuous person he is. By using him here to oppose a feminist position, the film sets up the position as something we can agree with, all the while openly deriding feminists and their positions. Stealth feminism indeed.

I could go on for hours about the weird back-and-forth of feminism in this film, but that's not actually what I was going to talk about. During last night's screening of Legally Blonde, I realised just what it is that is so great about the film. Femme-bonding. Although the whole premise of the film is that feminine grooming is frivolous and somewhat contemptible, its joyful moments come, again and again, from rituals of grooming and bonding. When Elle is dumped by Warner, her friends take her to a beauty salon, where she has the epiphanic realisation that she must follow him to Harvard. When she discovers that he is engaged to Vivian, she is driving at random when she spots another salon, which she makes a desperate beeline for, and plants herself in front of an employee, saying tearfully "Are you free? It's an emergency." The employee, Paulette, asks "Bad day?" and then, as she puts aside her sandwich, "Spill." Elle recounts her tale one miserable exhalation of breath, and Paulette sympathises, empathises, and advises, culminating in her counseling Elle to "Steal the bastard back!" OK, so it's not brilliant advice, but the point is the ritual of grooming that provides the environment for the counseling, the regrouping, the finding of common ground and the regaining of strength. Later, the whole contingent of  customers and staff bond over Elle's famous technique for getting the attention of a man when she advises Paulette on how to flirt with the UPS guy. Later again, when Elle tells Paulette that she is quitting after her professor hits on her in his office, the salon again provides the backdrop for fortification and resistance, as Elle's other (female) professor is revealed behind a hairdryer and tells her "If you're going to let one stupid prick ruin your life, you're not the girl I thought you were." This professor, who is "tough", who smirks at Elle's 'fluffy' demeanour and kicks her out of her first class, becomes Elle's ally when relocated in that centre of female-bonding, the beauty salon.

There are some less joyful moments related to female grooming. Elle discredits a witness by proving that he is gay after he correctly identifies her shoes as Prada, which is apparently all the evidence that she needs. And she finally wins the trial by using her knowledge of perm technicalities, which doesn't really say much for her abilities as a lawyer. Female grooming isn't only a force for good in this film. But what's important about it to me - what keeps me coming back to this film - is its status as a source of power and comfort for the women involved, particularly Elle who is trying to prove herself in the face of crushing contempt which is mostly based on her high-femme appearance. The salon and what it represents is a safe space for Elle to be honest about her emotions and her drives (personal and professional). Although there are plenty of unpleasant messages to be picked up from Legally Blonde, (and even this one - that grooming rituals are powerful - is balancing on a fine line and could easily be used for evil rather than good), the central theme of female friendship and support that is grounded in the often-disparaged pastime of female-grooming is something I can really get behind.

I also find it refreshing, if I'm honest, to see a film which celebrates the the joy the main character takes in grooming, rather than celebrating the endearing ignorance of the 'plain' girl who is in fact a natural beauty, who doesn't own any makeup or use straighteners, who doesn't know what an eyelash curler is, who wins the guy in the end, and who is throughout pitted against the mean girl who is perfectly coiffed, depilated, made-up - in short, groomed to within an inch of her life. That girl is always mean and vacuous, contemptuous of the 'plain' girl who doesn't subscribe to these silly, frivolous notions of beauty, and she is always, always, taught a lesson by the end. She loses the guy. She is exposed as a fraud. Her friends discover she is two-faced and ditch her. The beauty rituals are revealed to be inadequate to mask the ugliness of the person beneath them, and it is the plain girl who is kind and sweet and, above all, smart. Elle gets to be all of these things, which may not seem revolutionary, but which feels to me like a small victory won over the mechanics of competitive femininity, which insists that you can be beautiful or you can be smart/nice, but you can't be both.

This brings me back to my opening suggestion that films like this are routinely disparaged. As I said, there are many reasons for this disparagement, but I think that what I have described in this post is in fact central to their reputation as frivolous bits of fluff. Women, talking to each other about their lives, bonding over things that women are taught to find important, and taking strength and joy from those very things which are routinely used to dismiss and belittle them. That's what I want from my happy girly films, and it crops up again and again in my lists of favourites. And I won't apologise for it, and I will, as I've just demonstrated, talk your ear off about their qualities if given half a chance.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The boy at Charing X

I followed you up the steps from the platform, unaware until you
stood aside and sweetly gestured for me to go ahead of you
up the escalator.

I stood flutteringly ahead of you, watching the posters glide past,
thinking of you perched reassuringly behind me, my

Did I intentionally allow you to get ahead of me
in the station proper? and was I secretly pleased when
you walked the way I wanted to walk?

I followed you out into the bright, admiring your impossibly thin
calves, angular, endearingly knobbly, disappearing into
heeled boots.

I've enjoyed for myself the feeling of sway and poise that heels
promote, and in you I saw embodied the glorious taut swish that I
wishfully imagine in myself

swinging down the road.

Dark trousers, elegant fawn coat, flashes of colour at your
neckline, the flirtatious pride of
peacock silk. The glances of strangers,
confused or
anxious, but

I saw your pride and your beauty, and I thought you saw mine
When you stood aside and sweetly gestured, and in our quick
meeting of eyes

there was

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Happiness Project

I have been absent from this blog for a long while, for a variety of reasons practical, emotional, temporal and financial. In plain English, I've been busy, distracted, and miserable. But no more! Here I am today to lay out my plan to be happy both now and in the future. This is only a starting point - it will probably expand and evolve as I go along.

1) Set targets. Reasonable, visible, achievable targets are crucial to step one of my plan. I try not to berate myself for my inability to 'live spontaneously' as the trite expression goes. I like plans, I like goals, and if I don't have them I incline towards lethargy both spiritual and physical, which leads to boredom and is a recipe for frustration and misery. This is just one of many vicious circles that my happiness project intends to negotiate.

2) Make lists. This is obviously related to the above: lists are a way of visualising my targets, whether they are lifelong lists of goals or daily lists of chores. It's so well documented as to be a cliche, but there's nothing more satisfying than a meaty list of tasks that can be regularly whittled down. Lists also remind me that my life is varied, if in a seemingly trivial way: my daily list might include doing some laundry, reading a chapter of something for my PhD, preparing meals to take to work, painting my toenails, texting a friend to suggest a catch-up, and checking my tax documents. Inconsequential things, perhaps, but by documenting the trivial I find it easier to keep my life in perspective, remember 'the big picture' and more successfully circumnavigate the bleakness of the endlessly-trivial.

3) Work hard. Self-explanatory? Perhaps it ought to be, but by writing it down (typing it down? this post is alarmingly meta) I can, again, remind myself of its importance. Every single time I emerge from my pit of despair I see that the pit has produced no work of any kind, except the work of making myself feel like arse for days/weeks/months on end. How to avoid the pit of despair? Work hard. Although I sometimes dread my work - I'm talking specifically about my academic pursuits here, although this is really applicable to any endeavour I undertake - the more I do of it, the better I feel about it, regardless of the success / quality of what I produce. Not working hard is likely to lead to the pit of despair, in which I do no work at all, then castigate myself when I emerge for the failure to achieve anything. Another vicious circle, and one which I need to break if I'm ever to achieve anything at all, let alone anything worthwhile!

4) Get exercise. This is for both physical and mental health. I intend to return to regular judo training, partly because I love and miss judo, partly because I want some frequent and structured exercise and judo seems like an 'easy' option since I have a decade of it under my belt already (albeit with a decade of gap in between then and now!). I'd like to identify and work on a physical skill, not urgently but slowly and methodically, starting from a position of enthusiasm and commitment and seeing where it takes me. This has the double advantage of being good for my body (physical exercise makes me feel strong, healthy and capable, helps me sleep better, increases my enjoyment of food, and improves my performance at my physically demanding jobs) and good for my mind (rightly or wrongly I feel morally 'good' when I exercise; more importantly, I theorise that a commitment to development of a skill will make me feel good about myself, both in and of itself and by giving me a focus for growth discrete from my academic pursuits and my employed life).

5) Be discriminately sociable. This starts with recognising what kinds of sociality are mentally good for me, and which are not. I have a crude idea of this, which begins with the notion that small-scale socialising (one-to-one coffee dates, intimate-ish dinner arrangements with friends etc) is more enjoyable for me than big group outings or parties. There are exceptions, of course, and there is also plenty of potential to integrate the two, by which I mean incorporate the former into the latter. A group outing which includes one or two close friends can be enjoyable: a group outing of mostly acquaintances and casual friends (people I would hesitate to confide in) is very bad for me. This is in no way a criticism of those people or those events. Those people are not inadequate and I have not deemed them unworthy of my oh-so-worthwhile confidences. Those events are not superficial and I don't think that every occasion requires the potential for confidence-exchange. The important part for me, I think, is that there is someone there with whom I can exchange/have exchanged confidences. It's something of a security blanket I guess: even if I am highly unlikely to bear my soul at a work bowling trip, the presence of someone with whom I would feel comfortable doing that if the need were to arise is crucial.

6) Practice radical caring. I want to avoid engaging in forms of socialising that are harmful to me, but I also want to be an active friend to those who desire it. This is not really radical at all, but I use the word radical to highlight the purpose behind the notion: radical as opposed to casual or passive caring. I don't want to be the person that someone asks - or doesn't ask - for friendship. I want to be available for that, and I don't want to push my friendship or caring on someone who doesn't want it, but I also want to actively participate in a friendship, which to me means simply keeping in touch. This is flexible depending on the people and the dynamic involved, of course. In some cases it may mean checking in by text once a month, in others it may mean a bi-weekly dinner or drink. Some might require structure, some may be more freely arranged. Some friendships mean "how are you feeling today?" texts, some mean "fancy a drink after work?", some mean long email exchanges or skype chats with little physical contact, and most involve a combination of these and other interactions. All I mean by this little point is that I love my friends and they are important to me, and I want to invest our relationships with the time and care that they deserve.

7) Be diverse. To finish up today, I am going to explicitly highlight the importance of variety. I find it all too easy to focus my negative energy on one aspect of my life, which ends up feeling like the end of the world, and then negatively impacts on the other aspects of my life, until everything is infected with despondency and misery. One way to combat this is, I think, to expand the parameters of my life. It will be easier, I hope, to keep in perspective the not-so-greatness of one aspect of my life if I have plenty of other aspects which are great, or pretty positive, or plodding along tolerably. This blog can be one of those things! It hasn't escaped my notice that, when things started to go downhill, I stopped working on my blog completely. Although there was nothing wrong with my writings here, and they often made me feel good about myself, they were infected in my mind by negativity from other parts of my life and I simply stopped engaging. I think it may be more helpful to me to continue engaging if I possibly can, because one thing I know about myself is that I am always more miserable about what I don't do than about what I do do. The more things I have going on in my life, no matter how small or trivial, the less likely I am to fall at the hurdle of an obstacle in only one thing.