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.


  1. Excellent review! I enjoyed Legally Blonde far more than I expected to, and got the DVD for repeat viewings, but as you say that doesn't require overlooking a lot of unfortunate pitfalls. It's still very enjoyable, as is the sequel-- to a lesser extent-- and I'm planning to watch Legally Blondes this evening now with very low expectations.

  2. awesome review! I also do feminist analysis of pop culture things so really happy to be reading it instead of writing it :) now I want to watch it again! and the thing is, Elle really is very smart, even with the grooming - she got into Harvard Law while Warner was put on a waitlist!