While the CFC in the past has tackled the marginalization of women, it's never tackled the further segregation found within those margins. Oddly enough by shedding light on these rarely viewed problems, Legally Blonde somehow reaches a critical high point which emphasizes the plight of women within the genre overall. Wait...what?
Legally Blonde is the story of Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) a Blonde (it's notable) college student who was recently dumped by her boyfriend Warner Huntington (Matthew Davis) because his hoighty toighty family wants him to marry more of a "Jackie O" type (whatever that may be). Determined to get her boyfriend back, Elle gets into Harvard Law School and through shenanigans ends up defending a client in a murder trial.
Elle is a peculiar lead female. Blonde initially paints Elle as ridiculously "perky" while simultaneously establishing others as beneath her. Specifically, the film both demeans and glorifies her with humorous results. The are a few moments scattered in the film with such ridiculous environments which almost seem detrimental to Elle...until she speaks intelligently. For example early on in the film, Elle is out shopping with her two friends when one saleswoman states that she wants to take advantage of the "dumb Blonde." Elle proceeds to stomp that idea down when she reveals how intelligent she actually is. Her friends are ditzes (mostly for comic relief), and gives the insulting saleswoman's assertion slight credibility given the circumstances beforehand.
Funny enough, this clash of perspectives presents an interesting topic that the rest of the film seeks to discuss. The whole "don't judge a book by its cover" thing. How much is perception dictated by the environment rather than set stereotypes? At some points the film tries to make Elle more symbolic of a character than she is. By highlighting her appearance in bright colors while visually contrasting her against the drab greys and browns of the rest of the environment, the film is establishing a pedestal for Elle to stand on. She's not supposed to be representative of the conventional woman. However, that's exactly what she ends up as.
That's what I meant by Elle being "peculiar." The more you try to dissect her actions, the more discussion needs to be had. And with more discussion, Elle slowly becomes the most naturalistic female character the club has ever tackled. Despite being a candy coated, exaggerated version of the "Blonde" stereotype, Elle's actions are fairly grounded and reasonable. While you could knock her initial motivation of bettering herself for a man's benefit, you can't knock the amount of effort she puts into getting there. However, the film once again makes her transformation extremely confusing by contrasting a positive action with negative imagery.
When Elle decides she's going to Harvard, she goes through a montage with Krystal Harris's "I'm Supergirl" playing in the background in order to meet the necessary qualifications. The montage is littered with negative connotations as the whole thing comes off as ridiculous. First of all, a training montage in essence belittles a hero's journey by removing sacrifice and struggle and only showing the accomplishments. With only accomplishments, the journey is sterilized since there is no reason to celebrate attaining them. With her montage, Elle's acceptance into Harvard feels unearned, undeserved, ridiculous in premise. It glosses over her studying (only to note that her "sacrifice" boils down to missing a few parties), and reveals her acceptance letter riddled with gimmicks and bikinis. It left me questioning whether or not Elle belonged there when later in the film Elle demonstrates her abilities well enough. It made me even question her eventual victories.
To get back to why Elle is naturalistic, her actions in the film are initially dictated by men. Only when Elle becomes confident in herself does she become a better character/female lead. Since Elle is distanced from the other characters in the story due to her outrageous personality, she sits on a pedstal above them. She is the only free spirit (other than her friend Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) who becomes a free spirit after meeting Elle) who is allowed to change or grow. She is a deity within her drab world. Next time you watch Legally Blonde, pay attention to each of Elle's grandiose entrances. You'll notice she suddenly commands all attention and the camera point directly at her each time. Hell, her final exit has her walking through a veil of bright light.
The main question is, why is Elle marginalized further within her margin? It's to allow her character to grow and humanize her. Remember earlier how I said she was a conventional woman? By separating herself from her drab world, and the will of others, she is free to be a strong, realistic woman who can make her own decisions. Countless characters within the film try to conform her to their wishes, but she forges her own path forward. Her eventual victory in a murder trial seems absurd and convenient because Elle makes it that way...we just didn't notice. She's been hard at work all throughout the film, but was ignored thanks to her seemingly absurd persona. The drab world she resides in is reflective of our own mis-informed and colorless society.
The bright colors, the candid extroverted personality, are just devices meant for the viewer to explore deeper within the film and find the message. We're supposed to notice the absurdity in order to realize how absurd it is for Elle to struggle as she does to get others to notice and accept her intelligence. This could even extend to the entire "chick flick" genre overall. There are far too many instances of potentially strong female characters that are forced to change in order to fit the needs of the genre. Elle Woods is a strong character (at this point regardless of gender) trapped within an unfortunately degenerative environment.
While I could continue talking about Legally Blonde's placement and criticism of the genre (didn't even mention the twist on the "Man Candy" trope!). It's time to end it here for today folks. But don't worry, next month Flixist's own Matthew Razak (what? Someone else taking a crack at a "chick flick"? Awesome!) is discussing a film that once claimed it was "the ultimate romantic comedy" in a special "Holiday" edition of the CFC.
The CFC returns in December with...Love Actually.
September: She's All That
August: CFC Primer
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