The Unintentional Genius of Legally Blonde

Legally Blonde is genius. Stop rolling your eyes.

I get the critique. Reese Witherspoon’s character, Elle Woods, is a stereotypical–to the point of being a caricature–dumb blonde. Law school is equally dubiously stereotyped as heartless, a place for narcissistic minds to exorcise their domineering ambitions. Lawyers are portrayed as corrupt and sexually manipulative, promoting students to exclusive positions based on the success of sexual passes. While Elle overcomes her blondeishery and romantic demons to graduate with honors, she does so in a fashion that instrumentalizes appearances, physical attraction, and shallow relations. Despite her academic and courtroom victories, Elle never fully bends and snaps her way into being, well, not-blonde.

And that’s the point.

Immediately, the film unabashedly immerses viewers in received ideas, thrusting them upon us like case histories on 1Ls. Elle is a Californian sorority girl majoring in fashion merchandising, who pursues Harvard Law to retain her lost love interest. Once accepted, she employs a pink computer, chihuahua, scented paper, playboy bunny costume, and gallons of nail polish, jealousy, and motivation to prove her worth–to her ex, not herself or the legal community (until the end of the movie, perhaps). Professor Stromwell isn’t Dumbledore; she steamrolls students with icy interrogations and delights in their discomfort. Professor Callagahan, gatekeeper to a prestigious clerkship and partner in a prominent firm, places himself above the law he practices, exchanging bar practicum for blowjobs. All of the movie’s women are treated terribly, often by each other. Staple dialogue after stock character is bluntly injected into the script, all playing upon our culture’s tritest sociocultural clichés.

It’s a lot like Wal-Mart, when you think about it. Consider what Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (one of the world’s best known social theorists; go look him up if you’re lost) had to say about the price-busting retailer, as relayed by literature professor Christopher Schaberg:

As we walked toward the store, perhaps exuding a bit of guilt or shame, Slavoj launched into an expostulation about the sheer visibility of consumerism, and how the warehouse-y, cavernous-feeling Walmart was so much better than high-end places, like, for instance, Dolce & Gabbana stores that conceal consumerism behind a sheen of glamour and minimalism. We were standing on the threshold of the store, taking in Slavoj’s tirade and watching him gesticulate and begin to dominate the space, when I remembered that we were on a tight schedule. So I grabbed Slavoj’s arm and led the way back to the electronics department, because, of course, as a human raised in the U.S. in the 80s I have a built-in sort of GPS that automatically kicks on when I enter any big box store.

(Shameless plug: go buy Chris’s book The Textual Life of Airports. It’s cheap and really good.)

Zizek’s comments about the forthrightness of Wal-Mart commercialism could be analogously applied to Legally Blonde. Unlike most mainstream movies, Elle’s cinematic narrative is naked in its pretensions and cultural assumptions, so much so that viewers are forced to confront the horror of their own expectations. We know that Elle is blonde caricature; we know that she will rise above her peer’s stereotypical expectations and the institutional limitations of those who wield the power to judge her prospects. Exceeding expectations is a dramatic trajectory, one with which we identify less because of our individual alienation than the shared familiarity of the metanarrative, a grand arc that becomes less affectually resonant with each retelling. What makes Legally Blonde more compelling than, say, Avatar is that it announces its pretext. As a visual object (and to put it in Heideggerian terms), the former portends the unveiling of its unveiledness, while the latter employs technological wizardry (in an attempt) to sever alētheuein from deloun and foreclose any emancipatory unveiling possibilized by the film’s aesthetics relating, as such, to viewers (and each ‘other’, ecologically speaking) in conformity with their intentional, sensible structure.

In a quasi-theological sense, Legally Blonde plays upon the gap between our dissimulated cultural projections and their material spatialization, from whence doubt about the resonance and universality of our assumptions extends. Yet, our doubt need not lead to despair. If we recognize our projections as (among other things) iconic panaceas for sociopolitical alienation or autopoietic cogs in the reproduction of systems of power, we may be equipped to enact the material change necessary to divorce critique–including this one–from its dominance-recapitulating utopianism. We might start by admitting that the gap is not truly external to ourselves as political agents or desiring-sub/objects, and that its closure by affirmation of our projections is a fantasy that will never be realized.


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