[I was going to write today about the portrayal of whiteness in this especially white movie, Legally Blonde, the 2001 Reese Witherspoon vehicle. I'd been wondering whether the movie's makers would challenge the sense of blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty as the standard, "all-American" beauty, or instead feed and cash in on that widespread, racist fantasy (sadly, the movie does the latter).
As I was doing background research, I found that someone else has already analyzed Legally Blonde in precisely these terms. And done so as well or better than the bluster that I could've mustered about it. So, today's White Movie Friday is a guest review by James Morrison, a reviewer for the Independent Weekly, who focused directly and insightfully on this film's portrayal of race.
I have some minor quibbles with Morrison's review* (I think that Fargo, for instance, is a better analysis of midwestern American whiteness than he does), but overall, he does a fine job of unpacking this movie's lazy, exploitative celebration of blithely privileged whiteness. In addition to explaining how the film plays along with rather than challenges the all-American standard of (blonde, blue-eyed, white) beauty, his review resonates with efforts I've been making here and there, to examine what I see as the ultimate goal of a purely white identity, that is, a kind of fearful, empty, life-denying vacuity. Finally, I like his reminder that although movies like this one portray whiteness in ways that merely go along with and promote the problems it still causes, they do still have "anthropological" value, as examples of how whiteness works in society.
As usual, I've included the movie's trailer at the end of the review.]
Like many recent Hollywood films, Legally Blonde plays like an unconscious racist tract
by James Morrison
Fear and loathing and vengeance, those time-honored staples of popular entertainment, recur in predictable but still unexpected form in Legally Blonde, a teeny-bopper comic strip disguised as a movie. Its interest, if any, is sheerly anthropological.
Near the end of the movie, after Reese Witherspoon, as a jilted bimbo, delivers a triumphant comeuppance to the boyfriend who threw her over, she walks off in a haze of victory, and the movie indulges itself in a rhetorical flourish. The screen goes blindingly white, engulfing her, at which point the subject of the movie, which it had been remotely possible to miss until then, becomes unavoidably clear. The movie is about whiteness.
This subject is far from novel. It is the overt subject of many a
Consider that white-out that swallows Reese Witherspoon, as if she were being welcomed into a Hallmark Hall of Fame Heaven. The white-out is a relatively recent addition to the conventions of film language, a very contemporary mark of emphatic punctuation, like a so-called "fade-to-black"--but usually charged with a greater degree of transplendence (as in A.I.) or alternatively, of desolation (as in Kids, or A Simple Plan, or Limbo). Recall, for instance, the white-outs of the Coen Brothers' movie
In both cases we think we're watching a blank screen, until coordinate points bloom in the empty field to prove it an expanse of snow, or a humanoid visage. Both
What keeps us from seeing that whiteness into which Reese Witherspoon disappears, that blank screen presented as an image of exultant valediction, as an emblem, instead, of abysmal vacuity? Part of it is convention and reflex: We're conditioned by mass entertainment to accept vacuity as triumph every day. (The Scary Movie series takes the issue from a different angle; those films read the cycles of '90s horror movies as manifestations of white hysteria.) But like so much in pop culture it cuts many ways, and Legally Blonde combines the complacency of a whiteness that never doubts its own entitlement with the hysteria of a whiteness beset by sterile bouts of self-protection against threats it is happily too barren to conceive.
It starts with the title, an innocuous pun that reasserts the continued viability--as if it had been challenged--of blondeness as a variant of whiteness. Like that white-out melding whiteness with blankness, this title too has its double meaning, pairing blondeness and blindness. And a sociological blindness, perhaps willfully, accounts neatly for one of the first lines in the movie: Being dumped by that snobby boyfriend, Reese Witherspoon objects, "Just because I'm not a Vanderbilt--suddenly I'm white trash?" The PC police alleged to have infiltrated every quarter must have been dozing for this one; they failed to notify the producers of the "insensitivity" of this utterance. The perkiness of Witherspoon's delivery may have been intended to buffer it. Throughout, this is the all too familiar strategy: to cloak bile in cuteness.
A fantasy all-white Los Angeles peopled by 30-something students who linger in their prodigal sorority house long after they're supposed to have graduated gives way to a Movieland Harvard, where snippets of The Paper Chase stir echoes of Oxford Blues, the movie where Rob Lowe joins the rowing team. A dyed-in-the-wool post-feminist, Witherspoon follows the snobby boyfriend off to law school. Her preparation for Harvard, she tells an adviser, consists in having been "the judge in a tighty-whitey contest." Small wonder. Still, an admissions committee made up of John Houseman clones lets her in, in the name of what they call "diversity."
This conception of diversity may not, strictly speaking, be the one that proponents of affirmative action had in mind. Remember Bush's catchy alternative in the debates--"affirmative access"? That seems to be the territory inhabited here. There are four non-whites in this
The film, however, makes up for its white-trash crack by giving Reese Witherspoon a manicurist pal of indeterminate ethnicity who's a refugee from a trailer park, and this scene occasions another celebration of diversity wherein black, Hispanic, and gay habitués of the working-class beauty salon join together in spirited, comical jigs. They resemble, during these interludes, the black or gay minstrels who flit about on the margins of the carefully centered hetero hijinks in Moulin Rouge. Quirky camera angles allow us to appreciate the more carnivalesque aspects of their bodies in exaggerated form, just as, in a later courtroom scene, cutaway shots show us an artist's rendering of the proceedings so we can enjoy the humorous caricatures of the few non-white participants.
In a twist worthy of Murder, She Wrote, a Latino pool boy gives himself away as gay when he inadvertently names the designer of a pair of shoes--a tidbit that only a gay man would know, in the logic of this movie--and his queeny lover denounces him from the gallery as a "bitch" (major comic relief) when he claims to be sleeping with a Suzanne Somers-Anna Nicole Smith knock-off charged with the murder of her elderly husband. Why the gay pool boy should make this claim would be mystifying, if it were not clear that the movie's only interest is in the solidarity of whites, as signified by the bonding of blondes. (Reese Witherspoon and the Somers-Smith type really hit it off.) The Latino gets his quick, cheap laugh and then he's banished: It's strictly an Aryan jamboree, where the prevailing idea of multiculturalism is to chide the dumb-blonde stereotype as the last vestige of bigotry. Legally Blonde is the kind of movie you're likely to see from a society where white people fear that social progress will rob them of their privilege.
In Election, a much better movie about white people, Reese Witherspoon played a conniving, overachieving high-school girl. There was a lovely moment in her performance: We see her backstage at graduation, alone, an expression of pure emptiness on her face; then, when she hears her name called, she quickly puts on a vacant smile as she hurries forth. Two congruent versions of blankness, beautifully observed. Race is not essence, as we should all know by now, and whiteness never meant purity. It need not, of course, mean blankness--but in a movie where the whole point, in the year 2001, is to reinforce whiteness, what else can it mean?
* See Sarah J's comment for some less-than-minor quibbles about the handling of gender by both the makers of Legally Blonde and James Morrison.