Friday, May 23, 2008

white movie friday : legally blonde

[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.]

White Noise

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 Hollywood movie, especially the sensitive ones, and the unconscious subject of thousands more. While movies featuring black actors are routinely discussed as movies about black people, movies with white actors are rarely discussed as movies about white people--as if whiteness were so inviolate a norm that it merited note only when departed from, or contrasted with its putative opposites. It is not departed from in Legally Blonde. It's the underlying logic, the deep structure, of everything in the film.

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 Fargo, a slightly more knowing though scarcely less repellent film about whiteness. Or think, more recently, of the ads for A.I.: that mystic sheet of white, suddenly revealed to be a boy's face when the eugenically dreamy eyes pop open.

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 Fargo and A.I. go out of their way to deride non-whiteness--in the grotesquely mean-spirited treatment of the Asian-American man in Fargo, for instance, or in the racially charged bloodsport scene of A.I.. But these images of whiteness still seem to suggest what the movies are, in those very scenes, engaged in fending off: the threat of conceiving whiteness as blankness.

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 Harvard Law School. Three are peripheral non-entities, and one is a prop. (There is also a lesbian whose feminism is mocked, though the movie tastefully disavows using the word "dyke" after having gotten a hearty laugh out of it.) The prop is an African-American man, a bystander whose back is to the camera throughout a scene where a tough teacher challenges a student's attribution of a quote during class. "Would you stake your life on it?" she hisses. Then, spontaneously, she bangs the bystander on the head and asks, "Would you stake his life on it?" The student says no, but the movie is indifferent. It cuts away from the man without ever showing his face. The moviemakers must have thought they'd got their laugh, and so moved on. The reaction of a black man in a room full of privileged white nits to being bashed on the head by a psychopathic teacher is of no consequence.

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.


  1. I've got to say, the sexism in that review really left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't comment originally when I read it because well, it is a stupid movie about obnoxious white people.

    But it's also a movie about the ways in which women are stereotyped, and the reviewer completely ignored that in favor of using those stereotypes himself: the "bimbo" (who ends up top of her class at Harvard, hardly a stupid woman), the snarky comment about the "dyed-in-the-wool post-feminist," etc.

    Yes, the movie does mock the lesbian's feminism, but it also makes an important point that is noted here and here, about a drawing someone made illustrating two different "types" of feminism, one of which looks oddly like Reese Witherspoon's character.

    The reviewer couldn't even be bothered to look up the name of the actress who played the manicurist-character (Jennifer Coolidge) or the accused-murderess whom he writes off as a "Suzanne Somers-Anna Nicole Smith type" (Ali Larter). He ignores his own classism and sexism that does exactly what the movie protests, somewhat badly, against: stereotyping certain women as dumb because of how they look.

    Instead of making another snotty comment about the PC police while glossing over the (admittedly small and badly done) attempt at dealing with that classism, the author simply enjoys picking at the blonde the same way her college classmates and professors do.

    Reese Witherspoon's character, in one of the rare moments that has a point, has to deal with the fact that she was given the internship not because she was smart but because she had nice legs. Can I tell you that I've dealt with this myself, and that it struck a chord?

    No, it's not a great movie and it certainly isn't racially aware. But to write about it solely in terms of racial stereotypes while ignoring the gendered ones is just shortsighted. And to not only ignore, but to basically imply that they're correct by using the same terms ("bimbo" is somehow ok? why doesn't he just call her a slut and be done with it) on the characters...well, yeah. Not cool.

  2. Thank you for the corrective commentary, Sarah--it totally makes sense. I regret that in my enthusiasm for Morrison's discussion of racial whiteness, I failed to address in my preface to the review both the movie's handling of gender and what I agree is the reviewer's own ironic sexism.

    That cartoon at Beyond Feminism and the discussion thread are fascinating--thanks also for the links.

    Trying to juggle intersecting categories can be difficult, but it's also, of course, necessary if we're to be fully fair and accurate. And avoiding uncritical usage of terms like "bimbo" (and, as Michelle pointed out in another post, "spade") is a good start.


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