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Carol Platt Liebau - Columnist

Carol Platt Liebau is a senior member of the editorial board. She is an attorney, political analyst and commentator based in San Marino, CA, and has appeared on the Fox News Channel, Orange County News Channel, Cox Cable and a variety of radio programs throughout the United States. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Carol Platt Liebau also served as the first female managing editor of the Harvard Law Review.


A Different Kind of “Blonde Ambition”
The Unique Appeal of “Legally Blonde”’s California Heroine
[Carol Platt Liebau] 6/30/03

Every day, more and more, California feels like a state in crisis. It has a skyrocketing deficit, an inept governor, and a Democrat-dominated legislature, which is -- to put it charitably – manifestly incapable either of understanding or implementing the kind of policies that keep a state economy strong and vibrant.

But, notwithstanding all these problems, California remains the cultural crossroads of the United States (as noted by syndicated radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt in his book “In, But Not Of”). Happily, this preeminence is one thing that even our floundering state government can’t take away (at least until they tax the film industry so prohibitively that all production moves to Canada).

This week, with the premiere of Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, Hollywood offers a movie featuring a heroine hailing from California – Elle Woods. The film is the sequel to 2001’s Legally Blonde, about a Southern California sorority girl who enrolls in Harvard Law School as a stratagem to win back the college boyfriend who has unceremoniously dumped her before graduation – and her ultimate triumph in unique style over the assorted personal and professional obstacles strewn in her path.

Having had the opportunity to serve as a script consultant on the film has led to something resembling celebrity (well, maybe “C-list” celebrity) status among friends’ “tween” daughters. And even a cursory inspection reveals a host of web sites devoted to the celebration and discussion of Elle Woods – as distinct even from the actress who plays her, Reese Witherspoon. These facts, taken together, raise an interesting question: why the film’s heroine strikes such a chord with so many girls and young women.

It is too facile (and certainly too pretentious) simply to describe Elle as the “face of modern feminism” – that is, as a girl who can stride the halls of Harvard Law wearing Manolo Blahnik stilettos. It would also be untrue. Part of the delightfully subversive charm of the original film lies in the reason Elle heads off to Harvard. She’s not there to fight the “hegemonic, phallocentric, male-dominated power structure” (as HLS-speak would have it), or to speak in “a different voice” or to do battle with the Law School’s trinity of evil: the oft-invoked specters of racism, sexism and homophobia. No, at least at first, Elle’s just there to try to get an engagement ring from a man.

In many ways, Elle does, of course, represent an exercise in feminine wish-fulfillment . . . what girl wouldn’t want to do what she does and look like she looks, all at the same time? And she manages to be brilliant without being intimidating – a pretty neat trick. After all, in the original’s last scene, the audience sees Elle address her law school graduating class, hears about her job offer from a prestigious Boston law firm, and learns that her (new and superior) boyfriend intends to propose that very evening. Perfect.

Still, there’s more to the Elle Woods phenomenon than that. Heroines don’t grab the popular imagination unless their target audience can relate to them -- not an easy task when a movie’s protagonist supposedly possesses a first-rate legal mind, combined with the ability to sport a skimpy, Playboy-bunny style costume (as Witherspoon does in one memorable scene in the original film). Part of the attraction of Legally Blonde lay in its ability to forge a bond between the viewer and the heroine through the comic mishaps and embarrassments that repeatedly plagued her (from the unexpected breakup, to humiliation in law school lectures, to even a pass from her law professor). Young women saw a supposedly “smart” (and certainly beautiful) heroine enduring life’s slings and arrows. Apparently, blondes can suffer, too – and must earn their hard-won confidence, like the rest of us, by achieving things they never thought they could.

But the success of the Legally Blonde series ultimately lies not in its potential as a feminist morality play -- where a woman can have and do it all -- nor in its ability to engage the interest and compassion of the viewer, and certainly not in its formulaic “girl power” insistence on “believing in yourself” (which, these days, appears to replace belief in any other Higher Power). At its essence, the magic of the films is their promise that someone might be able to do it all and have it all without surrendering her sometimes unfashionable – even ridiculous – uniqueness. From her law school application (featuring a video with her floating in a pool, bikini-clad and discussing soap operas) to the way she wins her first trial (by noting an inconsistency in a witness’ testimony about her hair), Elle’s appeal stems from the fact that she achieves and prevails without losing the highly individual preferences and idiosyncrasies that others have earlier mocked.

In an era when too many young women feel too much pressure to conform to the “role models” decreed by the dictates of elite opinion (from the trendy hipness of the stylish, sexually provocative women on Sex and the City, to the calculating ambition of Hillary Clinton), it is heartening to encounter one heroine who (unlike Hillary) actually succeeds on her own terms, refusing to remake herself even if it means that she’s temporarily out-of-step with – and roundly ridiculed by – the “in-crowd” surrounding her.

And ultimately, it could even be argued that Elle Woods is something of a symbol of modern California. As a state, we share her good intentions, her frequent obliviousness to what others think of us, and even a portion of her naivete; we likewise often endure the indignity of being ridiculed and underestimated by the rest of the country. We certainly have a unique style and unusual approach to our problems. So as the lazy summer days pass, let’s all take a break, kick back, go to the movies and hope that California meets its own challenges with even half the finesse and success of Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods.

CRO columnist Carol Platt Liebau is a political analyst and commentator based in San Marino, CA.


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