Thursday, April 24, 2008

Media Analysis: Beach

Every week more and more young girls go to the store to buy teen magazines with headlines that read “Instant Beauty Fixes” and “21 Naughty Sex Tips” along with cosmetic products in hopes of being skinny, having flawless hair and skin, and being desired by men. 1Young girls aspire to possess all of these qualities mainly because of the way that society and the mass media portray the ‘ideal woman’. You never pick up a teen magazine that reads “21 Ways to Become an Empowering Woman” because according to the media, being smart and successful usually does not coincide with femininity and being the ideal desirable woman. However, in 2001 the movie Legally Blonde brought Elle Woods to the big screen. The movie has buried messages of issues that are at the forefront of third wave feminism. The producers try to illustrate this through the main character—Elle Woods, a skinny, blonde, sorority girl who in the beginning of the movie is portrayed as a “Cosmo-girl” (interested only in fashion and superficial things and not interested in things of substance), but while in her journey at Harvard Law finds that there is more to her than just “blonde hair and big boobs.”2 However, many young viewers might not have viewed the movie using a feminist lens and got this message, but instead got a good laugh and maybe a new idol. My analysis argues that when viewing this movie through a feminist lens the issue of heteronormativity and “girlie” femininity are established by Elle’s actions and facade. This paper will focus on the main character, Elle Woods, and the way that she exemplifies the third wave ideals of femininity in today’s society.

One third wave feminist issue that is seen through Elle is that of heteronormativity, a term “used to designate how heterosexuality is constituted as the norm in sexuality” as well as the competition that young women participate in to find a husband (Robinson 19). Heteronormativity is embedded throughout our culture and is instilled in most at a young age. In fact it is said that the media, pop culture, and children’s text have a major part in the continuation of heteronormativity in children’s daily lives. (Robinson 22) The article ‘Queerying’ gender: Heteronormativity in early childhood education stated that “the normalization of heterosexuality is a social phenomenon that is actively negotiated, with its dominant discourses and narratives primarily constituted within the socially constructed cultural binary of heterosexual us” (Robinson 19). Heteronormativity can be harmful to many women who go to extreme lengths to fit the societal “norm” of finding a husband. Elle is a prime example of the lengths that some women will go to just to get the “rock”, even if it means them continuing to be oppressed. Throughout the movie there are scenes where heteronormativity is noticeable.

In the opening scene, viewers are reminded of the superficial things that consumers must buy in order to be beautiful and youthful in the competitive world of dating; the camera scrolls over many beneficial products to subliminally remind us. It is evident in the opening scene, Elle and her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III, go to dinner with Elle thinking that he is going to propose, when actually the opposite is true—he breaks up with her. He claims that if he wants to be a senator he needs to marry “a Jackie, not a Marilyn.”3Saddened by this, Elle becomes an introvert and stays in her room. After a week her friends beg her to go with them to go get their nails done. While at the nail salon, she reads an article about Warner’s older brother and his finance. Elle excitedly says, “This is what I need to become… a law student.” 4 After working diligently to get into Harvard Law using all the physical and intellectual attributes that she possess, she discovers that over the summer Warner and his ex-girlfriend from prep school got engaged. Outraged by the news, she jumps in her Porsche convertible and finds a local nail salon. Paulette, her manicurist, hears her story and tells Elle to “steal the bastard back;” implying that this is a competition. 5

As many third wave feminist would argue, this competition causes women to play up their femininity and never really allows them to find equality and happiness, but instead continues to make them oppressed. Although not happy about the news or being at Harvard, Elle continues to try and win Warner back. During this time she never loses the pink attire and feminine qualities that have been instilled in her, but instead she just keeps fighting for what she believes to be the man for her. However, it is apparent that Elle is not truly happy. The turning point for Elle, is when she goes to a party (which she was told by Vivian that it was a costume party) dressed as a pink bunny and sees Warner who explains to her that she is not smart enough to get the grades to apply for Professor Callahan’s internship (a competitive internship that students in his class are competing for in which he will only take six students) and that she should do something she is good at like shopping. It is here that she realizes that she will never be “good enough” for him and that he does not take her seriously. She storms out of the party and frustratingly says, “I’ll show you how valuable Elle Woods can be.” 6

It is in this scene that the movie takes a turn from girl chasing guy (Elle conforming to be what Warner wants) like society expects, to girl taking action to become what she wants to become. While maintaining her poise and charisma, Elle sets out on a mission to have people take her serious. Still wearing pink clothes and being impeccably groomed, Elle starts to speak up in class and win her “mock” court case studies, one in which she won over Warner. Elle proves that although she is in a male dominated environment she can compete and be successful while still maintaining her “girlie” femininity. In the past women have not been at the forefront of classroom discussions, especially in Law School. An article in the New York Times stated that recent studies show that classroom discussions tend to be “dominated by students who are members of the groups most privileged by law and society. All too often the views and concerns of women students…are given short shrift or left out of the classroom debate entirely” and it concluded by adding that the female voice is moderately new to law school (Caldwell, par. 6).

The issue of “girlie” femininity is an immense issue of third wave feminism and can be seen through Elle’s actions and clothing. Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards created the term “girlie feminism” in their book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, to illustrate the pro-femininity contour of young feminists (Fudge, par. 34). According to an article in Bitch Magazine “girlie femininity” is the reclaiming of make-up and other girlie accessories, and the corroboration “of traditionally female activities like cooking, crafting, and talking about sex, is a valid way to express the desire for equality—valuing the inherently female aspects of life, rather than trying to erase them” (Fudge, par. 34). From the beginning to the end, Elle never gives up her make-up, pink clothing, or her manicures, in order to have people take her seriously; instead she works harder than others to be known as an intellect rather than an “ornament”.

The writer’s use Elle’s “girlie femininity” to their advantage; they purposely dress her in pink low-cut dresses with pink rhinestone high heels. In the beginning Elle stands out to the viewers as being the epitome of a “sorority bimbo”. As Elle evolves in the movie her “girlie femininity” becomes extremely apparent when she goes to Harvard. Sitting in the front row, dressed very fashionable (not wearing pink), Elle takes out her pink heart-shaped, perfume sprayed notepad to take notes while her peers are dressed in business attire and are diligently typing on their laptops. After getting kicked out of her first class at Harvard for being unprepared, hearing of Warner’s engagement to Vivian, and all the obstacles that were put in Elle’s path, she works extraordinarily hard so that she can hopefully earn a spot as one of Callahan’s interns. Her work paid off because she, along with Warner and Vivian, worked on a murder case, but not just any murder case, the murder case of a Delta Nu (one of Elle’s “sister’s”).

Brooke Taylor, an exercise instructor, was charged with killing her husband who was much older than she. She refused to give Callahan the alibi, so Elle took it upon herself to go visit Brooke. When Elle goes, she brings a basket of goodie’s; Clinique skin care line, 750 thread count sheets, Cosmo magazine, and other “girlie accessories”. This is used to demonstrate Elle’s extremely “girlie” femininity and that although she is indeed this way, she still had the audacity to go get the alibi on her own; therefore she is being an empowering woman, unlike the other women interns. Brooke confides in Elle and gives her the alibi, but asks that Elle not repeat it to Callahan. Keeping her word, Elle goes to the trial each day. It is through her innate intellectual ability and not her good looks, that she is able to use great deductive reasoning skills to clear her sorority sister of the purported crime. Her articulation of the events in the courtroom left even Warner and Vivian speechless. Her conclusion/remarks were brilliant. People in the courtroom were stunned that someone of her façade could not only be beautiful, but also be intellectual. It is through her third wave idea of “girlie femininity” that Elle has the intellectual capacity to solve the case. She concludes by saying that the reason that she won the case was thanks to “the finite rules of hair care.”7

Throughout Legally Blonde, the main character, Elle, is forced to work harder than her peers to prove herself intellectually worthy of Warner and her Law Professors. She is a significant character in a feminist interpretation of the movie, because she represents the third wave issues of heteronormativity and “girlie femininity.” As many young girls have viewed this movie they have overlooked both of these issues which are important to third wave feminists. As Baumgardner and Richards would articulate, “to out unacknowledged feminists, specifically to those who are younger” is ideally what the media should be doing (Baumgardner 627). Although Elle never comes out and publicly labels herself a feminist, her actions (which are those of third wave) speak louder. Hopefully, the young viewers will realize that it is acceptable and admirable to be both beautiful and brilliant and that there is action that they can take to be both. It is up to the younger generation to take action to solve the issues that are at the forefront of third wave; therefore, movies such as this help to inadvertently get young women motivated to change (usually by bettering themselves) and get involved in the movement (even if it means furthering one's education).

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