Like a lot of Americans I feel very conflicted about my American-ness. Now, there are a lot of essays that I could write about that particular topic, but today I want to talk about my love-hate relationship with America's peculiar obsession with optimism - specifically, with the sort of optimism that you get from Horatio Alger-ish stories where an underdog pulls themselves up by their bootstraps. On the one hand, I recognize that stories about dark horses who achieve their dreams through their own hard work and determination are emotionally satisfying. On the other hand, I recognize that they are total bullshit, because the real world doesn't always (or even often) recognize and reward hard work. But back on the first hand, I realize that it's impossible to hate on optimism without sounding like a troll. But back to the second hand, isn't it better to be a troll than a fool?
This is all on my mind because I just watched Legally Blonde, which is a comedy about a seemingly ditzy sorority girl named Elle Woods who gets dumped by her WASP-y boyfriend right before he heads off to Harvard Law School because she isn't respectable enough to match his political ambitions. Elle loves this square jawed doofus so much that she decides to apply to Harvard Law herself because she is under the delusion that if she can prove herself to be his equal then she will win his love back. This being a movie, she actually gets accepted into America's most prestigious law school even though she is woefully unprepared for the challenge ahead. (She was a fashion major, not a philosopher.) At first everyone at Harvard condescends to Elle because of the way she dresses and talks, but our plucky heroine gets it into her head to prove everyone wrong. Sure enough, by the end of the semester she has earned all of her professor's respects AND she actually acted as the lead attorney in a million dollar murder trial. Take that, you WASP-y dick!
Now, obviously Legally Blonde is completely ridiculous - this is a movie that is theoretically about the law that clearly has no idea how courts work. (During the trial Elle coaxes a damning confession out of a witness, which causes the Judge to bang her gavel and announce that the trial is clearly over without acknowledging the presence of the jury or the state prosecutors.) But I'm going to leave this film's legal absurdities aside because all of that is specific to this one film. Instead, I want to focus on Elle's time at school because that part of the story is more representative of America's generalized fascination with self-made geniuses.
Legally Blonde is clearly meant to be aspirational - it's meant to give the audience the feeling that you can prove all your doubters wrong and get you ahead in life with a little bit of hard work. I'm totally willing to buy into some of the movie's empowerment themes; I didn't assume that Elle was deeply incompetent just because she was female, blonde and fashionable. However, I can't buy into the film's whole message because it overstates its claim - it's one thing to to tell your audience that with diligence they can defy people's expectations and it's a completely different thing to tell them that they can rise to the top of their profession overnight.
The problem is that Elle is not just competing against herself at school - she's competing against everyone else in her class for internships and other opportunities. The idea that she would skip to the top of her class just because she's such a hard worker implicitly assumes that all of the other students are lazier or dumber than her, neither of which seems likely given that they all got accepted into Harvard law school. Also, if we're emphasizing hard work there is no way that Elle comes out ahead because she's a Johnny-Come-Lately to the Harvard game while most of her fellow students will have been working towards law school their whole lives.
There's just no way to spin her progress as plausible and even if you could get over that hump her success would still be problematic because the only reason why she was even able to go to Harvard at the drop of a hat was because her rich parents had enough money that they could afford to pay her tuition right off the bat without saving up first. Legally Blonde is a movie about an "underdog" who secretly has a lot of people standing by to help her out at all times.
However, even though Legally Blonde is flagrantly ridiculous it's still entertaining as hell. Most of that is due to Reese Witherspoon's portrayal of Elle, because she is a consistently charming presence - you just want to like her. The combination of that charisma and the movie's overall guilelessness really helps propel you past any roadblocks that the script throws up. However, the real secret to this movie's success is that it's selling you a lie that you kind of want to buy. Or at least I do.
I'm a fairly cynical person, but I'm not immune to the mirage that movies like this are selling. I've been toiling at various artistic pursuits for most of my life to very little acclaim, so the idea of discovering a hidden talent and then turning into a superstar overnight is quite alluring. I, too, am willing to work hard! I, too, have hidden talents that no one knows about! I, too, have millionaire parents who.... Well, actually I don't have that last part. But if I did, then damnit, I'd conquer the world!
When people try to peddle myths like this as if they were facts it gets my hackles up; I have no patience for Ayn Randian bullshit about how only the cream rises to the top in capitalism. But I'm a little more conflicted about this fiction when it is treated as fiction. I know that this movie's story arc is morally wrong: it presents Elle as the center of the universe, the one for whom everything has to go right for the world to be at peace, and I know that is a lie because no one person is ever going to be the main character in our shared story. But I also want to buy into that lie, because the idea of being in Elle's (ridiculously stylish) shoes is intoxicating. I would probably be a lot more comfortable with the idea that someone should be the focus of all of our praise and attention if I was that person, and I'm only angry at that idea because I am (as of today at least) another member of the undifferentiated hoi polloi.
Legally Blonde is a very American movie. The French version of this story is probably about a spoiled brat who impulsively bullies her way into law school using her parents' connections, only to bungle her first big assignment because she is unprepared for the job at hand. The ultimate moral of that movie would be fundamentally truthful, because merely getting a law degree isn't going to solve all of your problems and being a person who means well doesn't mean that you are actually a good person. However, the fact that the French Legally Blonde is much more realistic doesn't mean that it is any better than the American Legally Blonde, because that movie basically sounds unwatchable. Who needs to see a movie about frustrations and failures when we see that everywhere we look in the real world? I've been trained since birth to like this sort of emotionally satisfying diversion, and goddamnit, for better or worse I do like it. Again: my relationship to my own American-ness is pretty goddamned complicated. Is Legally Blonde bullshit? Yes. Is bullshit still more appealing than reality? Yes. Does hating on this movie make you feel like you're kicking a puppy? Yes. Are puppies sometimes assholes who chew on everything? Yes, yes they are. Where does that leave us? I don't even know.