Legally Blonde 2--Could a Dumb Film Be Good for Us?
By Michael Asimow
I thought the original Legally
Blonde (2001) was pretty good. It was smart and clever and
successfully poked fun at the Harvard Law School and a whole
lot of other sacred institutions. (Who could forget the delicious
spoof of the Admissions Committee seeking diversity by admitting
a California airhead?) Reese Witherspoon was terrific in the
I have to agree with the critics: the sequel, Legally Blonde
2: Red, White, and Blonde, is disappointing. I thought the
jokes fell flat (although most people in the theater were laughing).
The premise of the blonde bombshell being a lot smarter than
she looks was barely strong enough to support the first movie
and couldn't carry the sequel.
But you know what? I think the movie is a valuable contribution
to popular culture and I'm glad it got made. Let's not forget--pop
culture is the greatest teacher that the world has ever known.
Most people get most of their information and opinions from the
news and from pop culture sources. As many studies (under the
heading of "cultivation theory") have shown, people
forget that the data on which they base many of their opinions
came from fictitious stories on TV or in the movies. They don't
"source discount" that data to take account of the
fact that it came from fiction. Under another theoretical approach
found in cultural theory ("active audience"),viewers
give the material their own spin, often coming up with interpretations
at variance with those intended by the creators of the film or
How many movies have dealt with the legislative process? There
have been quite a few movies and TV shows about the presidency,
and a few on the Supreme Court, but how many can you name about
Congress? Right--Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939),
the Frank Capra-James Stewart classic. Perhaps one in a thousand
young people have seen it. The same for Advise and Consent
(1962) which concerns Senatorial consideration of a presidential
appointment. And now, what else do you have? A couple of interesting
films concern Congressional campaigns--The Candidate (1972)
and Bulworth (1998) come to mind--and there have been
a few films about Congressional investigations (especially HUAC)--but
how about pictures that dwell on the lawmaking process? Aside
from Mr. Smith, and a couple of ancient westerns like
Gene Autry's Rovin' Tumbleweeds (1939), and a few forgotten
TV shows and Simpson parodies , I can't think of any. Given the
centrality of pop culture in our civic life, and the tremendous
importance of what happens on Capital Hill, that is a major gap.
In Legally Blonde 2,
Elle Woods develops an interest in banning animal testing after
discovering that her dog's mother is a captive of a cosmetics
company. She's working at a big Boston law firm and is undergoing
her annual review. When she suggests that the firm do something
to influence its cosmetics-firm client to stop animal testing,
she is fired on the spot. The partners are appalled that anyone
could even mention trying to do the right thing when it comes
to client relations. (Big law firms always get sliced and diced
in the movies).
So, pretty in pink as always,
Elle heads for DC, accompanied by her Chihuahua Bruiser (Moondoggie).
She's got a job working on the staff of a Congresswoman Victoria
Rudd (Sally Field) who is pushing an animal testing bill. (The
film carefully distances itself from the much more controversial
issue of medical animal testing, where it would have offended
large parts of its audience, and sticks to the more benign subject
of cosmetics testing).
Elle soon learns that money
controls politics when her boss sells her out because the big
bad Boston cosmetics firm threatens to fund her opponent unless
she drops the bill. So Elle starts to shed her hopeless naivete
about the legislative process. She converts the majority and
minority ranking members of the relevant committee to her cause.
Nevertheless, the bill won't move so she starts a discharge petition
process which requires 218 signatures to force the bill to the
floor of the House for a vote. (It is unclear why a discharge
petition was needed given that the leadership of the relevant
committee supported the bill and so it could have passed through
the committee and gone to the floor in the normal manner).
Here's where we get to the
part I liked. Elle mounts a massive PR campaign in favor of the
bill, assisted by Sid Post (Bob Newhart), a savvy DC veteran
who is working as her doorman. Here the assistance of her sorority
sisters in Delta Nu becomes critical--she is able to mobilize
sorority women from every Congressional district to put the heat
on their representatives to sign the petition. She organizes
the Congressional interns. She even puts together a Million Dog
March. Eventually Elle addresses the House, giving an incredibly
sappy speech, and gets the final signatures needed to meet the
magic 218 number. Her boss, Congresswoman Rudd, supplies the
last one. The bill passes.
The parallels to Mr. Smith
Goes to Washington couldn't be clearer. (Legally Blonde
2 gives a nod to Mr. Smith by running a brief clip
from the older film). Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) goes to
Washington as a freshman Senator. He is a hick from the sticks,
the head of the state's Boy's Rangers, nominated by the hacks
in the state party machine to fill a sudden vacancy. The idea
is that he won't be smart enough to interfere with a corrupt
bill sponsored by the senior senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains)
to build the Willet Creek dam, a pork barrel project that would
enrich only himself and his rich cronies.
Smith is totally naïve,
believing in the good faith of the famous people all around him.
He is ridiculed by everyone, especially the press. To keep him
from quitting, Paine encourages him to introduce his own bill
for a national boys camp. He is given critical assistance by
Clarissa Saunders, a cynical staffer (Jean Arthur) who helps
him draft it and explains the whole legislative process to him.
However, the camp is to be located on Willet Creek--the very
area that Paine's cronies have earmarked for the dam. Saunders
clues Smith in to what's really happening and he decides he has
to stop the crooked Willet Creek dam.
Now the machine wakes up to
the threat and realizes that it must crush Smith, but Senator
Paine has qualms. However, his big money backers force him to
do it. In a fascinating scene, Paine tries to justify the fact
that he's a tool of the party machine; by playing ball with the
machine, he's been able to get many federal grants for the state.
This parallels scenes in LB2 in which Congresswoman Rudd traded
off her support for the animal testing bill to get other, perhaps
more important, legislation passed.
When persuasion doesn't work,
Paine mounts an all-out campaign to disgrace Smith by proving
(through phony documents and false testimony) that he would benefit
financially from the construction of the boys camp. Smith is
about to be expelled from the Senate. Revisiting the Lincoln
Memorial, he is ready to throw in the sponge and go home but
Saunders finds him there. In an inspiring speech, she persuades
him to keep fighting.
The next day, Smith manages
to get the floor and mounts a one-man filibuster. Nearly fainting
from exhaustion, he delivers the key speech that stops the bill,
destroys the party machine, and halts his own expulsion. Back
in his home state, only a single media outlet stands up for him--Boys
Stuff--but it is delivered everywhere by an army of faithful
boys, very like the mobilization of the Delta Nus in LB2.
Eventually, the crooked Senator Paine is overcome by conscience
and saves the day.
Corny but inspiring, no? You
would have to be made of stone not to be inspired by Mr. Smith.
Perhaps the same thing will be true for today's young people
after they take in the vastly inferior LB2. As in Mr.
Smith, an idealistic but utterly clueless person comes to
Congress and finally figures out the corruption behind the lawmaking
process. She takes in the inspiring sites like the Lincoln Memorial,
but figures out that the reality of the system is nothing like
the marble monuments. One person--a freshman Senator or an insignificant
aide--could do nothing to combat the power structure, the corrupt
system of campaign finance, and the seniority system. Most would
throw up their hands in despair and just quit or become coopted
by the system. Aided by knowledgeable insiders, both characters
find a way to turn the legislative process around (even converting
their key antagonists). Most important, they rely heavily on
the people (the boy rangers or the Delta Nus and the Million
Dog March). By arousing public opinion, miracles can occur, even
in the lavish but corrupt pits of Congress.
These are messages I really
like. What happens in Congress should matter a lot to ordinary
people. One idealistic person in the legislature can make a difference.
Cynical, corrupt people can be redeemed. You can build bridges
to people who you mostly disagree with (as Elle does to the genial
Southern congressman and NRA supporter Stanford Marks). And public
opinion, properly mobilized, can disrupt the Congressional money
machine that mostly generates legislation rewarding big contributors.
OK, these messages are sugar-coated
in LB2 and there are a lot of really dumb jokes. The film
is going to leave most readers of this website completely cold.
They will be wondering why they wasted the time and the admission
price. They could have stayed home and watched a rented video
of Mr. Smith. But please don't forget--we're talking popular
culture here. Pop culture is produced exclusively to make money
and most of it is pretty dumb or trashy. That doesn't mean it's
unimportant. Young people mostly don't vote and are utterly indifferent
to the political process. If some of them walk out of the theater
with some of these very positive messages in mind, if they can
give the movie a personal spin and decide they need to get involved
in (or at least pay attention to) the legislative process, then
LB2 will have made a lasting and positive impact on our
Posted July 28, 2003