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The courtroom is just a setting to show off Elle Wood's clothes and make-up and let us know how cute and lovable she is

Feature article

Legally Blonde, by David Papke

David Papke is a law professor at the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis, and Virginia Papke, his daughter, is an eighth-grader at St. Richard's School in Indianapolis. They enjoy going to the movies together, but they do not always reach the same conclusions about what they've seen . . . .

David: Did you enjoy Legally Blonde?

Virginia: It was cool.

David: What did you like about it?

Virginia: Elle Wood. I liked the way she looked, the way she dressed, the way she was so happy and up-beat. I even liked her dog Bruiser. That mutt was hilarious!

David: The movie is one of those law-related movies I like to write and think about. It has some interesting things to say regarding the law.

Virginia: Pulease. This is a chick flick if ever there was one. It's about a young woman who shows up the jerk who dumped her and then gets a new and better boyfriend. Almost everybody in the theater was a girl. I went because I'm blonde and wanted to see a movie about a girl who is blonde.

David: But Elle Wood goes to law school and learns to think like a lawyer. There were some great scenes of classrooms, study groups, and faculty conferences at Harvard Law School. Modern legal education started at Harvard in the 1870s, and many of us in legal academics still think of Harvard as the symbolic home of legal education.

Virginia: That's not really Harvard Law School. It's not serious. It's not a real-life picture. You yourself showed me the letters from the Harvard students in USA TODAY saying how silly the portrait of Harvard was.

David: Okay, but there's also a trial. Elle Wood succeeds as a defense counsel in the courtroom, in the inner sanctum of the law. Almost all law movies have dramatic, powerful courtroom scenes. Americans find messages of morality and justice in dramatic courtroom proceedings.

Virginia: Dad, it's a Hollywood movie. It's all made-up. The courtroom's only a coincidence. It might just as well have been a proceeding in a video arcade. The courtroom is just a setting to show off Elle Wood's clothes and make-up and let us know how cute and lovable she is. How does she win her case? She tells everybody what you can do after getting a perm. Was that about law and justice?

David: I guess different people can see the same movie in different ways. There's even a theory about this called reader response or reader reaction theory. According to the theory, a movie is not just a container into which writers and directors pour meanings which will later be drained by the people who see the movie. Instead, individual viewers bring their own values, tastes and histories to a movie, and they respond or react to the movie in different ways. Variable meanings then result from the multiplicity of movie-viewer interactions.

Virginia: What if I said Legally Blonde was a cowboy movie?

David: It's not like anything goes. There are boundaries for the possible meanings. You can't argue that law students are cowboys. There has to be something in a movie that would justify a viewer interpreting it in a given way.

Virginia: And I can't see counting Legally Blonde as a law movie. It's a chick flick, and I'm glad that it is.

David: Are you too old for a time out?

Posted October 2, 2001

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