LEGALLY Blonde: DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME
by Prof. Joyce Saltalamachia
I decided to see Legally
Blonde last summer because it had three big things going
for it: it had gotten universally positive reviews; it was a
goofy comedy which automatically made it good summer fare; and
it was about law school. I didn't expect, or want, anything
of substance, so was not disappointed. In fact, it was generally
so ridiculous that the scenes that might have annoyed me (She
studied really hard for a week and got near perfect LSATs. Yeah,
sure. She won a murder trial as a first-year student. Oh, really?),
but these occurrences fit right in with the overall wackiness
of the story. It was just a movie after all.
I was gratified, however, to
see that one of the law professors portrayed was a woman. This
was definitely a step in the right direction and indicated a
certain amount of gender sensitivity, plus a nod to the very
real fact that a lot of law professors actually are women. In
fact, Prof. Stromwell taught Elle's very first class, in what
I thought was an hilarious parody of the popular notion of how
a typical law school class is conducted. At this class, she
strides in and writes on the board, "Law is reason free
from passion." "Law is reason free from passion,"
she intones. "Who said this?" Anyone familiar with
a modern law school class will immediately see the humor in this.
First, instead of being written on the board the quote would
actually be part of a PowerPoint presentation, and second, we're
usually concerned with more earthly matters on the first day,
like "Who's bought the book," "Who's read the
assignment" and so on.
Back to the movie. As Stromwell
glares at the terrified students one timidly raises his hand.
"Aristotle?" he asks. "Are you sure of this?"
she growls. "Yes." "Would you bet your life
on it?" She ups the ante. "Yes" again, but very
slowly. "Would you bet his life on it?" and
she clunks a nearby student on the head with a pointer, clearly
indicating that she would be fully prepared to take him as a
human sacrifice if Aristotle is wrong. The tension is high and
the first student finally breaks down. Stromwell ultimately
concedes that Aristotle had made the statement, and she moves
on to torture another hapless victim.
Where to start? In a real
class you would be so delighted to have a volunteer tackle a
question not directly related to the reading that you would likely
grovel in gratitude. The fact that the answer was correct would
be almost too much to bear. The message in law schools nowadays
is to be more nurturing to the students, so that the old intimidation
game, if it ever existed, is long gone. "Look to the left
of you, look to the right of you..." is a dim memory. Course
evaluation forms regularly ask students to rate the "respectfulness"
of the teacher. And to actually strike a student, with
a pointer or otherwise, would be a one-way ticket to TIAA-CREF-
All these changes were badly
needed and have done much to improve the atmosphere and civility
of legal education, so it amused me to see the old stereotypes
being still presented in this film. Perhaps, I thought, I could
have some fun with this in the fall when I meet with my first
year Torts class. Like many schools, we see our new students
first in an orientation session, at which time we introduce ourselves
and our subjects before the actual course work starts in earnest.
Surely most of the students would have seen the movie already
and would recall this classroom scene. I fancied myself a Professor
Stromwell type (of a certain age, professional appearance, commanding
presence) so I thought that the joke would go over well. The
students would recognize the parody and they would see that I
was a with-it sort of person who goes to goofy summer movies
just like they do. Someone with a sense of humor who, in spite
of being older than most of their parents, is actually pretty
cool. After all, I went to Berkeley. In the Sixties.
I'm really nearly one of them, and they should recognize this
Orientation day came and I
could hardly wait for class and the opportunity to play the joke
and get the class started off on a humorous, nurturing footing.
I strode into class to be greeted by 45 apprehensive stares.
"Law is reason free from passion" I wrote on the board.
"Who said this?" I asked. Silence. "Who knows
who said this?" I repeated. No volunteers and the 45 stares
were starting to turn glassy. "Anyone want to take a guess
who said this? Anyone think Aristotle said this?" By now
I was desperate just to get myself out of this hole. "Didn't
any of you see 'Legally Blonde' over the summer?"
Forty-five heads shake "no." "This was a movie
about law school," I'm ranting by now. "Weren't any
of you even curious to see how law school is portrayed in the
movies?" Apparently the answer was still "no,"
since not a single one of them had thought it worth the time
and money to see one of the more popular movies of the summer
in spite of the fact that they were all about to become law students
themselves. I finally assigned them to see the movie over the
weekend and moved on to the topic of Torts, broken in spirit.
My joke had fallen flat. Not only did they not see me as someone
who was cool, they all clearly thought I was a lunatic.
Let me suggest a few things
that we can learn about law and popular culture from this episode.
First, we as law professors don't have the slightest idea what
"popular culture" actually is and we are only fooling
ourselves if we do. Second, we are clueless about what our students
like to do, watch, listen to, drink, think about, etc. If we
try to "relate" to them, we make ourselves look and
feel ridiculous. They may occasionally condescend to try to
relate to us ("Please tell us again about seeing the Beatles
in Shea Stadium, Professor.") but we have to recognize this
as blatant pandering. They want us to be teachers. They want
the roles clearly defined and delimited. Law school is one thing,
"their" movies, television, music are other things
I am sure anyone reading this
is practically frothing at the mouth by now. After all, it is
posted on a web site designed by law professors devoted to law
and popular culture. And I am sure that every one can supply
me with many fine examples of how you use popular culture in
your classes. Certainly, popular culture can be a useful tool
for the academic study of law. But as law professors we are
probably in the worst position of any profession to recognize
what is "popular" and what is "culture."
It isn't possible to find legal relevance in every episode of
Ally McBeal and our students are watching MTV and BattleBots
anyway. If you use the word cool you probably aren't.
In the end, it's only a movie.
Posted February 20, 2002