Judith Grant, Ph.D. is an Associtate Professor at the University of Southern California. You can visit her web site at: Judith Grant
By Judith Grant
The latest offering from director Steven Soderbergh might have been pitched as "Norma Rae meets Pretty Woman." Featuring the original pretty woman, Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich is, on one level, an uplifting story about a loveable working class hero. It is made all the more satisfying because it is based on the true tale of a real life Erin Brockovich. The sexy, single mother fights the good fight and wins. You have to love it. While the film succeeds as a feel-good film for liberals and admittedly features a winning cast, the representations of class, the law, lawyers and gender are disturbing.
As the film opens, a scantily clad, trash talking Erin Brockovich sinks her own hopes for winning a personal injury claim against the yuppie who injured her neck in a car accident by being too honest on the witness stand. Expressing her frustration with opposing counsel in a string of colorful four-letter words, Brockovich biases the jury against her, and loses her case.
Cut to a montage of shots of Erin unsuccessfully looking for work, meeting and then wittily blowing off the handsome biker next door, and being ignored by her attorney, the crusty Ed Masrey, engagingly played by Albert Finney. In desperation, and suffering under the twisted reasoning that her attorney owes her the money he promised he would win for her, Erin heads to Masreys office and insinuates herself into a job at his firm. "Please dont make me beg," she says in what we will soon see is a typically Erin-esque public outburst. Castigating Masrey for losing her case, she betrays a certain charm (not to mention cleavage). Breasts thrust bravely forward, Erin stands up (and out) for herself, her kids and her principles. Proving to be both a quick study and a diligent worker, Erin prevails as an adept paralegal despite the judgmental and snide gazes of her female co-workers.
In the course of working on a pro-bono real estate case, Erin stumbles upon a series of questions that, when deftly investigated by her, ultimately result in over six hundred plaintiffs winning a $333 million lawsuit against the $30 billion corporate giant, Pacific Gas and Electric. It is still the largest settlement ever paid in a class action lawsuit in the United States.
As the story unfolds, PG & E emerges as such an evil monster that it would stretch credibility if we did not know in advance that the story was true. The startling facts are that after having polluted a nearby communitys water supply with a particularly nasty form of the chemical "chromium," PG & E not only denied that it was dangerous, but actually sent pamphlets to the residents knowingly and falsely portraying the chemical as benign, even touting it as "good" for the water. The resulting health disasters (cancer clusters, miscarriages, deteriorating organs, etc.) were initially dismissed by the victims as the results of their own individual bad luck and poor lifestyle choices. When Brockovich brings the startling facts to their attention, they are at first unwilling to believe that "their" company would do something so vile. Next, they are skeptical that if they fight, they might triumph against such a giant capitalist. Using a combination of her native intelligence, feminine wiles and working class simpatico, Brockovich is able to secure the documents that prove beyond doubt that the local PG & E knowingly polluted, and then set about to cover-up its crimes. At least according to the film, what really sank PG & E legally was the smoking gun document that proved they had done all of this with the blessing of the national headquarters. Furthermore, they attempted to cover their tracks in the time-honored tradition of the corporate killers of Karen Silkwood and the document shredding Oliver North. Foreknowledge on the part of the deep-pocketed corporate headquarters made it financially feasible to pursue the case.
What could be bad about such an inspiring story? To start, its images of the law, lawyers, gender and class. Erin Brockovich follows a particular legal thriller formula in which that lawyer with the most unsuccessful practice and the least elite law degree turns out to be the most honest person and the best all around attorney (e.g., A Civil Action, The Verdict). In Erin Brockovich, the large law firm that ultimately bankrolls the case and takes it to its conclusion, is portrayed as a collection of patronizing stuffed shirts out for profit, not justice. This may, in fact, be an accurate description of many big personal injury firms. However, this justice/profit dichotomy may also reflect a contradiction inherent in the desire to see lawyers as fighters for the underclass in the first place.
The fact is that the price of law school, and the realities of firms in capitalist economies mean that lawyers who want to pay their law school debts and make a living (or who even want to afford to work on contingency for cases such as this one), pretty much do have to work for profit. The sad fact is that when it is not profitable, justice often is not compatible with capitalism. And, in this economic reality, so much the worse for justice.
The other problem is that Erin Brockovichs story is most instructive about class and gender. But in the hands Hollywood, class politics are masked as individualistic heroics. In the words of the well-meaning wife of one of the films producers (who first brought the story to her husbands attention), "I couldn't believe it when my doctor told me about her friend Erin. It seemed incredible that this twice-divorced woman with three young children, who had no money,no resources and no formal education had single-handedly put this case together. I thought she seemed like the perfect role model for the new millennium" (See link).
Well, Ok. But the fact of the matter is that Erin
didnt "single handedly" put the case together. In fact, she wouldnt
have had much of a case at all had an ex-PG&E worker not neglected to perform
his paper shredding duties, and then, for some reason, kept the most useful and damning
documents. Erin wouldnt have had a case had the lust stricken boy in the documents
room not allowed her to copy other damaging documents even when he was ordered not to.
As wonderful as her commitment to this case was, and as great a triumph as was the victory, the fact is that the reality of this case is not nearly so uplifting as it seems at first glance. Indeed, what is remarkable is how anomalous this case is. What is amazing is the sheer amount of evidence it took to prove in a court of law that people were poisoned to increase PG&Es profit margin. What is astounding is that the white-collar killers were (and are) able to hide behind the corporate veil, tax deduct their legal costs, and go on about their business. The sum of $333 million which sounds so huge in the film, was actually split between the attorneys (who got at least 40% of the sum), and then split again between over six hundred clients. Seen that way, it doesnt really sound like so much money anymore, especially given that this is the largest settlement in history. It should also be noted that because of the structure of certain aspects of the legal system that are basically a shrine to the corporation, no one went to jail for crimes that resulted in many deaths and disabilities. Someone almost surely would have had this been a case of assault with a deadly weapon.
The gender politics of this film are also vexed. Besides Erin, the only other working women in the film are either the jealous ones with whom Brockovich works at Masrys firm ("Lovers quarrel?" one snipes when Brockovich storms out of Masrys office after a particularly tense argument), or the asexual, masculinized female attorneys who work in the upscale personal injury firm. Brockovich is romanticized as an authentic member of the working class who can go in there and speak their lingo. However, she is "still a woman," not ashamed to use sex to get the job done. This presents another anomaly. Despite the films point of view, it is less odd to find sexiness and brains in the same package then it is to find men taking that combination seriously as they apparently do with Erin. In reality, the seemingly asexual attorney in the upscale firm got that way for a reason, and it is not her own frigidity!
In any case, as she herself admits in the film, her devotion to the case against PG&E is partly a self-esteem issue for Erin. It is the first time, she says, that anyone ever treated her with any respect. Through quirks of timing and luck, the real Erin ended up making a bundle of money and having Julia Roberts play her in the movie. However, most women in her situation get little more than a string of bad boyfriends, minimum wage jobs and objectifying sex. The devotion of the Erin Brockovichs of the world is not the answer to corporate crime, nor is she a role model for the working class women who want to fight the big guys. She is a glorious exception that proves that the rules must be changed.
Posted April 2000