Legally Blonde: A Classic Case of “Never Judge A Book By Its Cover”
In a world where judgment can come in any form, the story of ‘legally blonde’ explores the bias a person can face due to the stereotype attached to the person’s appearance. The owner of the blonde hair in the movie (The protagonist- Elle Woods) personifies the ‘blonde identity’ in American society. In the west, especially in the USA, being a blonde woman is equated to a beautiful person with no academic intellect and no serious ambition in life and is a double-edged stereotype as it compliments a person on external beauty but bludgeon the intellectual caliber. The article is in III parts. Part I deals with a brief introduction of the movie for readers who are not familiar with the plot. Part II entails the attribution theory in social psychology and its relationship with fictional and non-fictional events. Part-III is the conclusion.
Introduction to fictional world
At the beginning of the movie, the protagonist is presented as the antithesis of intellectual pursuits. In contrast, in the world of the protagonist and the world of people who pursue law, Her own father describes law school as a place for people who are “Boring, ugly and serious”. The movie then takes on to dismiss the above-mentioned stereotypes when Elle Woods enrolls in Harvard Law School to become a lawyer and prove everyone wrong, especially her ex-romance who rejected her on the grounds that a bright future can never be realized with a blonde woman such as herself because she is not a serious person in the conventional sense.
However, attribution theory and stereotypes play a very important role with respect to the decisions the characters around Elle land on. It is discussed later in the article but a brief introduction of attribution would be- “ In social psychology, attribution is the process of inferring the causes of events or behaviors”. Now, this is extremely circular, because, one would assume intelligence level because of stereotype and then attribute a particular instance to that stereotype and reinforce the original position on intelligence correlation and thus creating an echo chamber where pre-conceived notions are stored and sustained.
Coming back to the movie, while analyzing the characteristics of the protagonist we find that she possesses the conventional smart person traits, i.e. excellent memory, thinking skills, and dedication but she applies these skills in a different field like beauty, fashion, and lifestyle choices. However, when she arrives at law school, she starts applying the same raw skills in the legal discipline and exhibits her own flashes of brilliance. Despite all of these aforementioned skills, there is one fundamental trait of the protagonist which stands out and that is her goodness of heart, optimism, and politeness when required which in turn can make her immediately well-liked.
At last, she was able to win the case of her client in this movie using all her abilities but most importantly disagreeing with a very fundamental notion that is prevalent in the legal community which makes most lawyers think that winning is the ultimate goal and not the pursuit of truth. Woods implores everyone around her to believe in the innocence of her client but other lawyers in the firm refuse to do so, yet, she firmly stands behind her client and fights for her case with a passion which proves to be an effective means to her victory as it drives her evidence collection, cross-examination, and analysis of the factual matrix of the case.
Her entire approach can be summed up beautifully in her Harvard Law School graduation speech where she says that she begs to differ with Aristotle on the adage that “The law is reason free from passion” and proposes that passion and commitment can help an individual both practice law and live life in a better way. In a way, this thinking can be fruitful because to say the reasoning is without passion imputes an objective element on the ‘truth’ and rejects the idea that different people can have their own version of ‘truth’, in simpler terms, this is the subjectivity which forms the basis of the law as it is not black and white but comes in many colors and the protagonist picks her own color in the movie and stands by it.
Attribution theory and real life analysis
However, another interesting perspective that comes out of the movie is when you observe how the practical world really works. The immediate response of any sane individual would be that this movie is just Hollywood entertaining the ‘feel good’ genre and has nothing to do with how the real world operates. Think about it, is anyone among us immune to making judgment calls? We live in a society where claiming that you don’t judge someone on appearance fetches reward points, the premise here is that not judging someone is praiseworthy because that is not something you expect people to do. Again, it would be a gross generalization if I state that everybody behaves this way but my observation has been that due to social conditioning you will have to resist the need to not judge someone rather than it being a ‘normal’ reaction.
Attribution theory in social psychology would tell us that there are two types of attributions, situational and personality. The former impute the conduct of a person to a particular situation and then draw conclusions. For example, one would say that one’s friend is cranky because of working late nights for exam preparations and would understand that it would go away. These types of judgments are short-lived because they are situational. The latter comes into the picture when you judge someone and attribute a personality trait to them.
For example, if a friend is cranky and at the same time the said friend is short-tempered, which may or may not be a correct observation but would lead an individual to attribute this short-temper to the current state of behavior and this type of judgment is more concrete because this would stay even when that friend does not exhibit this type of behavior because the aforementioned incident has reinforced the judgment about said friend’s personality traits.
Coming back to the movie once again, we need to understand how judgment based on appearance works with situational and personality attributions. Generally, we take the stereotype based on appearance as the bedrock for our judgment formation and then use both situational and personality attributions to supplement this position. The stereotypical blonde image is something which the protagonist carried with her everywhere but this in itself is not at all a problem because who among us would not like to carry what we really are.
For example, in her video essay for Harvard, she was able to convey her motivation and qualification for law school without altering her core personality and successfully presented herself as a qualified candidate. Now, it is up to serious debate whether an identical approach would work in real life but it is the principle behind this element which is of importance. However, the movie is not immune to criticism as Elle’s motive for entering law school was to win back her love and one can question that if it were not for the desire to get back together with the boyfriend who broke up with her, would she have ended up at a law school? It also goes against the principles of self-love, self-respect, and other aspects that the movie so dearly portrays.
The problem highlighted by the movie is when negative stereotypes impede the lead character’s ambitions as she has to overcome these obstacles in order to achieve her dream. This should never be normal for any person. Personality attributions go hand in hand with any stereotype and in this case, it is the dumb, quirky, and not-serious traits which characters around her attribute to her.
Now, let us discuss the aggravated case of situational attribution in judgments based on stereotype; It is what one would call a reinforcing attribution as in this case because people use it to reinforce their judgment rather than using it as a temporary form of attribution in which the person under judgment is usually given leeway because of the situation and the judgment perishes when the situation is over.
In one of the scenes in the movie, the character is under pressure because she believes in the innocence of her client while other people in the firm want her to look at things more pragmatically, it is apparent that they were only able to comprehend the situation as lead character displaying naiveness and nothing more and on some level attribute it to the stereotype they hold.
An analysis of the movie from a feminist lens would greatly affirm the idea that this movie has all empowering trends associated with feminism. A woman is able to overcome the stereotype attached to her appearance coupled with her gender because a blonde man would not have faced the same problems which Elle faced in legally blonde. However, the premise of the movie can easily be confused with the perpetuation of beauty and fashion being branded as essentially feminine characteristics but there more to it than meets the eye.
The fundamental idea as explained earlier in this article is to not change one’s attributes because of preconceived notions about them but rather use them to your advantage; A solution to avoiding stereotypes is to destroy them and this is exactly what Elle achieves by the end of the movie. However, one should not misunderstand this by believing that inflicting stereotype-based judgment is alright if the opposing party is nonchalant about it and not doing anything. An easier way to understand would be to segregate stereotypes into two kinds; Physical attribute-based and social-based. It can be based on either how you look or your so-called position in the social structure, anything else is more or less transient or forms part of situational attribution. All these stereotypes or judgments will exist for as long as one is part of a functioning society because that is how human beings have developed themselves to adapt to diversity among ourselves. But, it is our duty to not succumb to them.
Amidst all this chaos, it is important to not let the negative opinion of anyone else hamper one’s goals and objectives because it is not a personal duty to discredit someone’s opinion but it becomes an obligation when it is in way of one’s success. A Feminist understanding would allow an individual to understand that in place of Elle if a man with an interest in sports cars and baseball would have entered law school, perhaps, he would not have been subjected to the same discriminatory treatment. This is because the so-called feminine traits even in the year 2020 are seen as weak and anti-intellectual by a disturbing number of people. Likes, dislikes, preferences, and attributes differ greatly between individuals rather than different groups such as blondes and brunettes, white and black, etc. These differences between individuals and not groups would allow us to disconnect the link between traits like intelligence, honesty, compassion with physical and social stereotypes.
At last, it should be a sincere effort to resist our urge to judge others on their appearance, situation, societal position, and personality and I use the word ‘effort’ because of my strong belief that formation of judgment is only natural given the social conditioning each and every one of us go through. However, with respect to personality, there should be exceptions. For Example, if somebody has been consistently displaying negative traits, you might choose to avoid them but personality attributions must not be done on the basis of appearance and stereotype alone. Finally, there is always an option to persevere and destroy the opinion of others if it is running adversely to your own hopes and desires and carve out a way where such negative perceptions can’t thrive. As they say for judgment, it’s sweet till the moment you are on the receiving side.
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