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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. And public opinion, properly mobilized, can disrupt the Congressional money machine that mostly generates legislation rewarding big contributors.

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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 role.

Unfortunately, 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 TV show.
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 culture.

Posted July 28, 2003

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