gender and sexuality in media

Introduction
An individual learns about gender through the environment we grown up in.   Our perception of what is “male” and “female” have nothing to do with our physical sex, which we are born with and cannot choose, but through what we learn and pick up from our families, schools, communities, and media.  Media often portrays what society may not always expressly state.   We learn about gender roles from what see in the movies, television, and advertisements.

            The thesis will study gender and media, through analysis of the movie Legally Blonde.   In examining that particular movie, the paper will study the implications of the film with regards to gender and sexuality in our society, especially in a male-dominated occupation such as the law.   The paper will apply the Enculturated Lens Theory of Gender Formation, developed by the psychologist Sandra Bem (1993), in its analysis on how media, through analysis of the movie Legally Blonde, conveys and shapes certain messages about gender and sexuality to its viewers.

Brief Explanation of the Movie

            Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) in the movie Legally Blonde is a rich, gorgeous blond with a perfect life.  She is president of her sorority, has a perfect 4.0 GPA, beautiful clothes, loyal friends, and the cutest fraternity boy on campus as her boyfriend.  Her biggest ambition after graduation is to marry her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) and to sit back and enjoy a continued life of leisure and pampering to which she was born to.  Unfortunately, Huntington, who comes from an East-Coast blue blood family, is geared to go to Harvard Law School, and dumps Woods for being “too blond”.   Warner explains that he wants to run for public office someday, and would need a “Jackie” on his side, not a “Marilyn”.  In other words, he basically tells her he can’t ever marry a dumb blond.   Woods is heartbroken and vows to win him back.  She decides to go to Harvard Law herself, and studies obsessively until she passes the LSATs.    Upon arriving in Harvard Law, Woods finds herself sticking out like a sore thumb.  Everyone, in her opinion, is too serious and dismally-dressed.   Worse, Huntington reunited with an old girlfriend from law school, Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair) who is determined to make Woods’ stay in Harvard Law even more miserable.  Heartbroken and unable to deal with the academic demands of law school, Woods seeks refuge in her new friends, a manicurist Paulette Bonafonte (Jennifer Coolidge) and Emmet Richmond (Luke Wilson), a young lawyer.  Woods finally realizes that Warner will never view her as an equal and will always just perceive her as a “dumb blond”.  She decides to fight back and starts hitting the books.  Slowly she begins to excel in law school and eventually wins one of the four coveted spots for internship in a prestigious law firm.   Between dealing with the needs of the client their assisting, and the advances of her sexist professor who turns out to have hired her only because she was pretty, Woods emerges at the end of the movie with a renewed sense of self-esteem.  She realizes that just because she’s pretty doesn’t mean she’s dumb, and she realizes that being smart doesn’t mean having to stop being vain or being concerned about your looks and clothes.  In other words, Woods fights for herself and for all the blondes who have to suffer through the stereotype of being “dumb blondes”.

Historical Context of the Movie
The movie was released in 2001.  It was produced by Marc E. Platt for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios and was directed by Robert Luketic.  The movie is based on the book by Amanda Brown and is based loosely on the author’s own unpleasant experience at Stanford Law School as the spoiled child of a name partner of the law firm Brown & Bain. In the movie, Woods attended Harvard Law (not Stanford), but the campus scenes were actually filmed at the University of Southern California.  Harvard was just briefly shown through aerial shots.   Another difference between the book and the movie is that the sorority mentioned in the book, Delta Gamma, is a real one, while Woods is a sister of Delta Nu sorority in the movie (Wikipedia, “Legally Blonde” 2006).

            The reception of the viewing public to Legally Blonde was generally positive.   It was regarded as good, light fun, and empowering to women everywhere to break barriers and social stereotypes, particularly for blondes.  Some criticisms about the movie was that it was shallow, dumb, and improbable, since Woods graduated at the top of her class at the end of the movie.  Many saw the movie as part of the Girl Power movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s  (Wikipedia, “Legally Blonde” 2006).  The Girl Power movement is a term of empowerment for women, and expresses a cultural phenomenon which is said to be linked to third-wave feminism.   Other media images apart from Woods associated with this Girl Power movement are Cher from Clueless, Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, Buffy Summer from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the women in Charlie’s Angels, and the Spice Girls, who popularized the term.

Theoretical Orientation for Analysis of the Movie
The paper will apply the Enculturated Lens Theory of Gender Formation, developed by the psychologist Sandra Bem (1993), in analyzing the movie Legally Blonde as to its implications regarding gender and sexuality through media.   According to this theory, every culture has a set of beliefs and assumptions that are deeply embedded in all aspects of that society.  These beliefs, which Bem calls lenses, are such a part of every day life that they subconscious and almost invisible to the people in society.  Yet even though individuals may not be consciously aware of these lenses or beliefs, they are still passed on from generation to generation through the process of socialization or what Bem calls “enculturation” (Missouri State University 2005: 8).

            These beliefs, also called metamessages, are “imbedded within the social practices of culture” (Bem 1993: 14).   An individual’s daily experiences are made to conform to the culture’s idea of what is acceptable through the social norms and mores.  These metamessages become implicit instructions that teach the individual, who is the constant recipient, of the expectations and assumptions of society (Missouri State University 2005 : 8-9).  Media is one way in how these metamessages, beliefs, or lenses, are conveyed to an individual subconsciously or consciously.   As stated earlier in this paper, media often portrays beliefs that society may not always expressly state.  These hidden assumptions however come out in the quality and content of movies, television shows, and advertisements.

            The hidden assumptions or metamessages from society will be examined in Legally Blonde thus pursuant to the Enculturated Lens Theory.

Analysis of the Movie
The lens or belief that Legally Blonde is clearly addressing in the movie is the societal perception of the “dumb blonde”.   In the movie, Woods is, obviously, blonde and likes to wear pink.  She totes around a little puppy,  wear sexy clothes, and likes to wear little heels.  She is obsessed with shopping and shoes.  This reflects the societal lens or belief that blondes are shallow and stupid.  Its shows the societal perception and stereotype that blondes cannot have serious careers.  The stereotype in fact is not even just limited to blonde women.  Pretty girls in general have a hard time making other people take them seriously.  Even other women, as shown in the movie, such as Kensington, Huntington’s bitchy fiancé, looked down on Woods because she thought Woods, being pretty, was dumb.  The bias can also be seen in the way Woods’ Professor Callahan (Victor Garber) treated her.  He only chose her for the internship spot because he was pretty, and he ended up attempting to harass her.   This kind of treatment as portrayed in the movie show that society has a tendency to underestimate pretty and/or blonde women, and to treat them as eye candy or pieces of meat.  The gender stereotype is also apparent from the movie wherein women are a minority in the legal profession.  Women have to work harder to prove their worth compared to their male counterparts, particularly pretty and/or blonde women like Woods who have to deal with discrimination not merely from men but from other women as well.

            The movie depicts how women have to struggle to be taken seriously.  Women like Woods are deemed as “fluffy” and relegated to the shallow world of fashion and shopping merely because of the way they look, act, dress, and behave.  Sadly, many of these women also limit their worlds to a safe little cocoon, the way Woods did at the start of the movie where her only concerns were getting a good manicure and marrying her college boyfriend.  Women themselves have to fight not to be limited and stereotyped into these roles, the way Woods did when she realized that she was more than a pretty face.   Likewise, society has to dispel of this gender bias towards women, not only in the legal profession, but from any profession that a woman may choose to pursue.   Fortunately, in the movie, there were also characters who positively portrayed that not all people have this gender bias.  There is Richmond, the Harvard Law graduate who ended up becoming Woods’ boyfriend, who always believed in Woods and her capabilities.  He constantly encouraged her to not give up and to fight for what she wanted.  To Richmond, Woods was not just a pretty face but a character, a person of substance.  There is also Professor Stromwell (Holland Taylor), the wise professor who pushed Woods to hang in there and not quit law school.  These characters show that not all of society leans towards this bias against women.

            The lenses, beliefs of society as portrayed in this movie, pursuant to the Enculturated Lens Theory, continue to exist today.  What the movie tells us is that women are in control and should take an active step in dispelling such biases and beliefs.   Woods in the movie realized that she had to prove to everyone that she was more than a free-spending and free-spirited young woman (Wikipedia, “Legally Blonde” 2006).  Though many people were critical of her abilities, and few took her seriously (reflecting metamessages on societal stereotypes on women), Woods took it upon herself to prove them wrong.  She refused to give up and to have doors and opportunities slammed shut in her face simply because of the way she looked.  The movie is very empowering for women as it encourages them to break free from stereotypes and to discover what they are really capable of for themselves despite what society may be telling them.  The film also speaks to society and reminds us that these beliefs and metamessages, as seen in the stereotypes and biases that Woods in the movie had to battle against, are very much present in our culture today.  As such, movie like Legally Blonde bring these metamessages into the foreground, raising them from the subconscious to the conscious, in order for us to do something about these gender biases.

Conclusion
The movie Legally Blonde sends strong messages about gender and sexuality particularly with regard to pretty and blonde women.   The lenses, beliefs or metamessages that the movie tells us, pursuant to the Enculturated Lens Theory, are the societal stereotype of the “dumb blonde” and how women are underestimated because of the way they look.   These stereotypes and biases, according to the Enculturated Lens Theory, exist in our culture even if we are not consciously aware of them.  The film tells us that women should not be underestimated and discriminated as incapable of pursuing a serious profession simply because of the way they look.   More importantly, women everywhere are also encouraged to themselves break free from these stereotypes, and to believe that they are truly capable of achieving anything they put their minds into.

WORKS CITED LIST

Legally Blonde.  Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.  2006.  31 July 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legally_Blonde

Reading gender: The acquisition of gender roles through children’s literature.   Missouri State University.  2005.  Sociology Program.  31 July 2006.  http://sociology.missouristate.edu/Reading%20Gender.PDF.

Bem, Sandra L.  1993. The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

 

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