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Film Review for July 20th 2001
Legally Blonde and I’m the One that I Want
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

I saw two films last week that are perfect for a study in contrasts:  the first, now playing at the Nickleodeon, is the independently made one-woman show by stand-up comedian Margaret Cho, directed by Lionel Coleman, called I’m the One that I Want.  The second, now playing at the Century Park 7, Green Valley Cinemas, Santa Cruz Cinema 9, and Scotts Valley Cinemas, is another Hollywood summer teen movie, Legally Blonde, directed by Robert Luketic, based on the novel by former Stanford Law student Amanda Brown and starring the irrepressible Reese Witherspoon, whose performance was so fabulous in the dark teen political satire, Election.  

And indeed, the very first striking contrast here—after the indie versus Hollywood money, production, and distribution differences—is race.  Margaret Cho’s stand-up routine derives its humor partly from being able to educate white audiences into Korean American culture and then satirize it; it also derives its humor from being able to recognizably pinpoint white prejudice toward Asians  and satirize it. What she does is take one of the most universally appealing genres, comedy, and racialize it in a way that makes us all pay attention.  Although we’re used to comedians being Black--so used to it, I think, that white people hardly even notice when we are being made fun of--a Korean American comedian can spin race in a new way. And when Cho points out that she’s pretty much the only one in her position, you think right, that’s true, and isn’t it about time things changed?  

Legally Blonde, on the other hand, performs the familiar move of reinstating Aryan supremacy by pretending that the world discriminates against blondes and then vilifying the darker folks, while demonstrating that blondes are indeed better.  Even though it’s couched in the intra-white terms of blonde and brunette, it doesn’t take much to make the connection, especially when Margaret Cho is around to make us aware of the codes. 

Another contrast, not unrelated to the question of race, is the way each film deals with femininity and beauty.  Legally Blonde is all about being fashion savvy and beauty conscious: Elle Woods (Witherspoon) majored in Fashion in college, she knows how to outwit store salespeople who try to cheat her with last year’s models, and she knows her designers and her colors.  The person she has to defend in a trial is a renowned fitness model, Brooke Taylor, famous for being able to get her clients to lose 3 pounds in one workout session.  Elle herself credits Brooke with having gotten her from a size 6 to a size 4. Elle also teaches manicurist and friend Paulette how to get her man, while Elle learns how to get hers.  And then, of course, there’s lots of luxuriant blondeness (though there’s a surprise cameo appearance by that far-from-homely brunette, Raquel Welch, that with a wink at the audience gives the lie to the general praise of blondeness). I’m the One that I Want, on the other hand, tells dire tales about Cho being forced to lose weight to play herself on a TV sit-com and about her getting lessons in “being more Asian.” Cho herself gets a lot of humor mileage from her bawdiness and her raunchy non-traditional femininity.  

Interestingly, though, both films have a lot of things in common to say about being women in the world. Legally Blonde, for all its emphasis on good looks and slim figures, has its main character tell her friend that sex appeal is about rhetorical strategy, not about some inherent essence.  “You’ve got all the right equipment,” Elle (meaning “she”) quips, “you just need to read the manual.”  The movie consistently defends maligned women against charges that they are stupid, frivolous, or evil and conniving—the “gold digger” wife turns out to have been deeply in love with her murdered husband, for example, and Elle’s character turns out to consist of solid core values:  loyalty, kindness, generosity, optimism, and the like. Cho’s routine repeatedly underscores her own challenges and heroism as a woman, and shows, through her cautionary tales about being made to fit a mold, that one can hold on to one’s values and survive.  Both films centrally feature a scene of sexual harassment (by a boss or a man in a position of influence) and the response in each case is clear, decisive, and smart: neither woman allows herself to internalize her victimization and both respond by reaffirming their strength as successful people who achieve their goals.

So both of these movies are about girl power, and both serve as decent role models for uppity and ambitious girls. Legally Blonde, unfortunately, still has to stick pretty close to some traditional heterosexual, feminine, and white norms: being beautiful and thin, getting the guy of your dreams, having long blonde hair; while I’m the One that I Want breaks out in all kinds of bold new ways.  Still, the general message is hang on to your dreams, especially if you are a woman, and don’t let the world trivialize you.  Not bad for summer fun.  Looking for trouble at the movies for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copyright Carla Freccero 2001