Let’s just dive right in. By now, you should know about the incendiary and distressing events at Yale and Mizzou….
This month’s Reel Women is dedicated to a brief blip in the generic morphology of the romcom known as the sex comedy. Between the large-budget movie musicals of the 1950s that replaced sex with song, and the notoriously bleak cinematic landscape of the 70s in which, it seems, only Woody Allen bothered to produce romcoms (a sign that the genre was, indeed, on the rocks), the sex comedy reigned with the sugary self-assurance of a pre-Nixon world. With an aesthetic that I can only describe as what mid-century Hollywood imagined middle America imagined New York to look like, it brought glamour to middle class sex.
Dedicated to the sexual exploits of the newly urban and distressingly unmarried boomer generation, the sex comedy—like all romcoms—attempted to deal with a lot of anxieties about gender, sexuality and class by marrying them off. Despite its name, the sex comedy is exceptionally chaste. Although its characters talk more explicitly and soberly about sex than almost anywhere else in American cinema before them thanks to the Hays Code, they never actually move beyond a theoretical discussion of the mechanics of premarital sex. Two decades earlier, audiences saw more bed-hopping in the screwball comedy than they would find in these movies. Instead, sex in the sex comedy is tasked with both emblematizing a new politics of gender parity while also providing the occasion to force those politics back into the home, ensconced within a loving and now sexually-fulfilling marriage.
Legally Blonde has a lot of feminist bona fides: it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors; the girls in Elle’s sorority, despite confirming to every other sorority-girl stereotype, are not remotely catty and support Elle in all her endeavors; a working-class woman gets a romance plot with a very conventionally-attractive man; when Elle’s male professor turns out to be more of a creep than a role model, a female professor gives Elle the push she needs; and, in my favorite twist on the modern rom-com, the climactic moment normally reserved for the Big Kiss is taken up instead by Elle, high on her court victory, rejecting Warner and walking into the sunshine happy and alone (she does wind up with a man, but it is in the epilogue and not part of the movie itself). But, for me, the most powerful thing about this movie is the way it portrays Elle’s femininity.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t identify as a feminist. I can’t possibly have known the word as a toddler, but I always wanted to prove I could do whatever my older brothers could, because I needed them to know that girls could do anything boys could do. Despite this, it took me until very recently to identify a subtle, insidious form of misogyny I’d internalized and had been holding onto since childhood: the devaluing of the “feminine.”