I was watching Legally Blonde the other day with my roommate. I’d only seen it once before, and by “seen” I mean I was half-paying attention as I tried to write a screenplay and be on Facebook and Tumblr at the same time, all while watching a movie.
This time, I paid a little more attention.
I didn’t really get the subtlety of this movie until the second viewing. The concept of Legally Blonde is a pretty easy sell. A blonde sorority girl fashionista attending Harvard Law? Short of tagging “in space” to the end, there’s just no way to make that more intriguing. But there’s more to it than that. Just because Elle is a preppy fashion expert doesn’t mean she isn’t smart, and the ways she breaks through these stereotypes–without betraying her nature–gives the movie and interesting twist. “Isn’t that neat?” I thought as I watched the movie. “She’s trying to prove to everyone that it’s possible to be a typical girly-girl and also be an effective lawyer. But it’s hard for her because no one takes her seriously…” And then I stopped. And remembered that I’d written pretty much the same thing about Argo on my blog about a week ago.
Argo, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, is about a CIA agent who has to smuggle six people out of Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis. After deconstructing his coworkers’ flimsy plans to get them out, he comes up with the only idea that works: faking a location shoot for a movie and pretending that the six people are part of his crew. It’s a good plan. The only problem with it is that it sounds ridiculous. Which is why the by-the-book group at the CIA won’t give him the time of day on it. They leave him to his own devices and complain about how he’s wasting their time and money every time he comes back with a progress report. They don’t take him seriously. The fact that a ridiculous-sounding idea could actually be effective just does not compute with them.
I’m a paradigmatist, so the fact that I was able to notice a parallel between these two movies was really exciting to me, and not just because it meant I was going to get to write about how Legally Blonde and Argo are basically the same movie. The same theme had come up twice in two successful stories, and I wanted to know why. The short answer is that people not being taken seriously is just one of those tried-and-true, no-fail movie tropes, like the forbidden love of Romeo and Juliet or the man-versus-world setup of 1984. And by now you’ve probably guessed where this is going: to an exposition of how there are no completely original stories and how you have to build on what’s come before you. But this isn’t that kind of article. Right now, I’m not interested in the paradigms. I’m interested in what’s behind the paradigms.
The best explanation I can think of for the Legally Blonde–Argo parallel is that we, as humans, need validation. We try to be successful and we conform to societal norms because we don’t want to be looked down on. And when we see someone not being validated or, worse, being ridiculed…that speaks to us. If you look hard enough, you can find parallels between a lot of different movies. But the parallels are a symptom. If you want to write something that’s like something else, that’s fine. That’s great, actually. But ask yourself why. Your goal shouldn’t be to replicate someone else’s idea. Your goal should be to replicate the fundamental themes and emotions that made that idea popular. Whatever it is you do, you’ve got to understand why you’re doing it.
Or you could just make a movie about a perky blonde who rescues hostages from a law school in Iran. There are many different schools of thought.