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ANALYSIS BY

Navya Singhal

M.A. Clinical Psychology

Delhi University; IGNOU

Meerut, India

 
Navya Singhal

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Hello

I am a post-graduate in clinical psychology and have just finished writing a research paper on 'test anxiety in middle school children'.

I am a school counselor by profession and I also do freelance writing.

 
Joined On:
May 30, 2017
Last Active:
February 17, 2018
 

Screenwriter/Playwright

Director

Robert Luketic

Year Released

2001

PsY Rating

The analyst's overall summary, as applicable, of the accuracy of the psychology and the subject's potential to be psychologically influential or manipulative.

A higher rating means the psychology is more accurate and positive.

05/31/2017

Breaking Stereotypes

Legally Blonde is a gem in how it accurately exposes the unhealthy belief and behavior patterns that can result from stereotyping. It portrays the stereotypical belief that beautiful blonde women are not intelligent, possibly even dumb.

In the movie, Elle (Reese Witherspoon), who is a beautiful young blonde, gets dumped by her boyfriend, Warner (Matthew Davis) because he has attained admission to a prestigious law school and has plans to be a future senator. To win back his love, Elle joins the same law school, although she seemed to be an unlikely candidate. She surprises all including her teachers, who felt that she would never be able to get through (probably because they felt that beautiful women, especially the blondes, are not meant for fields where ‘brains’ are required). Even Elle’s father suggested that she not join the law school, as he felt that pretty girls like her should rather take part in a beauty contest than study. On arriving at the law school Elle discovers that Warner is engaged to another girl, Vivian (Selma Blair). Elle is constantly insulted by people, is thrown out of the class by professors, and is not allowed to join study groups because other members feel that she is not ‘smart enough to join them’.

Classic discrimination against pretty blondes

Blonde women are often victims of chauvinism, as society reduces them to the stereotypes of being unintelligent, promiscuous, or hedonistic solely on the basis of hair color. Even the short stories and novels written during the 90s often pitted a virtuous young brunette against a wicked, deceitful blonde. Blondes have been seen as social climbers, cashing in on their wholesome attractiveness to join the socialite sect and raise their status. These party-girls often had a reputation as a trophy wife and were seen as women who sleep their way to the top. We also saw instances of the opposite, where blondes were portrayed as pure, innocent, and virtuous. Both assumptions involved stereotyping.

In the movie, the first impression Elle makes on law school students is bad. This has important consequences for her because people initially perceive her to be a completely different person than who she actually is. Because of stereotyping she becomes a target of sexism and prejudiced behavior.

The movie clearly illustrates the central importance of the social side of life. Not only do social stereotypes influence how people treat Elle, they influence her own self-perception. The heroine’s experiences are powerfully shaped by the people around her, her boyfriend, the people she meets in law school, her clients, and many others. In fact, Elle’s self-image and understanding changes in fundamental and important ways by her relationship with these people and by her new life as a law student. In the end there is a radical change in not only how people perceive her, but Elle’s experiences change her own attitude, behavior, the way she dresses, and even the way she thinks. As she experiences these shifts, Elle not only engages in acts of kindness towards others, but also shows strong verbal aggression towards people who treated her rudely, something that she would have never done before.

In Stereotyping, social perception involves the development of an ‘attitude’ toward another person or group of persons. Attitudes have three codependent components:

  1. Beliefs or stereotypes about an individual or group
  2. Feelings towards the individual or group
  3. The resultant behavior or discriminatory actions toward an individual or group

In the first component, beliefs or stereotypes become socially damaging when someone automatically ‘attributes’ internal properties to a person and then passes a judgement on the individual. A prejudice is an extreme stereotype. According to psychological research, prejudicial behavior can progress in five stages:

  1. Negative verbal remarks - comprising things like put downs, nasty jokes, and malicious gossip (Warner’s girlfriend and other law students engage in malicious gossip against Elle, showing their prejudiced behavior).
  2. Avoidance (Elle was initially avoided by Warner and other law students even though she had proved that she was capable and had joined the same law school).
  3. Discrimination - excluding the object of the stereotype from certain rights (Like in Elle’s case, she was not allowed to join a study group because she was thought not smart enough; even Warner tells her that she’s not intelligent enough to join Professor Callahan’s jury; Warner even dumps Elle just because she is too ‘Blonde’ to marry him and he needs to ‘marry a Jackie and not a Marilyn’ if he wants to be a senator. In this, Warner displays an extreme form of discrimination and stereotypical behavior).
  4. Physical attack (Elle’s professor fondles her knee in a failed attempt to coerce her into a relationship)
  5. Extermination (Students make a concerted effort to damage Elle’s reputation in their quest to rid her from their school)

According to cognitive consistency theories, a person requires consistency between their attitude and behavior. If this doesn’t happen, the person will experience some kind of mental discomfort, a feeling that something is not quite right with the attitude system. In such a case, a person will seek to change their attitude or behavior so that both elements fall in the same line of consistency, because our cognitive system requires logical consistency. The result can be positive if the attitude or behavior changes in positive ways; but it can also be destructive if the person refuses to drop their preconceived notions.

These theories of cognitive consistency were proved correct when in the movie, Vivian, who earlier held a negative attitude towards Elle, changes her attitude and starts liking her when she sees that they hold similar attitudes towards Warner and even life to a large extent.

The nefarious use of prejudice to boost social identity

 According to Social Identity theory, individuals naturally strive for positive self-image, and social identity is enhanced by the process of categorizing people into in-groups and out-groups. This need for social identity supports the formation of prejudice. In the movie, we see that people categorize blondes and obese people as out-group people and have set unrealistic stereotypes against them resulting in acts of prejudice and discriminatory behavior—for example when a boutique sales woman tries to sell an old dress to Elle stating that “there’s nothing more I love better than a dumb blonde with daddy’s plastic.”

But all is not lost.

Stereotyping and resulting negative attitudes can decrease by becoming more familiar with the person based on continued interaction. This leads to build-up of trust and friendship. In the movie, we see that with more and more interaction, people come to know more about Elle (leaving behind their pre-set notions about her). They start liking her and want to be friends with her. Vivian, who hated her in the beginning, starts liking her as they interact with each other; she starts trusting her and even shares her secrets; even the women who’s case Elle was fighting comes to quickly trust her giving Elle a chance to represent her; and eventually this trust between Elle and Vivian results into a long-term friendship. Towards the end, many who once created problems for Elle are the ones who help her after they get to know. She makes new friends on the way and also wins back Warner, but eventually chooses not to be with him. She also finds her true love in Emmett.

To become moral beings, we must understand how our perceptions shape who we are

Is our behavior the result of accurate or inaccurate perceptions? Before we can live in truth, we need to strive to understand the psychological patterns that can negatively shape our attitudes and behavior. This can be accomplished if we insist on seeing others as they really are—all people, not just our in-group—or at least establish that maybe we don’t know everything and we need to keep our attitude and behavior in check on our way to discovery.

What we do know is that a healthy society depends on healthy social relationships. Stereotypes damage that relationship as do other forms of psychological self-trickery.

Stay aware!

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