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Legally Blonde and Spiritually Buber

The recent screen-to-stage Broadway debut of Legally Blonde: The Musical might pass, to the untrained eye, for just another piece of Times Square popcorn poop. Count a New York Times critic among the naifs; according to Ben Brantley, the musical “approximates the experience of eating a jumbo box of Gummy Bears in one sitting.” And that’s a bad thing?

Its lack of intellectual cachet is just one of several factors at work against my campaign to garner Legally Blonde’s fair heroine, Elle Woods, a footnote in the pantheon of great American Jewish thought. Among the more obvious: Elle Woods isn’t Jewish. Less importantly, the film producer’s daughter was in my bunk for one hellish summer at Camp Ramah, which brings back more crappy memories than Elle’s first week of law school.

Working in LB’s favor, however, and handily outweighing the above, is the undeniable fact that Ms. Woods is the perfect embodiment of the philosophy of beloved Jewish thinker Martin Buber. Two words, people: I and Thou.

Buber’s concept of the I/thou relationship “stresses mutual, holistic existence without qualification or objectification of the other.” In simplest terms, this means being a really nice person, giving others the benefit of the doubt, and treating people like the complicated, meaningful beings they invariably are. It means being Elle-like.

“If I face a human being as my thou,” Buber said, “he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things.” Thou is a way of recognizing the inherent humanity of another person. A person becomes more than the sum of his or her parts, and other people become as real to us as we are to ourselves.

In much the same way that Groundhog Day is really a profound meditation on reincarnation, Legally Blonde’s Elle embodies an ideal realization of Buber’s seminal philosophy that the best we, as human beings, can strive for is complete, unfettered interrelation with every single human being we encounter. Yes, even the irredeemable assholes. Buber held that life could be suffused with joy when we sanctified the everyday world via our connections with other human beings. The divine is to be found in the encounter between the unique self (the “I”) and the unique other (the “thou”).

In direct contrast to I/thou is the notion of I/it, which invokes separation: I am complex and infinite and valuable; you are finite and limited and classifiable. When we deal in I/it, we hold other people at arm’s-length and in some degree of contempt, like objects: A waiter exists to serve me food. The cable guy is six hours late and therefore an asshole. Fuck you very much, basically. I/it treats other beings as objects to be used and experienced exclusively in terms of oneself—essentially to serve one’s own individual interests.

Such relations are, arguably, essential to the maintenance of everyday life, but our divine nature comes into being only when a personal “I” meets a personal “thou”—a direct dialogue in which two people accept each other, in like or dislike, as utterly human and unique. (The other day I saw a woman wearing a T-shirt that read: Be kind, for everyone you encounter is facing a difficult struggle. So Buber!)

I/it is an operating system in which others are tools, steppingstones, and pawns in the reality of Me. Reality television, in contrast to Elle-ness, is all about I/it. See: Survivor, The Bachelor, The Apprentice, etc., ad infinitum. It’s a profound, philosophically vertiginous experience to channel-surf back and forth between a not-infrequent Legally Blonde broadcast and, say, Celebrity Fit Club. Try it sometime and see.

We meet Elle as she’s being dumped by her “one true love,” the pompous Warner Huntington III. If he’s going to be a senator by the time he’s thirty, he tells her, he needs to be with “a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” He’s on his way to Harvard Law, and Elle just isn’t the right kind of girl for the life he has in mind. Very I/it of him.

But our plucky heroine, undeterred, simply decides that she, too, will go to Harvard. She’s got a 4.0 in fashion merchandising and a 179 on her LSAT. In her admissions video-essay, she appeals to the stodgy admissions committee from the sunny confines of a hot tub, in a bikini. The I/it reading of this scene is as follows: Elle is a dumb-shit blonde. The I/thou reading of this scene, however, is that Elle is fully herself, reaching out unselfconsciously to the admissions committee, whose relation she seeks as equally full human extensions of herself. Giving people what you think they want (based on your classifications of them) is to reduce them to “it”. Being fully yourself and offering your full self to unclassifiable others: totally “thou.”

At Harvard, Elle faces the specter of yet more I/it. She’s mocked and reviled at every turn. (“Check out Malibu Barbie!”). Her classmates preen and posture, fulfilling their own odious stereotypes: the high-IQ nerd, the humorless feminist, the preppy bitch. But our Elle guilelessly refuses to reduce her peers to their obvious categorizations (the “it” of them), and relate to them as such. She relates to them firmly in her own self, open to them all, wearing her signature pink and carting around her similarly attired chihuahua, Bruiser, resolutely unaware of the raging “it” to which she herself is constantly being reduced.

“No aim, no lust, and no anticipation intervene between I and thou,” explains Buber. Elle happens upon hunky Emmett Richmond on a bench in the quad, unaware that he’s a TA for an important class she’s taking. She relates to him simply as a friendly acquaintance, baring her troubles honestly and thanking him sincerely for his advice.

She finds dumpy manicurist Paulette Bonafonte much in need of mentoring and friendship, and offers both freely. Let us put aside that their friendship leads to the horrific “bend-and-snap” spectacle halfway through the film. Were Elle to see Paulette as an it—a “high school dropout with…a fat ass,” in Paulette’s own words—sorority rich-girl Elle would surely want nothing to do with her. Luckily for both women, however, Elle judges everyone on the merits (or demerits) of character, and so a true friendship is born. “Relation is mutual,” one can almost hear the sagely Buber commenting on the cinematic kindness passed between these unlikely pals. (One can only conjecture about his take on the bend-and-snap.)

In the 1970s, The Newlywed Show rewarded people for knowing everything they could about their loved ones. The premise: the couple most in love would know the most about each other. Nowadays, though, most relationships we watch require emotional and/or physical combat. Blind Date, The Bachelor, and Beauty and the Geek are each spectacles of humiliation, one-upmanship, and scheming. And without a liberal sprinkling of some nice, all-purpose I/thou, even casual relationships begin to resemble aversion shock therapy.

Is anyone all good? All bad? All loathsome or shallow? Of course not. But we learn, by degrees, to apply such extremes to everyone around us. Walking into a party, waiting for the train, standing in line. We’re supposed to root for this person, condemn this one, pity this one, loathe this one. Reality TV and its producers’ ruthless editing have brought this way of thinking home, big time, on the idiot box.

Like her cinematic cousin Forrest Gump, Elle Woods ultimately triumphs personally and professionally because she never stops looking at the world through her own eyes, with her own humanity intact, so that what’s reflected back at her is yet more actual humanity. Legal intrigue, high-profile court case, lecherous professor, blah, blah: Elle kicks ass, takes names, saves the day, teaches everyone a valuable lesson about reductive, I/it first impressions. Brooke Wyndham, on trial for the murder of her ancient, rich husband, doesn’t get reduced to her most likely definition: cash-mad bimbo. Hayward Wyndham’s frumpy daughter doesn’t get away with it. Warner Huntington III is outed as the shallow nitwit he is. Everyone gets what they deserve, more or less. Idealistic? Maybe. But realism is for another medium entirely.

“Look!” says Buber. “Round about you beings live their life, and to whatever point you turn, you come upon being.” Elle’s instinctive understanding of this allows her to flourish professionally, socially, and as a fictional being who’s decidedly greater than just the sum of her parts. Aspiring reality stars of the world, take note.

Incidentally, Buber believed that an I/thou consciousness was especially necessary in a world threatened by atomic ruin. “I think the main problems existing between great powers should be talked over in a different way,” he wrote. “They should talk to each other as do good merchants who have opposed each other but have begun to see that it’s worthwhile to find out if, perchance, their common interests are more important and have more weight than their opposed interests. At this hour of history, true peace is only possible through some form of cooperation.”

There’s little hope that George W. Bush will ever read any of Buber’s work, but maybe, just maybe, we can get him to see the Legally Blonde: The Musical.

*** Know of any other pop-culture–philosopher pairings? Explain to us why Spinoza totally illuminates Avril Lavigne in the comments section.

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