Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor’s Confirmation Hearings and Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde”

If it’s not too much of a stretch, consider the contrast between the Sonia Sotomayor we saw last week during her senate confirmation hearings and Elle Woods, a Harvard law student, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the 2001 movie, “Legally Blonde.”

I watched “Legally Blonde” for the first time Sunday evening at the invitation of my neighbors. I had no idea how incongruous that particular movie might seem, following as it did on the heels of the Sotomayor hearings. But the synopsis of the movie sounded like fun, and I was in the mood for light entertainment.

Here’s the plot:

Elle, a rich blond residing with her sorority sisters at Delta Nu at California University in Los Angeles, is devastated when her boyfriend, headed for Harvard Law School, dumps her instead of proposing because she lacks substance. Warner explains, “If I’m going to be a senator by the time I’m 30, I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.”

Elle may be blond, but she’s not dumb. Having scored 179 on the LSAT, she gains admission to Harvard where she hopes to win back her phony ex-boyfriend. It’s significant that on her path to success, our heroine remains loyal to her women friends and true to herself. She overcomes an initial humiliation or two, but she soon begins to hold her own in class. As an intern, she relies primarily on her intuition to crack an important case. Her academic triumph is complete when the Harvard Law School Class of 2004 elects her to give their commencement address.

Elle keeps it short:

On our very first day at Harvard, a very wise professor quoted Aristotle: “The law is reason free from passion.” No offense to Aristotle, but in my three years at Harvard, I have come to find that passion is a key ingredient to the study and practice of law – and of life. It is with passion, courage of conviction, and a strong sense of self that we take our next steps into the world, remembering the first impressions are not always correct. You must always have faith in people and most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself.

In retrospect I have to wish that Sonia Sotomayor had been as free to be herself during her four days of confirmation hearings as Elle Woods was in “Legally Blond;” she might have even displayed a little passion. But as Jill Abramson writes in the NY Times:

Sitting approvingly behind Judge Sotomayor through the long hours was her White House handler, Cynthia Hogan. Judge Sotomayor’s almost robotic performance must have seemed a triumph for Ms. Hogan, working as she does for a president who famously eschews drama.

(Some of us might describe Obama as a bit robotic at times.)

In sum, the movie’s heroine wins primarily by using her intuition, the dominant attribute traditionally ascribed to women; whereas, in real life, the female Supreme Court nominee survives by relying on logic and reason, the dominant attribute traditionally ascribed to men. From my studies in depth psychology, it’s my understanding a whole person, male or female, would present an integration of those two attributes. But then that could only occur in a reasonably enlightened society.

In another comparison of fiction to reality, the heroine of “Legally Blond,” gets the satisfaction - along with her audience - of rejecting the ex-boyfriend when he comes crawling back to her. In the meantime, Elle has been keeping company with a good-hearted young lawyer who has managed so far to maintain his integrity. By the movie’s end, we know that Elle has succeeded both professionally and personally.

According to Abramson in the Times column referenced above, Sotomayor has not been so fortunate:

But success came at a price. Judge Sotomayor has talked about having to turn down dates because of work. “A man who calls three times, and three times you answer, “I’ve got to work late. I’m flying to such and such a place,” she said. “After the third time, “Gee, maybe she’s not interested.” Even her closest friends say they have to set up “play dates” months in advance. Although she is a godmother to her clerks’ children and a devoted aunt, Judge Sotomayor divorced after ten years of marriage and has no children.

Abramson continues:

The women coming up behind Judge Sotomayor have given these tradeoffs a lot of agonized thought. Emily Bazelon, a fellow at Yale Law School, has been writing about the hearings for Double X, Slate’s new women’s Web site. “Women of accomplishment like Sotomayor make many of us so proud,” she said, “but they are not necessarily a model if you want to balance work and family, which is a huge issue for younger lawyers.”

Apparently it’s not that huge an issue for younger male lawyers.

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