Love and microphones: romantic comedy heroines as public speakers

I During a pivotal scene in the film version of Bridget Jones’s Diary (2000), Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) tells Bridget (Renee Zellweger) that she is an “appallingly bad public speaker.” He refers to an earlier scene in which Bridget speaks at a book launch given by her publishing firm. She cannot turn on the microphone, gets people’s attention by shouting “Oy!,” insults Salman Rushdie, and forgets the name of the man whom she is introducing. Mark claims that he likes Bridget “just as she is,” despite this embarrassing professional episode. However, Mark starts to fall in love with her after a much more successful public speaking encounter, when she performs a brilliant television interview with Mark and two of his clients. Bridget Jones’s Diary ends in a traditional way–with a kiss–but this plot development points to the emerging alternative ending of the public speech, which indicates a cultural dissatisfaction with romance as the primary form of gratification for the heroine, and a desire for the heroine to prove herself as a smart, confident professional. The box office successes Never Been Kissed (1999), Miss Congeniality (2000), The Princess Diaries (2001), and Legally Blonde (2001) represent the heroine’s final public speech as a balancing act of romantic desirability and professional success that suggests the direction that romantic comedy is heading in the twenty-first century.

Reading the Romantic Comedy

Although Hollywood romantic comedy has begun to receive more critical attention over the last two decades, most critics are ambivalent about the genre’s liberating potential for its large female audiences. It has become commonplace to begin with Brian Henderson’s 1978 declaration of “the death of romantic comedy” (22), which time has proven false. Yet feminist critics continue to debate whether these films empower women or support the patriarchal status quo. In Affairs to Remember: The Hollywood Comedy of the Sexes (1989), Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans refute Henderson by arguing that “our view of Hollywood cinema is not one of a simply monolithic, oppressive and conservative force […]” (vi). Two 1982 cross-dressing comedies, Tootsie and Victor/Victoria, demonstrate the genre’s potential to challenge patriarchy and to raise important questions about sexual difference (281-97). In the same year, Mimi White’s critique of romance-adventure films such as Romancing the Stone (1984) predicts many readings of romantic comedy: “Within the narrative, true love is proposed as the fulfilling choice of an independent heroine; but from a narrational perspective, true love functions as the structural/social constraint on her independence” (41). Yet White is not wholly negative about the films, as they focus on the heroines’ reading and writing of romantic texts and allow them to have satisfying careers as well as relationships.

Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik focus on romantic comedies of the 1930s and ’40s in Popular Film and Television Comedy (1990). Although their tone indicates an appreciation for these films, they conclude that the woman usually converts to the values of the man, so that the final union signifies “an acceptance of the authority of the male and a rejection of the woman’s economic independence” (154). The absence of the heroines’ mothers means that “the ‘choices’ offered to her tend almost exclusively to be in relation to men and what they desire of her” (159). In a 1992 article, Neale expanded his analysis to include sex comedies (1950s-60s), nervous romances (1970s), and the new romances of the 1980s. Neale claims that none are particularly empowering for women and that the new romance echoes the early comedies “in countering any ‘threat’ of female independence, and in securing most of its major female characters for traditional female roles” (298). In the same year, Robert Lapsley and Michael Westlake took a more extreme position, drawing on Lacan to deny the existence of love in real life: “In short, Hollywood is the pretence that the sexual relation exists” (28). However, they recognize that they have not really solved the problem of why women enjoy films such as Pretty Woman (1990) and that “the politics of romance are rather more difficult to determine than we assumed” (48). Apparently Lacanian psychoanalysis does not explain women’s pleasure in films that seem so politically regressive.

Three female critics writing in 1995 echo the ambivalence of male critics in regard to the romantic comedy. Kathleen Rowe’s introduction to The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laugher promises a more liberating reading of romantic comedy, one that “investigates the power of […] female laughter to challenge the social and symbolic systems that would keep women in their place” (3). Yet the chapter on postclassical romantic comedy holds up only one film–Moonstruck (1987)–as an exception to the disappointing trend of male-oriented romances. Patricia Mellencamp’s A Fine Romance: Five Ages of Film Feminism calls romance “a fiction that keeps women captive” (76) and then praises recent films in which women speak for themselves and combine romance with careers (90-99). Neither critic endorses romantic comedies in theory and practice. Christine Scodari looks at the romantic plots common to television situation comedies such as Cheers, Moonlighting, and Northern Exposure, arguing that male executives and critics tend to oppose and ruin these romances due to their bias that fulfilled love relationships are uninteresting: “In this manner, tastes and preferences constructed as masculine are more likely to be privileged even when the text in question is meant to appeal primarily to women” (24). Scodari suggests that the predominance of male executives in television, as in Hollywood, contributes to the frustration of liberating romantic plots.

Celestino Deleyto’s work in the late 1990s and early 2000s points to the development of romantic comedy in ways that challenge the assumptions made by previous critics. In the anthology Terms of Endearment: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1980s and 1990s, Deleyto and Peter William Evans attest that “cultural variations have been incorporated into the genre in several areas that attest not only to the genre’s resilience but also to its flexibility to adapt to historical change” (3). One important change is that “marriage or the prospect of a wedding seem to have become less central elements of the genre and, certainly, less centrally associated with the happy ending” (6). Deleyto’s “‘They Lived Happily Ever After': Ending Contemporary Romantic Comedy” proves that even this taken-for-granted element has developed a range of new possibilities: the “utopian” ending that calls attention to its own conventionality, ambivalence about marriage, couples that do not end up together, women whose professional ambitions are just as important as relationships, and an emphasis on homosocial or homosexual pairings. “A world in which the only possibility of happiness for women was provided by the pleasures of home and a romance of subordination to men is slowly but firmly dwindling into oblivion” (49). Deleyto examines another development in “Between Friends: Love and Friendship in Contemporary Hollywood Romantic Comedy,” that in which “heterosexual love appears to be challenged, and occasionally replaced, by friendship” (168). My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) ends with the heroine taking comfort in her gay male friend after her love interest marries someone else, while other films show the heroine’s female friendships take precedence over a heterosexual relationship. Deleyto emphasizes that romantic comedy is alive and well, but that its transformations reflect more contemporary and often more realistic attitudes toward love.

The plots of several films made since 1998 suggest that the genre has developed further elements that have not been addressed by previous scholarship. In Never Been Kissed, Josie Geller (Drew Barrymore) is a dowdy copy editor for a Chicago newspaper who goes to work as an undercover journalist in a local high school. The film ends with a kiss, but it follows a set of important speeches by the heroine and takes place in a baseball stadium filled with cheering spectators. In Miss Congeniality, Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) is a tomboyish FBI agent who poses as a Miss United States beauty contestant to save the pageant from a terrorist threat. Her speech to accept the award of “Miss Congeniality” takes place at the end of the film, in a more privileged position than her first kiss with the hero. The Princess Diaries’ Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) is an insecure high school student when her European grandmother announces that she is the princess of a country called Genovia. Mia’s acceptance of this role takes place in a speech that shares narrative emphasis with the kiss and the trip to Genovia that conclude the film. In Legally Blonde, sorority girl Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) enrolls in Harvard Law School to win back her boyfriend, only to discover that she would rather be a lawyer than a society wife. Her graduation speech takes on still more narrative and ideological significance, demonstrating how quickly the public speaking trend developed in just a few years.

These four films represent the increasing presence of women filmmakers in Hollywood, including nine female producers and six female writers, with the most recent films based on novels by Meg Cabot and Amanda Brown. More so than earlier romantic comedies, they affirm the heroine’s sexuality and career rather than subordinating them to male desires. As Kathleen Rowe describes the romantic film heroine, “her sexuality is neither evil and uncontrollable like that of the femme fatale, nor sanctified and denied like that of the virgin/madonna” (10-11). Josie, Mia, and Gracie are waiting for a serious relationship to express their sexual desires, and the filmmakers focus on their struggles to find such a relationship rather than dwelling on their sexual purity. Elle is more obviously sexual, but her sexuality is always dignified, even when Warner’s fiancee tricks her into attending a party wearing a Playboy Bunny outfit–in contrast to Bridget Jones in a very similar scene. Yvonne Tasker argues that working women in the “new Hollywood” are often linked to sexual availability and prostitution, but these heroines’ work in journalism, international diplomacy, criminal justice, and law does not make them more sexually available to men.

The convention of the makeover does seem to reinforce women’s status as objects of male desire. What pleasure do audiences receive from watching women fix their hair, clothes, and makeup? Why do the extended makeover plots steal narrative emphasis from the romance itself? For what are the heroines being “made over”? Romance film critics suggest ways of reading the makeover as an experiment with alternative forms of female identity rather than simply an attempt to attract men. Rowe argues that the genres of laughter “are built on transgression and inversion, disguise and masquerade, sexual reversals, the deflation of ideals, and the leveling of hierarchies” (8-9). Neale claims that romantic comedies center around a learning process that is often linked to plot elements of “disguise, deception, and adopted or mistaken identity” that lead to “the revelation of a character’s true identity” (293). Tasker also discusses films such as Working Girl and Pretty Woman in which heroines “cross-dress” as higher-class women, a term that links the makeover to a potentially subversive action despite the often conservative politics of these examples (39-44). In these films, the makeover serves as a confidence-building process that pays off in the public speech, not in the first kiss.

In contrast to the kiss (the traditional ending of romantic comedy), the makeover and the public speech are communal events that include the heroine’s relationships with women and male friends. Miss Congeniality and The Princess Diaries rely on broad stereotypes of gay male stylists for their makeover comedy, but Victor (Michael Caine) and Paolo (Larry Miller) respectively, both support the heroine in ways that the male heroes do not. Unlike the heroines of early comedies of the sexes, these heroines are also surrounded by female friends and relatives who support their learning process, rather than a male love interest who demands that she conform to his desires. The heroes are largely excluded from the makeover process, which takes place in private. Although the heroes are present at the public speeches, they are not the primary focus but members of a larger audience.

The makeover and public speech represent realistic elements of women’s lives in that they are practical, communal, and ongoing, in contrast to the myth of romantic love that critics have associated with the kiss. Virginia Wright Wexman argues that the kiss is a common means of effecting narrative closure, often at the expense of the heroine: “Hollywood’s traditional stories of courtship and marriage have typically focused on the woman’s resistance to romantic attachments; therefore, the kiss often represents a significant moment of change for her and documents her surrender to the erotic will of the man” (18). Lapsley and Westlake make a similar point: “As the credits roll over the terminal kiss, the spectator is screened from the real impossibility of what is proposed” (43). Although kisses do not always represent the heroine’s constraint or surrender, the shift to public speeches reminds women that they are not going to find all of their fulfillment in men. That may be a “real impossibility,” but public speaking is a real possibility for any woman who wants to make a difference in the world.

Hollywood Heroines Speak Out

The title Never Been Kissed points to the conventional ending of romantic comedies, indicating the lack that these movies are created to fill. Yet the kiss is highly unusual in that it resembles a public speech, from the presence of a microphone in the heroine’s hand to the applauding audience. The first shot of the film and Josie Geller’s voice-over foreshadow this ending scene and create a public speaking-themed frame around the entire love story. The films opens with an image of a cheering crowd at a baseball stadium from the point of view of the heroine, who we eventually realize is standing alone on the pitcher’s mound in a space usually denied to any woman:

  You know how in some movies they have a dream sequence, only they
  don't tell you it's a dream? This is so not a dream. It wasn't
  supposed to be like this. I was just trying to do my job, and then
  things happened, life happened. And now I'm here. Trust me, I'm not
  the kind of girl who does things like this. I mean, two months ago you
  couldn't have picked me out of a crowd. (emphasis in original)

The camera moves to a street where Josie is walking to her job as a copyeditor for the Chicago Sun-Times, introducing the major point of suspense for the film: how did she go from being one of the crowd to speaking to one through a microphone? Although the music, “Catch a Falling Star,” suggests the love plot, the audience initially becomes invested in Josie as an unattractive, insecure professional woman who somehow learns to make a public statement.

This makeover subplot takes the form of an undercover assignment in which the aspiring journalist poses as a popular high school girl, changing everything about her physical appearance and behavior to be convincing in a feminine role that she has deliberately rejected all her life. At first glance, this situation appears to preserve oppressive female roles. Not only do Josie’s male coworkers force her to take on the role of the cute blonde and take great pleasure in watching her through their cameras but also Josie discovers that she prefers her new, attractive self. However, Josie’s undercover performance leads her to balance confidence, poise, intellectual integrity, and justice for other women in her new identity, which rejects the view of journalism voiced by her boss: “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry thinks he can write, but a journalist gets in there, right where the bombs are falling, he’s aggressive, he grabs the bull by the balls.” Josie’s success belies this macho rhetoric, just as her integrity undercuts Gus’s (John C. Reilly) later claim: “You want to be a reporter? Take a look at what sells. Sex scandals, bribery, people jumping off bridges.” The point of Josie’s physical transformation is not to capture the hero’s attention, as he clearly admires her from the beginning, but to give Josie the confidence to write journalism that speaks directly to all types of women.

The film follows Josie through a series of more successful makeovers as she struggles to adjust to high school, interposed with scenes in which her English class reads Shakespeare’s As You Like It and discusses the liberating elements of disguise. Josie’s parallel love plots with English teacher Sam Coulson (Michael Vartan) and popular high school senior Guy Perkins (Jeremy Jordan) follow a conventional pattern that Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik identify in the 1930s and ’40s romantic comedies: “The compatibility of the man and the woman is asserted especially by contrasting them–individually, but especially together–with subsidiary characters […]” (139). Josie’s first meeting with Guy (whose name suggests his cliched character) is framed with exaggerated romantic conventions such as slow motion and hazy lighting, but when she encounters him in the cafeteria she makes a fool of herself and prompts him to ask whether she is in special education. She leaves the table asking herself, “How old am I?” In contrast, Sam is impressed by Josie’s intelligence when she recites the etymology of pastoral during her first English class. Sam seems to recognize that she is not what she seems, asking, “Are you sure you’re seventeen?” While Guy brings out the worst in Josie, notably her desperate desire to be liked by popular boys when she was a teenager, Sam brings out her best as a smart woman. Both men fall in love with Josie, Guy focusing on her beauty and her friendship with the popular girls while Sam is attracted to her reading of a paper about As You Like It and her intelligent conversation. He even gets her an interview with Dartmouth, telling her, “You are a great writer–you just have to find your story.”

Each of these love plots culminates in a different “ending.” In the initial ending, Josie and Guy dress as Rosalind and Orlando for their costume-themed prom. Josie is voted prom queen, fulfilling one of her own high school fantasies, but she is not content to stand silently at the podium with her flowers and crown. Instead, some of the popular kids’ cruel behavior inspires her to give a speech on the dance floor in which she reveals her true identity as an undercover reporter and gives the students some advice:

  All of you people, there is a big world out there, bigger than prom,
  bigger than high school, and it won't matter if you were the prom
  queen or the quarterback of the football team or the biggest nerd in
  school. Find out who you are, and try not to be afraid of it.

However effective this speech might be for the clapping students, her audience is limited in two important ways: Sam has left in disgust, feeling betrayed by her disguise, and Josie has cut off the wire that allows her boss and coworkers to see and hear her. She needs to make another “speech,” this time in print and to a much wider audience.

The next sequence shows Josie writing an article for the Sun-Times, which she reads in voice-over. This article challenges Gus’s view of journalism through its personal, subjective, and humble voice:

  Someone once told me that to write well, you have to write what you
  know. This is what I know. I'm twenty-five years old and I've never
  really kissed a guy. A geek to the core, most of my childhood years
  were spent doing extra homework I requested from the teacher.

The article recounts her experiences and directly addresses Sam when she apologizes to him, tells him she loves him, and asks him to come to the baseball playoffs and kiss her in front of the crowd. While Sam is distracted from seeing the paper, the majority of the people that we see reading it are women: her two close friends at work, a crowd of women at a train station, and two women in business suits buying the paper at a newsstand. Like the film Never Been Kissed, the article titled “Never Been Kissed” has a primarily female audience.

This changes when the scene moves to the stadium and the crowd is clearly diverse in gender, race, and age. Returning to the moment foreshadowed earlier, Josie stands on the field with a microphone, asks for five minutes on the clock, and waits in silence as the minutes tick by. Her earlier speeches have already expressed her thoughts, so she can do nothing but wait, the microphone in her hand symbolizing her ability to speak if Sam does not appear. Of course, he finally shows up to kiss her with the crowd cheering wildly and the microphone on the ground next to them. This last-minute replacement of the speech with the kiss–and the conflation of speech and kiss–predict the endings of future films in which the speech becomes a separate entity with its own ideological purpose.

Like Josie Geller, Gracie Hart in Miss Congeniality goes undercover as a more attractive and feminine woman to keep her job, which she has placed at risk by taking unauthorized actions caused by her intellectual boredom. The film opens with a shot of Gracie as a child, reading a Nancy Drew mystery before she punches out a boy for picking on a weaker boy. The following shot shows Gracie as an FBI agent still wearing thick glasses, and reading a book called Essentials of Russian Grammar which turns out to be a hidden camera. When she acts compassionately toward a suspect that she believes is choking to death, her angry male boss threatens to bury her “under a mountain of paperwork” until the opportunity to become an undercover beauty queen emerges. Gracie stridently objects to being associated with the Miss United States pageant: “It’s like feminism never even happened, you know? I think any woman who could do this is catering to some misogynistic Neanderthal mentality.” Yet, like Josie, Gracie is the only woman at her workplace young enough to be convincing in the undercover role.

Gracie’s makeover takes place more quickly in this film, through a hilarious two-day emergency training session led by her gay British stylist. Predictably, Gracie becomes liberated by the process of embracing her femininity, yet she no more becomes a brainless beauty than Josie does. The film’s humor reinforces the idea that feminine beauty is nothing more than a performance, and the audience does not expect Gracie to continue waxing her eyebrows or eating celery after the pageant is over. Instead, the lesson that Gracie calls “liberating” is that she should not deny her identity as a woman in order to fit into a man’s world.

Gracie’s relationship with fellow agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) follows another conventional pattern that Neale and Krutnik identify in early romantic comedies:

  Initially the man and the woman are antagonistic towards each other,
  their desires marked as oppositional. The courtship takes the form of
  a negotiation of terms and positions, and it involves a transformation
  of those desires which are posited as barriers to the union. (142)

Eric wrestles with Gracie, slaps her butt, and playfully insults her professional decisions, appearance, and tendency to speak her mind: “Is this you not arguing? ‘Cause you suck at it.” While he makes fun of Gracie, Eric dates a young, blond college student, ogles the beauty contestants, and encourages other male agents to watch Gracie through the hidden cameras while she is in the dressing room.

Yet Gracie’s ability to reverse this situation contrasts the earlier comedies in which the heroine simply accepts the man’s values. When Eric does not know where to begin with the beauty pageant case, Gracie offers suggestions that he comically claims as his own: “Yeah, yeah, now I’m thinking!” Gracie also uses her greater understanding of the feminine world of the pageant to make fun of Eric. While he is watching her on the hidden cameras, she jokes to the other women about his big ego and his small “equipment,” which Eric accepts good-naturedly and with increasing admiration for her quick thinking. Eric even encourages Gracie when she is ready to quit: “You want to know why I picked you? Because you’re smart, because you don’t take any crap from people, you’re funny, you’re easy to talk to when you’re not armed. Give yourself a break.” Gracie later uses Eric as a prop in her talent routine of beating up a male attacker, taunting him in front of the audience by saying that “Ewic” is too scared to come onstage. The pageant film crew is shown laughing at him, reversing the situation in which male agents laughed at Gracie. This relationship reaches its climax in the tender moment preceding their first kiss, when Eric says, “That was good work.” His admiration for her as an agent has overcome his macho attitude toward her as a woman.

Miss Congeniality contains a series of shorter speeches that lead up to the ending, including some public-speaking humor at the expense of beauty pageant contestants. In an early round of the pageant, the dumb blonde who eventually wins the pageant responds to the prompt to “describe her perfect date” with the answer “April 25th” and the crowd goes silent when Gracie talks about “harsher punishment for parole violators” rather than making a vapid statement about world peace. This scene focuses its satire on the women who are squandering their opportunity to speak–an opportunity too rarely given to women–and the largely male, military audience who expects the women to repeat the same banal answers.

However, Gracie’s intellectual presence seems to rub off on the other women, who give meaningful answers to interview questions in the final round of the pageant, which is broadcast live on television from a packed Alamo Dome. When Gracie is asked how she would respond to those who believe pageants are outdated and antifeminist, she reveals her change of heart: “For me, this experience has been one of the most rewarding and liberating experiences of my life.” After the applause, she disrupts the tone and rhythm of the pageant with a threat to the terrorist: “And if anyone–anyone–tries to hurt one of my new friends, I would take them out. I would make them suffer so much, they’d wish they were never born. And if they ran, I would hunt them down.” The stunned silence following this proclamation is a truly serious moment in the film, even though it resolves back into comedy when Gracie’s pageant trainer remarks that her “mouth” has prevented her from winning–which was never Gracie’s goal anyway.

The final speech takes place at the very end of the film, after Gracie’s first kiss with Eric. Knowing that Gracie is unlikely to put herself forward in public, her coworkers trick her into appearing at the Miss United States Farewell Breakfast, where she receives the title of Miss Congeniality. Although her first instinct on seeing the audience and the podium is to gasp “I can’t go up there” and turn away, Gracie finally speaks with a confidence that she gained through the public speaking that she performed throughout the pageant, even as she makes fun of its rhetorical cliches: “I never thought anything like this would ever happen to me. I kind of hoped it wouldn’t, but now that it has, I just want to say that I’m very honored and moved and truly touched … and I really do want world peace!” Gracie begins to cry halfway through the speech, transforming herself into the kind of woman whom she previously mocked while watching old pageant videos. Yet Gracie is immediately surrounded onstage by the other women who have been supporting her, and the final shot shows Gracie’s laughing face above the podium with friends all around her–clearly an alternative to the traditional romantic ending in which the heroine is alone with the hero.

The Princess Diaries begins and ends with public-speaking scenes, showing how the elements of undercover work, a major makeover, and a speech that parallels the heroine’s first real kiss can be marketed to teenage girls. The princess concept is an interesting twist on the careers of journalism, criminal justice, and law that older heroines struggle to achieve. Mia’s grandmother reminds her that “people think princesses are supposed to wear tiaras, marry the prince, always look pretty, and live happily ever after. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a real job.” At the beginning of the film, Mia is incapable of becoming a public figure. When she stands before her debate class to argue in favor of school uniforms, she panics and runs away to throw up. Clearly a younger version of Josie and Gracie, Mia needs to learn confidence and persuasion as much as she needs to be romantically attached to the appropriate man.

The Princess Diaries takes up the motif of makeover as liberating disguise. Mia must hide her “princess lessons” leading up to the Genovian Independence Day Ball, so that her makeover becomes a kind of secret, undercover work. After a comic scene in which a feminized male beautician transforms Mia’s wild curls into a soft, silky haircut, Mia wears a hat to hide her new look at school. She first reveals the haircut to her best friend Lilly (Heather Matarazzo), who responds with feminist outrage, and then again in her debate class when an obnoxious boy points out that the hat violates the dress code. Mia discovers that beauty can be more uncomfortable than ugliness, and much of the plot revolves around her struggle to accept her beauty and to suffer the consequences of women’s rejection and men’s lust.

This film’s romance plot follows the formula of Never Been Kissed, contrasting the true hero, shy musician Michael Moscovitz (Robert Schwartzman), with a more popular boy named Josh Bryant (Erik von Detten). Early shots of Michael show him gazing longingly at Mia in the school hallway and at choir practice, before she gets a makeover or becomes famous. Mia only spends eight scenes interacting with Michael, each one expanding on his appreciation for the “true” Mia: he volunteers to do some free labor on her car, defends her new haircut, asks her on a date only to be rejected in favor of Josh, and goes with her to the ball despite his shyness. In contrast, Josh only notices Mia when he finds out she is a princess, asking her to a party to gain fame for himself by kissing her in front of the press. His arrogance and selfishness make Michael seem like the “obvious” choice for Mia without much further narrative development, leaving the film plenty of space to focus on Mia’s gradual acceptance of her role as princess.

Mia’s attempt to undo the makeover and reject her new identity causes her to arrive at the ball for her public speech wearing an old sweatshirt and jeans. When she first begins to speak, she reflects on the debate scene earlier in the film: “I’m really no good at speech-making. Normally I get so nervous that I faint or run away, or sometimes I even get sick. But you really didn’t need to know that.” The next sentence. “But I’m not so afraid any more,” shifts the focus of the speech and begins Mia’s buildup toward an inspiring conclusion. Like many other speeches in these films, Mia focuses on social responsibility, especially toward women:

  Earlier this evening, I had every intention of giving up my claim to
  the throne.... But then I wondered how I'd feel after abdicating my
  role as Princess of Genovia. Would I feel relieved or would I feel
  sad? And then I realized how many stupid times a day I use the word
  "I." In fact, probably all I ever do is think about myself [...] if I
  cared about the other seven billion out there instead of just me,
  that's probably a much better use of my time. See, if I were Princess
  of Genovia, then my thoughts and the thoughts of people smarter than
  me would be much better heard, and just maybe, those thoughts could be
  turned into actions.

The last part of this speech refers to an earlier conversation between Mia and Lilly, who had persuaded Mia to use her political power to do good. The camera’s focus on Lilly’s tearful face during this speech echoes the shots of the friends listening with emotion to Josie’s and Gracie’s final speeches. In the DVD director’s commentary, Garry Marshall claims, “This is the real part where Annie got the job, because we needed an actress who could be a little dorky, but then at the end speak like somebody who could possibly be a princess.” This background information about the film’s casting highlights the significance of this speechmaking moment, which is clearly the climax of the film even though it is followed by further “wrap-up” scenes.

Mia leaves the podium to don her ballgown and tiara and to kiss Michael in the garden. When he asks “Why me?” Mia answers, “Because you saw me when I was invisible,” emphasizing his superiority as a romantic partner to Josh. Yet she is alone wearing a business suit in the film’s final sequence, as she looks out the plane window to see her castle. Although most Disney princess stories end with a wedding, this film maintains the perspective that being a princess is “a real job” and therefore relatable to other professions that require training in debate as well as good looks.

Legally Blonde plays with the makeover convention in characteristically inventive ways, because sorority president Elle Woods is already a perfect beauty when the film begins. Early scenes focus on Elle’s constant attention to maintaining her beauty, which she completely abandons when the snobby Warner (Matthew Davis) breaks up with her. Elle’s decision to follow Warner to law school restores her attention to her looks, which the screenwriters develop to great comic effect in the bikini-clad performance in her Harvard admissions video and in the wild outfits she wears during her first days on campus. Yet Elle soon realizes that she does not fit in at Harvard and spends most of the film trying to combine her own style with the drab colors and business suits demanded by her new profession. This “makeover” is both comic and touching because it represents a serious loss of identity for Elle, notably in the shot of her crying in an elevator, wearing a black business suit, after her boss made sexual advances to her. The ending of the film restores Elle to her “true” identity when she wears a pink dress to win a major lawsuit, which is further balanced by her black gown and straight hair during the graduation speech. Elle’s “makeover” takes the now-familiar form of trying out a different kind of female identity, only to incorporate the best aspects of that identity into her newly restored self. This film also demonstrates that the makeover is primarily professional in nature and gains its value and significance from the culminating moment of her speech.

The screenwriters employ another contrast between an intellectual hero and a prideful, selfish male foil to show Elle’s need to find a husband who can appreciate her mind. In his first meeting with Elle at Harvard, Emmett Richmond (Luke Wilson) comforts her after a bad class and gives her valuable advice about her professors:

  Let's see, speak up in Callahan's class. He really likes people that
  are opinionated. And in Royalton's class, try to get a seat in the
  back. He tends to spit when he talks about products liability. And for
  Levinthal, make sure you read the footnotes, 'cause that's where he
  gets a lot of his exam questions.

Emmett never doubts that Elle can make it as a law student, unlike Warner who denies her ability to win an internship: “Elle, come on, you’re never gonna get the grades to qualify for one of those spots. You’re not smart enough, sweetie.” Elle’s outrage inspires her to study harder and to empower another woman through her knowledge of the law, when she helps her friend Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge), get her dog back from an ex-boyfriend. This pattern continues when Elle’s professor, Mr. Callahan (Victor Garber), tries to seduce her by telling her what she really wants to hear: “You’re smart, Elle. Smarter than most of the guys on my payroll.” Yet his description of the legal profession recalls Gus’s descriptions of journalism in Never Been Kissed: “You know what competition’s really about, don’t you? It’s about ferocity, carnage. Balancing human intelligence with animal diligence.” Mr. Callahan’s sexual harassment almost overcomes Elle, but once again she renews her efforts and takes his place in a much-publicized murder trial, where she uses her knowledge of hair products to defend her friend Brooke (Ali Larter).

The public-speech ending of Legally Blonde was the result of test-audience demand. On the DVD commentary, screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith claim that the film originally ended with Elle kissing Emmett. But when a test audience wanted to know more about the futures of the characters, the producer gave Lutz and Smith twenty-four hours to write a new ending, in which Elle speaks at her Harvard graduation. Smith claims that “this was about four pages of new material, and I must say it was probably the most closely scrutinized four pages of the screenplay. They wanted to make sure that everything was being accomplished.” This last statement refers to the future of the characters, which the writers summarized in captions to the shots of Elle’s friends and family listening to the speech. Yet Lutz’s and Smith’s comments indicate that ideological work “was being accomplished” in this scene as well.

Elle’s graduation speech is very much in line with the film’s liberal feminist message, which attacks traditionally masculine legal practice that relies on competition, backbiting, male dominance, and sexual harassment, and affirms a feminine legal practice based on empathy for clients and fair play between colleagues. Elle is introduced by a female law professor who has served as her mentor, but her opening words suggest that she has moved even further away from masculine role models than the older professor:

  On our very first day at Harvard, a very wise professor quoted
  Aristotle. "The law is reason free from passion." Well, 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 strong sense of
  self that we take our next steps into the world, remembering that
  first impressions are not always correct, you must always have faith
  in people, and most importantly, you must always have faith in

Elle’s discussion of passion is unusual for the ending of a romantic comedy, because it refers less to romantic desire than to the feminist lawyer’s passion to seek justice for her clients. The camera cuts from Elle to her best friend Vivian (Selma Blair) to Emmett, and returns to focus more closely on Elle’s expression as she claims that “you must always have faith in yourself.” The camera places Elle’s romantic relationship on the same level as her female friendship, while her own personal and professional growth is most important.

The song playing over the final scene is “Perfect Day,” reprised from the beginning of the film when Elle believed that Warner was going to propose. In the reshot ending, a caption states that Emmett is going to propose that night. Lutz claims, “Elle’s life had come full circle. She starts out the movie thinking she’s about to be proposed to, and that’s her idea of a perfect day, and now she’s graduating from Harvard, but she’s still getting proposed to. Because, you know, you don’t have to pick success or the guy, you get both! That’s what you get today.” Smith adds, “Definitely,” affirming why the new ending of the film was more appealing to audiences than the kiss would have been. In the new ending, Emmett and Elle never kiss–she smiles down at him from the platform, while he looks up at her with admiration. The evolution of the script suggests that the most important visual image for the ending of a romantic comedy has changed: rather than seeing a kiss and assuming that Elle will have a career, audiences wanted to see Elle’s career and were satisfied with being told that she will be married too.

Filming beyond the Ending: Movie Sequels

The sequels to these films reinforce the importance of public speaking at the expense of the romance plot; the filmmakers clearly assumed that audiences were more interested in the professional and intellectual development of the heroines than in their romances with the leading men of the previous films. Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (2003) focuses on Elle’s trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby for a ban on animal testing. Elle is planning her wedding to Emmett, but this subplot is overshadowed by her public speech-making. Early in the film, she makes a presentation to her law firm to encourage them to fight animal testing, only to be fired by an unethical, macho boss. Elle moves to Washington to become a legislative aide to Congresswoman Victoria Rudd (Sally Field) and makes two speeches to the Committee of Energy and Commerce, the first a complete disaster and the second so successful that she reduces the committee members to tears and receives a standing ovation from the crowd and cheers from friends watching on C-SPAN. As in the first movie, Elle succeeds by getting to know people personally, acting ethically, and inspiring cynical professionals with her enthusiasm.

This sequel introduces a plot element that reappears in the other two sequels: the heroine befriends an African American woman who teaches her to expand her personal and professional identity. Like the heroes in many romance films, these black women take on the role of challenging the heroine but also engaging in a mutual exchange of ideas and affections. Although the choice of black women is partly based on a “tough girl” stereotype, their racial difference also seems to substitute for gender difference, allowing them to stand in for the hero. In this case, Grace Rossiter (Regina King) is the angry, cynical chief of staff for Congresswoman Rudd. She initially despises Elle for her femininity and naivete, but slowly learns to appreciate her and to work alongside her, even when the congresswoman withdraws her support for selfish reasons. Grace’s willingness to blackmail her boss leads Elle to her final public speech of the film: an address to the entire U.S. Congress during a special joint session on National Education Day.

This scene represents the ultimate public-speaking opportunity for any American, extending this plot element to its greatest possible significance. Making a comparison between the problems facing the nation and those facing a client at a hair salon, Elle claims,

  I know that one honest voice can be louder than a crowd. I know that
  if we lose our voice, or if we let those who speak on our behalf
  compromise our voice, then this country, this country is in for a
  really bad haircut. So speak up, America. Speak up!

This scene is followed by a brief overview of Elle’s wedding; in the final shots of the film, Emmett asks her where she wants to live, and she winks at the audience while driving by the White House. Red, White & Blonde is much less successful than the original film, but the prominence of public speaking proves that this pattern is not coincidental. If Legally Blonde were really about Elle’s relationship with Emmett, the makers of the sequel would have focused on her wedding, rather than her speech, saving some dialogue for her marriage vows rather than making the final joke focus on her presidential ambition.

In The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004), Mia has also taken the next step in her career by traveling to Genovia to become Queen. The film begins with Mia’s college graduation and continues with her voice-over from the plane that is taking her back to Genovia. We quickly discover that she has broken up with her boyfriend: “How’s Michael, you may ask? Well, we’re just friends now, as he went off to tour the country with his band.” When she arrives at the castle, her voice-over denies the implications of the kiss at the end of Princess Diaries: “The one downer in my fairy tale is I’ve never been in love.” This line sets up the main plot of the film: her search for an acceptable husband once she learns that queens are legally required to be married.

Mia’s speechmaking plays a major role in this romantic comedy, in which her friendship with a black woman (played by teen star Raven) also parallels Red, White & Blonde with its emphasis on expanding horizons and embracing change. The wedding scene stands out as the most inventive use of a public speech to disrupt traditional romantic conventions thus far. After agreeing to an arranged marriage to the Duke of Kenilworth, Mia realizes that she cannot go through with the ceremony. She leaves the altar to stand in the church pulpit and deliver a political speech to the assembled members of parliament (who, by law, are all men). Mia follows in Elle’s footsteps by appealing to them on a personal level:

  I ask the members of parliament to think about your daughters, your
  nieces, and sisters, and granddaughters, and ask yourselves: would you
  force them to do what you're trying to make me do? [...] I stand here,
  ready to take my place as your queen. Without a husband.

The prime minister encourages her to make a motion to abolish the marriage law, which easily passes, while the citizens of Genovia watch on their television screens just like the C-SPAN viewers of Elle’s speech to the Committee of Energy and Commerce. Rather than getting married, the typical goal of a romantic heroine, Mia uses her wedding ceremony as a political opportunity and inspires everyone in Genovia with her persuasive skills.

Mia also gets to fall in love with her political rival Lord Nicholas Devereaux, and the love plot follows very conventional lines in which they fight, wrestle, and slowly discover a “spark” that does not exist between Mia and the duke. Nicholas proposes in the penultimate scene of the film, but the narrative focus goes to Mia’s coronation, which becomes a kind of substitute wedding: a journalist refers to it as “the ceremony that will change her life forever,” she wears a white dress with a train, and she recites vows before a clergyman. Unlike the usual wedding scene, this one focuses on her power to change society, represented by the song “I Decide.” Just as Red, White & Blonde ends with Elle’s prevention of animal testing, Royal Engagement ends with shots of the political changes that Mia makes in her first months as queen, notably allowing women to become members of parliament.

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (2005) focuses so completely on the heroine’s career that it no longer classifies as a romantic comedy. Gracie is devastated at the beginning of the film when Eric breaks up with her. Like Michael from Princess Diaries, Eric never appears onscreen in this sequel, proving how dispensable the romantic heroes have become. This disappointment fuels Gracie’s desire to become the new spokeswoman for the FBI, capitalizing on her popularity with viewers of the Miss United States pageant and leaving her fieldwork to travel the talk show circuit. Gracie ends up going back undercover to save Miss United States from a kidnapping, and the movie focuses on her relationships with her gay stylist and her African American woman partner as she solves this crime. The film has no romantic plot, replacing it with Gracie’s interactions with partner Sam Fuller (Regina King), who typifies the tough, masculine, black woman who provides the same challenge and “spark” that Eric once provided. Not only does Sam have a masculine name, but she also challenges another agent to “be a man,” prompting Gracie to joke “Yeah, like Fuller.” Gracie and Sam wrestle together, just as Gracie and Eric did in the first film, but slowly learn to appreciate one another through the intimacy demanded by the case. At the end of the film, Sam saves Gracie’s life, the two partners declare their friendship for one another, and Gracie even sings to Sam with the same tune that she once used for Eric. The film seems to be reminding viewers that you do not need a man to be happy, just another smart woman to be your friend.

The end of the film finds Gracie in the classroom of a little girl named Priscilla, whom she met at a book-signing for her biography. Priscilla has asked Gracie to come and help her overcome her nerves about presenting a book report to the class. Gracie makes her final speech, reminding the class what is really important:

  World peace. And the strength to hold fast to your beliefs while
  society's forcing you to conform to a Barbie doll image, know what I'm

The last shot shows Priscilla’s beaming face as she stands at the blackboard, newly empowered to make her own speech, and Gracie winking at the audience. Not only do all three of our heroines take their speech-making powers to a national or international level in the sequels, Armed and Fabulous shows a sincere interest in passing these skills on to the next generation of women.

Because these films are popular comedies with beautiful actresses and bouncy soundtracks, it might be difficult to see their progressive elements. However, my experience watching Legally Blonde for inspiration before enduring my MLA job interviews suggests that Josie, Gracie, Mia, and Elle are good role models for women in the twenty-first century. The public speaking trend also includes many of today’s most popular romantic comedy actresses: Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate about You (1999), Julia Roberts in Notting Hill (1999), Meg Ryan in Kate and Leopold (2001), and Ashley Judd in Someone Like You (2001). The pattern continues in more recent films such as Mean Girls (2004), in which Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) gives a big speech at the prom even though her teacher interrupts her by saying “You know, it’s not really required of you to make a speech. […] Most people just take the crown and go.” This film continues the shift from “romantic comedy” to comedy about women fighting to achieve their educational and professional goals, who fall in love as part of the story. Whether the “professional comedy” takes off as a genre remains to be seen, but the first five years of the century prove that romantic comedy continues to evolve in directions that feminist critics and audiences can appreciate.

by Eleanor Hersey