My battle with Elle Woods Syndrome

If you’ve held court with me for more than five minutes you’ve likely heard me bring up or quote Legally Blonde. Maybe you’ve even wondered why any self-respecting writer and filmmaker would cite Legally Blonde as one of his most cherished films.

Part of it is the genuine truth – it’s a brilliantly written comedy with endlessly quotable dialogue and timeless themes. This is not up for debate. The other reason is perhaps more metaphysical. When I reference Legally Blonde, I’m really subconsciously testing to see if you’ll judge and write me off as vapid and/or shallow, much like the narrow-minded law students of Harvard U did Elle Woods. (If you need a reminder, think Bel Air bombshell in Barbie pink amongst stiff intellectuals in muted, ill-fitting cardigans). I’ve come to identify so much with the protagonist of Legally Blonde, that she’s literally fused into the DNA of my identity, like a parasite, but with blond highlights.

In ironic other words, I’ve developed a meta-disease only Abed Nadir would know how to diagnose. It’s called Elle Woods Syndrome.

Elle Woods Syndrome (EWS) can be defined as the perennial need to cast oneself as the fish-out-water outcast in an intellectual milieu. Usually it involves emphasizing one’s seemingly vapid, shallow and/or douchey traits to lower expectations of one’s ability to perform – so that one can emerge as an underdog-turned-dark horse. The environment should be one where geeks, nerds or intellectuals thrive, so that the stereotypical babe or jock you’d expect to be popular is rendered the outcast, reverse-bullied by the usually dejected.

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I likely contracted EWS shortly after watching Legally Blonde for the first time during my tenure at Ryerson University.

I know what you’re thinking: I didn’t go to law school to win back my ex-boyfriend (sadly this was long before I was hunky enough to have a boyfriend) so how could I relate to Elle Woods? As a gay man starved for attention, even (or especially) when closeted, I always stood out and I did sort of decide to go to film school on a whim, when I realized genetically engineering dinosaurs likely wouldn’t be a possible career path. So the next best thing would be to tell my own geeky sci-fi stories, right?

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So this freshly and flamboyantly gay science nerd, lover of popular culture, wearer of muscle tanks outside the gym and hopeful creator of Anaconda 2 Anaconda 5 arrived at Ryerson film school. While it was sadly no Harvard (or even the Canadian equivalent of an Ivy League), we did have a pretentious film school in “Image Arts” chock full of stodgy hipsters in muted, ill-fitting cardigans, who wanted to make important art films.

We had snobby, opinion-recycling Vivian Kensington’s, social-climbing Warner Huntington III’s or Femi-Nazi Enid Wexler’s, all nonconformist conformists. They hated me on first impression impulse because I stood out and not in a good way – at least that’s how I projected it in my head and later Burn Book. It wasn’t long before I embraced my differences as centre of attention – my Elle Woods Syndrome in full effect.

I set a precedent of making people think I was vacuous bumble gum, so I could later prove them wrong. I’d wear excessive costumes during my pitches or muscle tanks to my lectures. I’d spend my scholarship money on bleach-blonding and perming my hair (a la Justin Timberlake circa the N*SYNC days).

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Like Elle, I had a tendency to compensate with razzle-dazzle

We had this ruthless film history professor who pinned our eyes open to watch awful Russian films. She made us introduce ourselves via film clips we believed “best characterized” our cinematic taste. After the usual PT Anderson and Coen Bros suspects, I decided to show Elle Woods’ cross-examination of Chutney Windham. After prerequisite scoffing and eye-rolling from the film snobs, the scary professor actually called it a “wonderful example of the village idiot” which I didn’t understand. (I’d later realize our Russian Professor Umbridge was my first Professor Stromwell in a long line of Yoda mentors).

Once I’d contracted EWS, it only festered, especially after I shed my soft-fleshed cocoon and morphed into a douchebag butterfly. Wherever I went, I’d do everything in my power to stand out. Behind the scenes in television production, I was the fit editor who refused burrito lunches with the other tubby editors. Videogame and comic book conventions, where I should be networking, I’d instead be posturing as a nerd-jock in cosplay, so I’d be taken as seriously as the booth babes – only I was neither as hot nor as paid to be there.

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Also, like Elle, I’ve sought validation from my share of frigid bitches 

During my residency at the Canadian Film Centre’s television writing bootcamp, something in me changed. I’d desperately applied to this prestigious program two times before, beginning to fear TV writing was only “for people who are boring, ugly and serious,” that I must be none of those things. But another voice told me I really fucking wanted it. So through perseverance, better scripts and the sometimes reliable need for validation, I finally got in. Immediately it felt like I was back in film school: the outgoing pop-culture guru amongst mostly introspective writer-sorts. I was all ready to prove I write my bubble-gum “genre” TV, while rocking a form-fitting Henley, and probably be judged for it. They even made a 25-cents jar in our writing room for every one of my Legally Blonde references. But each time I added a quarter, it began to dawn on me:

I was simply repeating the First and Second Acts of Legally Blonde. I’d forgotten Elle Woods went through a huge transformation. Yes, she went to law school to win her boyfriend back, but there she discovered her untapped potential as a bonafied lawyer. Her original motivation was a touch misguided, but it led to an experience that fundamentally changed her.

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What took Elle Woods a movie to learn has taken me a decade

All these years of embracing an Elle Woods identity, I’d completely missed the point. I was trying so hard to be outcast as different or perceived as inferior, that I never really accepted myself. And therefore, never really grew.

But luckily at the CFC I was working with or for the best of the best. All of my mentors were Professor Stromwells with noses that could detect bullshit (and/or the bells and whistles I’d used in the past to hide thin writing). I was forced to dig deeper and to stop being so shallow.
Taken through the ringer at the CFC, I arguably discovered my inner potential for writing high octane drama grounded in real character – something I previously thought I was incapable of writing. In doing so, I also discovered why I chose to be a writer  – to tell stories that inform and inspire change – and that I actually have something to say.

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I’m not the only one to realize the didactic potential of Legally Blonde.

I have no delusions that I’ve somehow morphed into some writing genius – I will always be learning and developing my craft. And I would still be over the moon if somebody hired me to write Anaconda 5; it’s just no longer at the top of my career goals. And I can do it, while having an irreverent personality and big cosplaying personality. So Elle Woods was right after all. Being true to yourself never goes out of style.

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