Wednesday, 2 April 2014

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.

Story of my life, circa 2001-2013
Part of it is the genuine truth – it’s a brilliantly written comedy with endlessly quotable dialogue and timeless themes. 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.

E.W.S.:  psychological phenomenon affecting dozens of valley girls and hot jocks with untapped potential.

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?

Elle Woods Syndrome is also known to afflict gay writers with delusions of grandeur.

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). Once I decided to embrace my life as Elle Woods – and centre of attention – this track became a self-fulfilling prophecy and full-blown EWS. 

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

Like Ms. Woods, I'd overcompensate 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).

My Professor Stromwell mentor came in a slightly harsher form.
I once pitched a high-concept, high-budget sci-fi short in lab-coat including mock science-experiment for our thesis film (think the equivalent of the prestigious summer internship). In my head, all those ill-fitting cardigans thought I was a hopeless long-shot, but once the list appeared and my film I was selected, this is how I reacted:  

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.

What Elle Woods and Bryce get up to when they should be studying.
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 stuck in First or early Second Act Legally Blonde, forgetting Elle Woods herself went through a huge transformation. Sure 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 misguided, but it led to an experience that fundamentally changed her.

Elle Woods triumphed in the court room - proving everybody including herself wrong, but where was I?
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 even inferior, I could never be accepted and never really grow.

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 drama – something I thought myself previously incapable. I’d always been content with writing derivative knock-offs of Jurassic Park, Anaconda or X-men, but with a little elbow grease, I learned why I really want to write and what I really have to say. I have no delusions that I’ve somehow morphed into a genius writer – I still and always will be learning and developing my craft. But I can say that writing Anaconda 5 is no longer at the top of my career goals.

I'm not the only one to realize the didactic potential of Legally Blonde.
My Professor Stromwell called it right!

The funny thing is, throughout my CFC residency, nobody ever really judged me on all those shallow archetype things – in fact they were embraced and championed as part of my “unique voice.” So look at that, Elle Woods was right after all. Being true to yourself never goes out of style.