Posts Tagged ‘sparkle’

Movie Moment: Metonymy and Synecdoche in Legally Blonde

January 8, 2010

I’d like to take a moment of your time to demonstrate the intriguing and in many ways fun fetishistic metonymy in Legally Blonde (Rob Luketic, 2001). The shot list calls for the constant breaking of the women down in to digestible parts when they are focused on Warner. This is important because, to a man like that character, taken as a whole, what are we ladies? Too much to chew on, it seems. That’s my personal theory as to why scenes that involve Warner or preparing oneself for Warner so vigorously metonymize Elle and Vivian (Selma Blair). In cinema, where it functions differently than in literary criticism, this metaphorical use of small parts to symbolize the whole, and the psychological underpinnings of its use, falls beneath the aegis of metonymy but really is a better example of synecdoche.


Synecdoche, sometimes considered as a metaphor, is also a metonymical device enabling an idea or object to be indicated by a term whose meaning includes that of the original term or is included in it. The singular replaces the plural, the type the species, the abstract the concrete — or the other way round. Most of the part takes the place of the whole: a sail for the ship, a palm leaf for the tree.

As Elle becomes self-actualized during her rising success in law school, she ceases to so flagrantly feed this synecdoche, insisting on being seen as a whole person. That’s why in the next-to-final sequence, when she walks away from Warner and disappears in to the sun of the outside world, we see her entire body for only the first time from his perspective: slipping in to the haze because Warner never really knew Elle, he knew only the idea of her that he formed in his mind between her misguided visual clues and his contextualized experience of women.

More properly, if I had to put it in pretentious film school bullshit parlance, the cinematic discourse established by director Rob Luketic employs the consistent rhetorical metonymical device of synecdoche to psychologically reinforce the theme of a woman’s appearance and its attendant little kicky details being only a small part of her fuller self. The arc of the narrative allows for the falling away of this device, which further serves to underline the discursive element of metonymy and its being unnecessary to a fully-fleshed-out, dynamic character who has undergone change throughout the film. (I am so glad I quit film school. I would eat my right hand in a sandwich with razor-blades and broken glass before I put my name to and was proud of the publishing of such empty academese for a goddamned living.)


This trope is familiar in the cinema where metonymical juxtaposition becomes changed in to metaphor without the syntagma (this contiguous form) becoming paradigmatic (integrated as a fixed sign, like a lexeme, folling a substitution of meaning. The connoted meaning is objectified in to an object, which performs the function of a sign; but this objectification depends on the connotation: it does not precede it or present it ready-made.

(Semiotics and the Analysis of Film. Mitry, Jean and King, Christopher. London: Athlone Press, 2000. p. 198)

When they are grooming themselves for Warner and aiming at gaining his attention, the camera’s conversation with us shows that Elle and Vivian subconsciously understand he could never possibly grasp nor appreciate the entirety of the experience of “having” them — what will lure, fetch, and keep him are the pieces he can actually conceive of as they relate to him and fit in to his ideas of feminine symbols. Hair, feet, fingers: they can speak of wealth (Vivan) or sex (Elle) — in both cases, the women feed his vision rather than contradict it, despite it being only one small aspect of their larger identities as people. In cooperating with his metonymical synechdochized view of them, Elle and Vivian allow Warner to make them a woman first and a person second. As both of their understandings of Warner evolves, this cooperation begins to sour, and, able to see one another as people first once they have discounted his view of them as women (which made them rivals), they become friends who appreciate the unique facets of one another’s different personalities.

This is not the case with all men, not even in the film; you never see that shit getting pulled on Emmett, who sees and admires the wholeness of Elle from Day One. Look, ma: whole person!


Look, Legally Blonde is not a perfect film even at all, and I know that. It’s not meant to be psychoanalyzed, most likely, and I am also aware of that. I’m just saying it has slightly more artistic merit than most people give it credit for. That’s right: I am a Legally Blonde apologist. Alert Gloria Steinem.

I like this movie and there ain’t no shame in a name. I’m off for C-town right this red-hot minute to soak up its sunny pink silliness with Miss D. Have a great day and catch you on the flip side!