“I Think About This a Lot” is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
I am a perfectionist. When I was a kid I would sob if there were any bumps in my ponytail or be overcome with anxiety if my mom walked up the subway steps with the down arrows. My backpack was orderly, all my stuffed animals were tucked in underneath the blankets and I was always pleasant, likable, and sweet. So was my favorite protagonist, Elle Woods of Legally Blonde, a movie I grew up watching on repeat. Elle (played by Reese Witherspoon) is perfect: She has coiffed blonde hair, the highest GPA in her sorority, a hot boyfriend, and by the end of the film graduates as class-elected speaker at Harvard Law. But there is one brief moment in the film where she breaks and makes the strangest sound I’ve ever heard, revealing her messy humanness. This is the moment I like her the most.
The moment comes not too far into the movie. Elle, hair flowing like Botticelli’s Venus, is sitting at a tacky restaurant across the table from her boyfriend, Warner, who she believes is going to propose to her that night. They sip Champagne and giggle. Warner starts talking about his future: Harvard Law, family expectations, becoming a senator by the time he’s 30, getting serious, and then — while Elle simultaneously blurts out, “I do” — he says, “Elle, Pooh Bear … I think we should break up.” Elle’s sudden panic and shock is visible on her face. She wasn’t expecting this. Her life up to this point has made sense, she’s done everything right. How could she possibly not be enough? She begins to grill him (“So what? My boobs are too big?!”) and her voice escalates in volume and octave with each question. Patrons of the restaurant start to take notice, casting sidelong glances at the table and chuckling at the scene. Elle starts sobbing and then she makes a sound. It’s a sound like nothing I’ve heard before, like a siren wail that is so high-pitched and so lengthy that it oscillates between two notes for a few beats. It’s not quite a scream and not quite a shriek — it exists on some unnamed sonic plane between them. For just this instant, Elle is all id: imperfect and free.
I hadn’t actually noticed this moment the first 1,000 times I watched this as a kid and preteen, but it stood out to me in a rewatch as a now-25-year-old who still makes color-coded to-do lists. I paused and rewound it probably 15 times, just amazed at the fact that she went there. How did she decide to do it? Was it spontaneous? Did the director and crew have to stifle giggles while filming? She seems truly insane. It’s a performance that foreshadows Witherspoon’s lengthy and brilliant career playing characters determined to have it all, or at least present that way, but are cracking under the pressure (think Madeline in Big Little Lies). They are characters committed to a public performance so optimistic and shiny that it feels perilous. What’s the catch?
I was raised on a steady diet of Disney princesses, taught to believe a woman should be accommodating, small, and appearance-oriented. My grandma sent me to an etiquette class when I was 7 and parted my dirty-blonde hair down the middle with a fine-toothed comb. I was always told by adults that I was “mature for my age” when I was quiet and listened. Writing in my journal was a great way to process my emotions — throwing a tantrum in a Häagen-Dazs wasn’t. I still stayed up at night fretting about death and AIM-chatting older crushes, but the lesson was learned: Do the messy stuff in private. I wanted to be a perfect Elle Woods, always performing for the hypothetical “people at the restaurant.” I’ve lived with a constant need to present as if everything is in order even when I’d love nothing more than to wail like a firetruck.
I think about this moment so often not just because of its absurdity but because of how much I wish I could lose it like that publicly. How cathartic it would be. In my imagination, my public breakdown happens in Brooklyn, where I grew up. Maybe I’m in a crowded subway on the way to work and a man gets too close. I bust out of my coat and whirl it around over my head like a lasso and scream. Maybe I laugh maniacally, and weird black goo oozes from my eyes à la Billie Eilish and he feels a hint of the fear he’s instilled in me. Maybe it means I walk down a city street on a humid day topless just because it’s legal. Maybe I lick a subway pole, just so I can see the disgust and awe on another rider’s face. Maybe I show up to an etiquette class and shatter some china. The possibilities are endless.
A lot of things go wrong for Elle before the movie’s end: After following Warner to law school, she finds out he’s engaged to someone else, her fellow classmates mock her for being a dumb blonde, a professor who gives her an internship opportunity hits on her. But what goes right is that she learns to carry out her own vision of perfection rather than someone else’s. She’s a little looser by the end and also — it should be noted — a little less blonde. She uses her strengths (loyalty and knowledge of hair care) to win a big-deal case. She graduates from Harvard Law, job secured, and ends up with a guy who doesn’t blink when she wears a full-on pink Playboy bunny costume to a tech store.
Elle learns what I’ve slowly started to understand as I get older: A lifelong commitment to order does not inoculate any of us against heartbreak or death. This is all to say, I will be causing more public scenes in 2021. If Elle Woods did it, so can I.