Forcast for college girls: legally blonde?

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Jul 31, 2001 12:00 AM
It may not have quite the box-office draw of talking apes or dinosaurs amok, but "Legally Blonde," an engagingly silly comedy of manners pitting the Hollywood elite against the Ivy League, beauty vs. brains, was No. 4 at the box office last weekend, grossing nearly $60 million in its first three weeks.

"Legally Blonde" is also, in its way, a sign of the times, celebrating a new kind of girl power, a post-feminist reconciliation of beauty and brains, the old feminine ambitions and the new.

Reese Witherspoon stars as Elle Wood, a pink-clad, feather-toting, retro-giggly, oh-so-nice, husband-hunting Malibu Barbie sorority sister whose Harvard-bound boyfriend unexpectedly dumps her, saying he needs "a Jackie, not a Marilyn" to further his political ambitions. Elle will do anything to get her man, even ace the LSATs and get accepted at Harvard Law, the first fashion merchandising major ever admitted under the new diversity regime.

Elle learns she can use her brains and her hair color, too: Graduate first, dump the cad, then marry the nice guy, is the message.

Not bad advice, especially for young women whose mothers believed no woman should marry unless she was almost too old to have children (or in Gloria Steinem's case, old enough to have great-grandchildren).

It is advice that likely resonates with today's college coeds, according to a new study of the attitudes of college women, "Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right" (

www.americanvalues.org) by Professor Norval Glenn and Elizabeth Marquardt. This 18-month study is based on a nationally representative phone survey with 1,000 unmarried college women along with in-depth qualitative interviews with 62 students at 11 different campuses (from the University of Washington to New York University).

College women, the leaders of tomorrow, are showing a distinctly neotraditionalist bent. More than eight out of 10 agreed that being married is a very important life goal for them. Almost four in 10 college girls have never had sexual intercourse (including about three out of 10 college seniors). A sizable minority have a hard time, though, figuring out where exactly to fit marriage in, with almost three out of 10 agreeing, "When I look ahead five or 10 years, it is hard to see how marriage fits in with my other plans." The majority say they would like to meet their future husband in college. The in-depth interviews reveal doubts that they will get the chance.

Some young women displayed the telltale signs of anti-marriage propaganda: "I'm in that sociology of the family class, and it's just, like, got me really scared about marriage," said a University of Virginia student. Marrying after graduation (like Elle Woods), said a University of Washington student, would "stunt my growth in every way there is."

But more students seemed baffled by a college dating scene in which young men and women have a hard time hooking up in any way more meaningful than, well, random hook-ups. "A young woman at Colby says, 'People just get really weirded out by each other. Neither of the people are willing at all to talk about their feelings. That's why it is easier to, like, hook up with someone as opposed to talking to them.'"

Ironically, the only well-scripted relationship at college is the nonrelationship. For hook-ups are a social institution in which sex is not only severed from marriage, commitment and affection, but it is even separate from social acquaintanceship. No wonder young women describe it as awkward: You don't know whether to expect anything the next morning -- not even a friendly nod as you pass each other in the hall.

Hook-ups, booty calls, friends with benefits. Maybe the Elle Woods of the world really do have something to teach Ivy League girls.