The Martian Is Basically Legally Blonde In Space: Elle Woods And Competence Porn

Left: post-gazette.com. Right: The Daily Orange.

People love to watch other people be really, almost unrealistically, talented –– even at the sacrifice of a good story.

Last weekend, along with literally everyone else (I had to sit in the SECOND ROW, aka the actual opposite of my usual Ebert-approved, twice-as-far-as-the-screen-is-wide seat), I went to see The Martian. The dialogue was incredible, the PG-13 limited F-bombs perfectly placed. The scene of the final rescue, where two astronauts orbit each other after being tangled in the single orange tether that keeps them safe from a looming oblivion, practically moved me to tears. There were also a lot of potatoes, which we all know are the best root vegetable ever.

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of space movies, which is a good thing, seeing as there is no shortage of them. Movies about space are quintessential to American pop culture at this point — I expect one good space flick at the very least each year, and The Martian did that for me. It brought refreshing gallows humor to the traditional sci-fi epic, mixing the new and the familiar into an intensely enjoyable movie.

It was also a lot like Legally Blonde.

There really is no better movie to compare it to. The Martian and Legally Blonde have essentially the same plotline: a deeply likable character is isolated in a hostile environment and faced with a series of challenges to their survival. Elle Woods and Mark Watney both confront these challenges with charm and grace, thriving under pressure. It also doesn’t hurt that they are good at what they do to the point of absurdity — they are both prime examples of what many other writers have dubbed “competence porn.”

Competence porn is a term that satisfies the long ineffable proclivity of mine toward movies and television series that feature characters who are mostly just really good at the shit they need to be good at. It is a proclivity that a lot of other people also seem to have, telling from the box office success of The Martian and the fact that Bones is in its 11th season despite being an actual mess since 2013. People love to watch other people be really, almost unrealistically, talented — even at the sacrifice of a good story.

If anything can be said against The Martian, it would be that Mark Watney handles being stranded on Mars too well. The same can be said for Legally Blonde, which is by all other accounts a cinematic masterpiece. Elle Woods handles showing up to a “costume party” dressed as a Playboy bunny with a superhuman amount of poise. Like Watney in his final attempt to escape Mars, Elle calls her adversary a frigid bitch and leaves, having maintained an incredible amount of composure throughout the whole thing.

Also: She studied the LSAT for like a WEEK. And got into HARVARD. In a BIKINI.

They're both pure competence porn. It’s like watching Ina Garten make a cake — we’re interested in the process, not the result. We don’t care about the result because we are sure of what it will be: a success. Challenges are merely opportunities for the subject to show off. Watching Elle solve an entire murder case by knowing about permed hair is just as satisfying as watching Mark Watney survive several hundred days on Mars because he knows how to grow potatoes. We know the ending from the very beginning — the beauty of competence porn is in the middle.

What sets Legally Blonde apart from The Martian is that while we may have near unwavering faith in the competence of the protagonist, the same cannot be said for our faith in the competence of the actual movie. Legally Blonde is a chick flick — that nursery-rhyme, infantilizing term for movies marketed to women — which means that it would have to transcend its genre in order to be considered a Serious Film, à la BridesmaidsThe Martian is a science fiction CGI dreamscape — the kind of movie we expect a certain level of sophistication from — is a film, and Legally Blonde is a movie.

We treat Legally Blonde and other movies like it with the same disdain that Elle’s fellow law students treat her. The reason Legally Blonde is an unexpected example of competence porn is that it is an unexpected example of a good movie. Not because it stars a woman — we are happy to watch Ellen Ripley and Nyota Uhura kick ass in space — but because it is made for women. Why take a movie seriously when you don't even take the movie's audience seriously?

I don’t have any ridiculous dreams that chick flicks will draw the crowds comparable to The Martian. I know that chick flicks are marketed to women and I don’t expect people who are not women to go see them. It’s a nice idea — because movies about women are also movies about, you know, people — but I would like them to at least have a chance at being considered a good movie. I would like to see them existing amongst the other genres we examine when we talk about trends in film like competence porn. We use money as an excuse to dismiss the validity of the chick flick as a part of movie criticism. Then we turn our backs to talk about what a masterpiece Fight Club is. Movies made for men get cult status when they fail to make money. Movies made for women get written off entirely.

Roger Ebert, my spirit guide in picking the best seat in a movie theater and also one of my favorite thinkers in general, was passionate about reviewing movies in context. He always considered the budget, the genre, the audience — just about everything. And while that is the ideal way to judge movies and most other things in this world, it is near impossible to manage when you’ve got the context wrong. We have the context of chick flicks wrong. They are not grating, formulaic movies by default. They are grating, formulaic movies when they are bad movies, just like movies in any other genre. Judge them by the standard that their context gives you.

This is the context: Practical Magic, Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood, Fever Pitch, Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, How to Make an American Quilt, Legally Blonde.

This is what you do with the context: Watch chick flicks. Love chick flicks. Hate chick flicks. Think about chick flicks. Care enough to be disappointed. Let chick flicks exist as the important and diverse movies they are. Allow the space in your head for Legally Blonde to be compared to The Martian.

Give movies like Legally Blonde the consideration you gave two hours about growing potatoes. You’ll be surprised, and then you won’t. They’ll be just like movies set in space: you expect something from them.

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