The dawn of the 21st century has brought a renewed fervor for social activism, as well as proof that groups of committed individuals -- even small groups -- can make a huge difference in the world.
Want proof? Well, it's on its way to a multiplex near you in the form of a fluffy comedy with a heroine with a penchant for Jimmy Choo shoes, pink suits and Jackie Kennedy pillbox hats. It's Elle Woods, the ditsy but far from clueless protagonist of "Legally Blonde 2."
Working as a legislative aide in Washington, Elle storms the halls of power armed with her trademark blend of brains, grit and retro fashion sense.
Convinced that "doing the right thing is in everybody's best interest," she initially tries to operate within the Washington system -- only to discover just how broken that system really is. Even the seemingly goodhearted politicians are irrevocably beholden to their big-buck backers.
Disillusioned, Elle makes a late-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial. Despite its corniness, it's a powerful moment -- much the way that Jimmy Stewart taking in Washington's monuments from a tour bus in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" can still send a patriotic shiver up your spine and put a "proud to be an American" lump in your throat.
Unfortunately, things in the real D.C. have only gotten worse -- much, much worse -- since that 1939 populist classic. So bad, in fact, that even a politician as pure as Stewart's Jefferson Smith couldn't make much of a difference in today's political quagmire. The initiative for change now must come from outside the system -- something Elle eventually realizes. "I'm here to speak for those who can't speak for themselves," she says. And these days, that's a lot of people.
A frothy comedy is an unexpected place to find a clarion call to movement building. But that's OK, because it's this very unexpectedness that gives the movie its impact.
When Elle announces, "I believe in the people," a cynical congresswoman replies: "The people believe what you tell them to believe ... You can't get the people to care." But Elle is undaunted: "Watch me."
She then launches a wacky and wonderful grass-roots campaign, complete with cheerleading interns, free beauty makeovers for dowdy members of Congress, a phone tree manned by Valley-girl sorority sisters, and a Million Dog March.
In real life, MoveOn.org, with its 1.6 million members, proves that grass-roots campaigns can spring from the unlikeliest of places. With just four young employees working from home around the country, MoveOn.org has raised millions of dollars and become a force to be reckoned with in the Democratic Party's nominating process as well as on the major issues of the day -- from the war in Iraq to FCC deregulation.
Elle and MoveOn.org both teach modern-day activists a valuable lesson: You can use the system to defeat the system. Elle's weapon of choice is a little-known legislative maneuver -- the discharge petition. As screenwriter Kate Kondell, a 30-year-old Stanford grad, told me: "We are hoping that 'Legally Blonde 2' will do for the discharge petition what 'Mr. Smith' did for the filibuster."
Elle's efforts culminate with a rousing speech in front of a joint session of Congress in which she reminds the rest of us how important our involvement is to the well-being of our democracy: "I forgot to use my voice ... Now I know better. I learned that one honest voice can be louder than a crowd's ... So speak up, America. Speak up for the home of the brave. Speak up for the land of the free gift with purchase. Speak up, America!"
Sitting between my teenage daughters while watching Elle take on the U.S. Congress, I was struck by the palpable effect it had on them: They left the theater inspired, empowered, and talking about the things they wanted to change and the ways they might be able to change them. None of which would have happened as a result of a lecture from Mom.
Most studio executives blanch at the mere mention of making a movie with a message, often invoking the tired old show-biz adage, "If you wanna send a message, call Western Union." As MGM's Chris McGurk told me, "I know that people run away from movies that have a social conscience because they're afraid they'll be received as spinach. But sometimes the stars line up and you can produce a movie that is both very entertaining and delivers a powerful message." Besides, Kondell adds, "as Elle would tell you, anything is more palatable if you dress it up in pink."
Of course, there is nothing more American than ordinary people -- whether dressed in high-fashion pink or in overalls -- taking up the gauntlet to solve the problems and right the wrongs of our times. Elle's battle is to pass anti-animal-testing legislation, but throughout our history, whatever the cause -- from the struggle for civil rights and the drive for women's suffrage to the fight to end the war in Vietnam -- it wasn't elected officials who were in the vanguard, but outraged and engaged citizens demanding reform.
So while the spotlight is currently on our political leaders vying for control in Washington, "Legally Blonde 2" reminds us that we can find the next generation of leaders by just looking in the mirror. And if you need to apply a fresh coat of lip gloss while you're looking, go right ahead.