Let’s Stop Putting People In Boxes


If you want the greatest lesson of all time on the perils of human judgment, watch Legally Blonde.

I recently watched it for the first time in my life. I’d previously dismissed it as a chick flick that I didn’t really need to see. I mean, there are certain movies one needs to see, and they’re all on the IMDB top-250 list. Does one really need to see Legally Blonde, a movie that doesn’t even make that list and is seemingly just about a bubbly sorority girl who fakes her way into Harvard Law because of her obsession with a boy?

Yes. Everybody needs to see Legally Blonde.

Elle Woods is a blonde, voluptuous fashion merchandising major and the president of the Delta Nu sorority at a university in California. In the movie, Elle’s boyfriend breaks up with her because he’s headed to Harvard Law School and doesn’t think Elle is “serious” enough for him: “If I want to be a senator,” he says, “I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” Insulted that she was just dumped because of her appearance and positive outlook on life, Elle becomes depressed. Later, she applies to Harvard to try to win him back, but nobody takes Elle seriously. Her bombshell beauty makes people dismiss her as stupid, despite her 4.0 GPA. Her femininity and love for pink makes her seem airheaded, despite her perseverance on studying for the LSAT and final score of 179. Even after Elle’s eventual acceptance into Harvard, she is still judged by her peers and by her ex-boyfriend, who says that she’s still not smart enough to be there. What gives?

“All people see when they look at me is blonde hair and big boobs,” she sighs. But Elle doesn’t quit, and she proves herself to be perceptive and brilliant in spite of her peers’ judgments. She answers difficult questions in class, uses her social intelligence and intuition to garner the trust of a client, and issues a cross-examination of a witness that wins a court case. Elle’s voice may have been a bit “too” high and her interests a bit “too” girly, but she was smart.

About two years ago, a friend of mine told me that he refused to be put into a box. “People everywhere try to boil each other down to some basic characteristic, to figure them out or something. ‘Put you in a box’ is how I like to think about it,” he said. “And when they can’t find a box for you, it upsets them.” Based on Elle’s beauty and cheerful personality, she was placed in a box. She was nothing more than, as she’d predicted, a ditz with blonde hair and big boobs. That was her box and nobody allowed her to leave.

Why were people so reluctant to break the box and see Elle as intelligent, even after she incessantly proved herself? Why did it take so much energy for everyone to accept the gifted part of Elle that had always been there? Surely, if Elle were brunette, or less bubbly, or average looking, or resented girly things, it wouldn’t have even been an issue. However, because she didn’t “appear” to be a “typical smart girl” (whatever any of that means) people did not see her as one until the last ten minutes of the one-and-a-half hour movie.

These judgments are unfair. I’ve been told that I’m “not allowed” to want to go to Comic Con, and other times people don’t believe that I study computer science. Based on a first glance or impression, I was placed in a box that didn’t include either one of those things. Another example involves my aforementioned friend who recalled a time in high school when he was late to a science league team exam. It’s important to note that in high school he had an eyebrow and lip piercing, a beard, and curly black hair – not what you’d picture as an intellect, right? A school security guard didn’t think so either: Upon my friend’s arrival to the meeting, the guard tried to remove him from the premises because he didn’t believe that my friend was in science league. That box emerged again, and the guard didn’t know what to do with my pierced-up friend who may have been smart, too. In the end, my friend scored the highest out of anyone in the state on that exam.

It’s wrong to reduce someone to a simple quality or two – to put someone in a box – because it takes away peoples rights to choose who they want to be. So why do we do it? The reality is that there are universal examples of certain kinds of people who are supposed to have certain kinds of personalities and interests. And, along the same lines, people who are not supposed to have certain kinds of personalities and interests. Elle is “hot” and busty, so she can’t be smart. This is just how we think. And while it’s true that being able to quickly assess people is an inherent thing that humans do to make social interaction easy, it’s also how we can get by without getting to know anybody. Whether or not the person matches the perceived personality or interest has become irrelevant because humans are lazy and will continue mismatching. Even when there is proof of the mismatch, like in the case of Elle Woods and her intelligence, change takes absurd amounts of effort.

I am challenging the value placed on and accuracy of first impressions because humans are not as one-dimensional as they are perceived to be. We all know judging is wrong, but not giving people the chance to change our judgments or grow before our eyes is even worse. What makes us think we figured someone out with a glance? How much convincing will it take people to realize that their perceptions of others are possibly wrong? It’s almost conceited, even, that someone is forced to be stuck as whom we see them as, despite them continually proving otherwise.

Simply put, human beings aren’t meant to live in boxes. See: Hoovervilles. And it’s time we stop putting them there.

This post originally appeared at The Heights.