Amy Jenkins: Why shows like Legally Blonde are the opium of the lasses

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The Independent Online

Legally Blonde, the musical, is the new feel-good girls night out. The hype was such that the show was a hit before it even opened – or so the story went. "The first preview was what I imagine Beatlemania to have been like," said producer Sonia Friedman. "You sometimes couldn't even hear the performers through the screaming."

Screaming? At the first preview? I mean – it's not that I don't believe her. I absolutely believe her. But why do these mostly female audiences have to operate at quite such a fever pitch? Is life so bad that a night out in the West End has to be a kind of prolonged proxy orgasm? The wow factor is such that standing ovations aren't even in it – forget standing – you have to be blown off your feet, blown through the roof, blown off the planet. There has to be euphoria and screaming and mobs at the stage door and you have to like the show so much you go back again and again.

All this started in a small way, I seem to remember, way back in 1995 when women were reported to be gathering around their TV sets with bottles of chardonnay to watch re-runs of Colin Firth in his wet shirt in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice. Then there was Bridget Jones and the whole Sex and the City sisterhood thing. That culminated in women reportedly making the (horrible) 2008 film a party event and drinking cosmopolitans together as they watched – cosmopolitans being the heroine, Carrie's, favourite drink. Finally, of course, there was Mamma Mia!, the worldwide phenomenon that traded on the dream of middle-aged women getting their mojos back and still having some kind of clout in the sexual marketplace.

So it was clever of theatre producer Sonia Friedman, herself a youngish woman (certainly young, at 46, to be dubbed the "empire-building Queen of the West End") to spot some unrealised girl power potential when Legally Blonde faltered on Broadway in 2007 because of exorbitant running costs. "I saw it about three years ago and I just fell in love with it," Friedman has said. "It made me laugh and it made me really, really happy." She also knew she could put it on in London with a much lower overhead and that it was a good bet considering the story is – as they say in the business – pre-sold. Legally Blonde was a hit Hollywood movie, so in many ways it's an established brand.

The story is perfect for the girls' night out market – traditional Hollywood fare: rags to riches or, in this case, airhead to egghead, although the underlying dynamic remains the same. A member of society who is undervalued and overlooked improbably breaks down the barriers, triumphs over prejudice and realises their true potential. In this case, the proverbial dumb blonde turns out to be no so dumb after all. At the beginning, she is giggly and ditsy and very LA. She only really cares about nails and fashion until she pursues her rejecting boyfriend to the much more serious east coast and Harvard Law School. Against the odds, she manages to get a place as a student but also, later, to win a high-profile murder case. The courtroom drama turns on her expertise when it comes to permanent waves. None of the dry, bookish, male lawyers – of course – have a clue about hair dressing. More fool them, the story would seem to say.

What a great sop to the hen-night brigade. Talk about the opium of the lasses. And the whole thing masquerades so well as a story of female empowerment. In Legally Blonde, feminine knowledge and intuition are valued and shown to be qualities you overlook at your peril. But, as with all these "girl power" franchises, there's also something not at all empowering and much more subversive in the mix. It's the "What's wrong with a bit of lipstick" mentality – by which I mean that these films and TV shows put themselves forward as "celebrating femininity" but actually reinforce feminine subjugation.

Legally Blonde essentially says, "Don't be snobby about dizzy blondes. Don't poo-poo an interest in hair and nails and lipstick. I'll take on those dry old Harvard eggheads!" And that's a pretty exhilarating message. It's anti-establishment, irreverent, and great fun. It's also nonsense.

In the real world, women who cultivate their inner airhead don't stand a chance of getting into Harvard Law School. And they don't stand a chance of getting their hands on the wealth, power and status that brings. You might have a great brain under all those lashes and highlights, but if you spend your youth reading the beauty pages, instead of textbooks, the reality is you'll be sidelined.

It's the same with any "celebration of femininity" that involves high heels, man-chasing, and an obsessive preoccupation with fashion. I exempt Jane Austen – in her day, unless you were an heiress, you pretty much had to chase a man or you were destitute, if not dead. Despite that no longer being the case, we still have Bridget Jones: The Musical to look forward to.

True heroines living quietly among us

The French Resistance is glamorous and well known – but we don't hear much about other such Second World War movements. This week, however, obituaries have appeared of no fewer than three women who dared to risk their lives opposing Hitler – living to tell the tale into ripe old age.

Freya von Moltke and Inga Haag were involved in the failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Haag said that "the plots were in the minds of most of my friends most of the time". These women ostensibly worked for the Nazi regime but lived in fear that they were going to be arrested. Haag said she tried to "know as little as possible, because what you didn't know you couldn't talk about and betray under torture".

Miep Gies, above, who died on Monday, spent the war hiding Anne Frank and her family in her "secret annexe". She cycled across Amsterdam every day, procuring, with great difficulty, extra food for the Franks. Gies too lived in fear, saying that the "fright of these people who were locked up was so thick I could feel it pressing down on me. It was like a thread of terror pulled taut".

These adventurous lives are barely imaginable to us now, and so it's extraordinary to think that these women were living among us until very recently. Inga Haag, in fact, was in London, in Marylebone. So next time you sit down next to a 90-year-old lady on the bus, don't look straight through her: ask her what she did in the war and invite her home for a cup of tea.

Any more of this talk and you're on the naughty step

Nick Clegg should have known better than to cross Gina Ford. She's famously bullish and litigious and there will no doubt be tears before bedtime – or, at least, an hour of controlled crying if her veiled threats to mobilise her readers against him come election time mean anything.

I'm not sure Gina does herself any favours by being quite so forthright. She appears draconian – which is exactly what some critics say about her childcare methods.

She famously went after Mumsnet when there was criticism of her methods in some of their online chat forums. The result was that the "G word" could no longer be mentioned on the site. Surely a dignified silence would have sufficed. I had quite liked Gina Ford up to that point. I thought some of her instructions a bit didactic but at least she was on the side of the mother and gave comfort to those who didn't want to get up five or six times a night.

*Chris Evans took over from Wogan on Radio 2 this week and I – for one – was mightily relieved. I write "for one" wondering whether I really might be alone in this. I was once trapped in a taxi in a traffic jam trying to get to Heathrow. The cabbie was listening to Wogan, and all that lilting Irish bonhomie – all those jokes that weren't actually jokes – were like the drip drip drip of Japanese water torture to the non-devotee.

But the media coverage of the Wogan exit and replacement has been so extremely reverential that I'm actually wondering if some terrible fate might strike me down if I dare to speak ill (or even just "not my cup of tea") of Terry Wogan. I'm wondering if there might not be some kind of national treasure police force that will turn up on my doorstep and lead me out for summary execution.