Tuesday, September 11, 2012

CINEBLOGGO: Legally Blonde

There’s a strange myth out there that deems feminism and “girly” things mutually exclusive.  That feminists can’t like the color pink, or enjoy getting their hair done, or belong to a sorority, as though this is submitting to the patriarchy and betraying women’s rights.  But the suggestion that these “girly” things are anti-feminist is the real evidence of anti-feminism, because the implication is that women should not want to be associated with femininity.  Isn’t the point of feminism to celebrate womanhood, not shame it from our own bodies and minds?  Rejecting femininity for its “frivolity” only serves to reinforce the notion that masculinity is king and queen, the ultimate power.

There is, similarly, a misconception about the 2001 film Legally Blonde.  With a cheery sorority girl at the movie’s center, and a primarily pink DVD cover, it’s easy to dismiss it as a valid film, let alone a valid feminist film.  Upon closer look, though, Legally Blonde is actually a feminist treasure, supported wonderfully with the existence of its main female and her character arc, as well as the story communicated around her.

When we first meet Elle Woods, she’s attending college in California, serving as the president of her sorority, and expecting an engagement ring from her pre-law dreamboat boyfriend Warner (Huntington III, natch).  But it turns out Warner is actually dumping her, because he intends on heading to Harvard and needs a serious girlfriend - a “Jackie,” not a “Marilyn.”  Elle is devastated by the news, and decides to win Warner back… by attending Harvard Law as well.  This is a decidedly “romcom” premise, and under conventional romcom circumstances, we would probably see Elle meet a new guy who believes in her more than Warner, and when Warner comes inevitably crawling back to her, she would be faced with a choice between men that represented her identity shift from beginning to end.  If Elle chose Warner, she’d be choosing her old self, which isn’t who she really is.  If Elle chose New Harvard Boyfriend, she’d be choosing her new self, and someone who saw her for everything she never knew she was.  And y’know, it’s possible that, if scripted well, it wouldn’t be all that bad.  But Legally Blonde does so much more than that, which transcends romcom convention and typical stories given to main females.  Elle Woods chooses herself.  If anything, then, the love story at the center of Legally Blonde is that of Elle Woods falling in love with her true identity, her real self.  Ultimately, both the film and Elle’s arc demonstrate a shift from a traditional romantic comedy (wanting the guy) to a female-centered identity arc (wanting personal fulfillment) hallmarking Elle’s struggle to prove herself, redefine herself, and embrace herself.  It really can’t get anymore feminist than that.

Most movies concerning themselves with a female empowerment arc would probably show the lady lead differently in the beginning than in the end.  So, in the case of Legally Blonde, it might be an obvious choice to demonstrate Elle’s change by showing her less empowered at movie’s beginning, so we understand how much she’s grown when we’re watching the end.  It makes sense, right?  We’d expect a pre-Harvard Elle to be outwardly unempowered - a bit spineless, not at all shrewd, and least of all self-assured.  But Legally Blonde doesn’t bother with this; in fact, Elle is never portrayed as any of these things because they’re simply not in her character.  Our first real introduction to Elle is in the film’s second scene, where Elle is shopping for a dress.  The saleswoman, thinking that Elle is a dumb blonde with daddy’s credit card, tries to dupe her into buying an out-of-season dress for an exorbitant price.  But not only does Elle see through the ruse, she actually calls out the saleswoman on her attempted manipulation, even throwing in a thinly veiled insult to boot.  And this is the girl at the start of her empowerment arc!

But even though this seems like an oversight in communicating the change in Elle Woods from beginning to end, it’s actually a glorious detail that shows so much respect and affection for the story’s lead.  By showing Elle with smarts and a backbone within the first ten minutes, Legally Blonde is instantly and subtly indicating to the audience one single, beautiful message about her change: Elle Woods had it in her all along.  With this construct, this narrative always has faith in Elle, and her self-empowerment arc, as she herself points out in her commencement speech, is learning to have faith in herself.  You can even notice the no-change change in the fact that the same song plays over the end and opening credits.  In the beginning, when Elle is anticipating Warner’s proposal, it’s “The Perfect Day.”  In the end, graduating from Harvard with honors, it’s the same.  Elle had it in her all along.

It’s hugely important, with female character arcs, to manifest development without changing the character.  Would Elle be the same Elle if she started dressing like Vivian and acting like Enid?  Do we really want Elle to abandon her sorority friends and hobnob with the East Coasters?  I love dearly that while Elle does take some measures to fit in with her Harvard peers, the conclusion is that it’s simply impossible.  Her goal is not to fit in with them, but to achieve comparably to them.  She buckles down, devotes her time and brain power, and works hard to be in the same league as her peers.  But even when she endeavors to dress like them, she ends up wearing a shimmering smoking jacket and fashion glasses.  Ultimately, the film’s message is that Elle only has to be Elle to succeed.  When she’s on her date with Warner in the first scenes, she wears a bright pink dress - her power color.  And when she walks into the courtroom for her last scenes, she wears a bright pink dress - her power color.  Elle hasn’t changed; her power has only shifted.

It’s doubly important to avoid changing Elle’s character when considering the gender politics of the film.  Elle codes as a traditional “girly girl” - before we even see her face or know her as a person, we see her applying makeup and perfume.  Pink is her power color, she does get mani-pedis to de-stress, and she does know the particulars of perm maintenance (after all, the rules of hair care are simple and finite).  The premise of this film involves Elle moving away from her traditionally feminine environment, the sorority house, and into a traditionally masculine environment: Harvard law.  It could be disastrously offensive to suggest a rejection of Elle’s “feminine” past as she finds her true self in her “masculine” present.  But it’s simply not the case.  (Wait, was that an accidental lawyer pun?)  And while it’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to believe that Elle would be such a superstar on cases that don’t involve details about hair care, fashion designers, and gay men, it’s important to construct a plot around Elle that rewards her for her “feminine” strengths.  The film even goes a step further to introduce a thematic payoff.  On Elle’s first day, Professor Stromwell quotes Aristotle as having said that “law is reason free from passion.”  That statement basically exalts masculinity over femininity, because traditionally, reason codes “masculine” and passion codes “feminine.”  Lady emotions have no place in the courtroom!  But Elle proves that the opposite is true, and even says so in her commencement speech: passion is key, in law, and life.  What could potentially be rejected for its associations with femininity is actually embraced, just as Elle is.

So frequently in popular media, women receive a message that they should change themselves to fit a mold, and only then will they receive the love of a man, which somehow is the end-all, be-all goal.  To this end, it is not only fantastic that Elle’s power, strengths, and femininity are respected by the narrative, but that her love interest is not overplayed to be a dominant focus of Elle’s journey.  After all, this is Elle’s love story with herself.  It’s lovely that all the other characters, including Emmett, fall in line.  Legally Blonde even goes a step further to give Emmett a little character journey as a result of meeting Elle: she encourages him to have more faith in people, which he in turn invests in her.  He takes a chance in supporting her in the courtroom, and when others doubt him, he specifically recites Elle’s own words: have a little faith.  This wonderful, small-scale romance is made even better by the fact that Emmett never actually “saves” Elle.  Even when she’s down on herself and thinks she hasn’t earned any of her achievements at Harvard, it is not Emmett who puts her back on her horse.  Yes, he offers encouragement and support in the form of the film’s theme by offering Elle a hypothetical about her identity: “What if you’re trying to be someone you are?”  It’s a great touch, but in the end, the one to call Elle back to action is actually a woman: Professor Stromwell.  Hearkening to the idea that these are both women in a man’s world, Stromwell challenges Elle’s choice to leave by basically admitting that she grew to admire Elle’s conviction.  And with that, Elle changes her mind, and continues on her path.

Even beyond this one incident, Legally Blonde fosters and demonstrates positive female relationships across the board.  Elle’s sorority sisters universally support her, whether in her engagement to Warner, or her dream of Harvard.  Elle stands by Brooke even when she doesn’t know her alibi, and even then, refuses to break her promise to keep it a secret.  Elle’s friendship with Paulette serves to give her a home away from Harvard, at Paulette’s salon table.  The “bend and snap” is included to show Elle specifically empowering other woman - and even a few men as well.  Even the classmates who initially ridicule Elle ultimately become her friends.  I love that Vivian is the one to reach out to Elle, and she does so because she respects her.  Vivian specifically states that she admires Elle for not giving up Brooke’s alibi and sticking to her integrity.  Not only that, but they bond over their treatment as the only two women on Callahan’s team of interns.  Joy of joy, these are not characteristics often awarded to female characters in romantic comedies!  And even better still, the message with these women and their relationships is that there’s no such thing as “Marilyns” and “Jackies.”  

Nearly everything in this film lines up behind Elle’s empowerment arc as an independent, self-assured, feminist character.  Small moments like Professor Stromwell questioning Dorky David Kidney impart a lesson about self-doubt; when Elle overhears David being rejected by pretty girls, she springs to his aid when she hears them say that “girls like me don’t go out with guys like you,” because that resonates with her, and the reasons for Warner dumping her.  If nothing else, there is an actual closeup of Elle’s face, grinning wildly as she spots her own name on a list of those having earned an intern position.  The line of dialogue?  “ME!”  

Yes, Elle.  You.  And that’s what makes this film a little slice of feminist heaven.


  1. This is wonderful! (The only issue I have is that Vivian and Elle weren't the only female interns—Enid was there too.) But otherwise, brilliant!

  2. You touched a little on this here, but as a brunette who also wasn't the pretty girl in school, I've understood that the male gaze does like to hyperorganize women into the Marilyn and the Jackies or some other labels ("hot or not" "1 - 10" etc). We're taught to be in competition with other women for men and that's why it's so easy for us to go to slurs like slut or skank or fake. You see it a lot in nerd culture where even women assume that very supermodel-y women in cosplay can't be genuine fans or smart and are just looking for attention. I've been doing my best to train my brain to think differently about my fellow women and give them a chance beyond first impressions because dismissing women just based on their looks or their femininity is just a step away from dismissing women on their sex.

  3. LOVED reading this! It bothers me when people dismiss this movie as being girly and stupid, because it's really not. I think it's an excellent movie for both women and men to enjoy. Elle is a great role model because she doesn't have to fundamentally change who she is to succeed: she just applies her skills to new pursuits.

  4. I always think of Legally Blonde as a sister-movie to Miss Congeniality, for some reason. I think because at first glance, both movies seemed like they could have the potential for just being typical mildly misogynistic movies (like Miss Congeniality begins with her mocking the stupidity of female beauty contestants and being a 'guy's girl' with no female friends; with Legally Blonde, I was initially wary because of the cliched feminist lesbian character) but they both end up being characters taking the same journey from different beginnings, and characters that are actually sympathetic and likeable, rather than the writers falling into the pitfalls of writing the 'tomboy' or the 'blonde ditz'.

  5. I watched Legally Blonde in 2002, I think. This review made me rewatch it and discover that I actually really like it. I also wanted to add that I love Elle's friends in the beginning of the movie. They don't really get the law school thing, but they support her anyway. They help her study for the LSAT, they're excited when she gets her results and they show up for her court case. Great demonstration of friendship.

  6. Amazing article! Love the read. I'm expecting twins, a boy and a girl and I've once again started thinking about gender since everybody keep wanting me to eventually dress them in blue and pink. At first I wasn't going to dress any of them in pink, because I thought it was to "girly" but I've changed my mind cause there shouldn't be anything bad about being girly. Anyhow just one thought now.. Thanks again for the great read!

    Ida /Sweden


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