Legally Blonde [20 Year Retrospective]: Cosmo Girls and Habeas Corpus
I was a little unsure of myself whilst hunting down a clip of Legally Blonde to demonstrate a Feminist Ideology in film, was this pink coated comedy truly a feminist piece? Part of my doubt was because on paper this film looks like any other narrative about a woman changing for a man and getting ahead because of her looks and obvious femininity. Yet, that is only the surface of the plot and takes up, at most, the first establishing act of the film. Beyond that Legally Blonde is about a smart and driven woman who smashes all expectations of herself whilst encouraging the women around her to do the same.
Looking back in retrospect on the 20 year anniversary of this film I’ve found that, although not perfect and still with flaws, this film was probably one of my first introductions to a feminist form of cinema and truly stands up to this day with it’s endearing messages. The early 00’s offered up a veritable smorgasbord of female led rom-coms and comedies, some that followed their predecessors and others that really altered the formula and presented us with nuanced leads and smarter themes. Legally Blonde is definitely in that camp.
Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is a quintessential blonde bombshell, dressed head to toe in pink and sparkles with her beloved chihuahua Bruiser by her side. She’s a sorority girl with her eyes on an engagement ring from her longtime boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis). She’s painted the same way many women in comedies are, materialistic, air-headed and girly, and we make assumptions about her from her very first frame, and it’s not just us who do so. Whilst shopping for the perfect date outfit a snooty boutique owner assumes she is just another ‘bimbo’ to be taken advantage of, but Elle’s extensive knowledge of fashion soon has her slamming down the woman’s assumptions that hair colour collates with intelligence. This is one of Elle’s first moments of proving to us that she is not to be underestimated, and the rest of the film continues to express that same notion.
“There’s many ways for a character to be empowering as a female protagonist and there should be a wide spectrum of representation. The feminie hero is just as inspirational as the wild woman or the tough action heroine, they just represent different parts of what it means to be female.”
The whole plot may seem to start by revolving around romantic interests, Elle going to Harvard to get her ex-boyfriend back and then being linked to Emmett (Luke Wilson), but Legally Blonde is much more about Elle’s platonic relationships with the women around her and her own self discovery. Legally Blonde is about female solidarity, something that was lacking in a lot of rom-coms at the time that saw women as constantly competing for the affection of men or the top post in their industry, removing the idea that women should build each other up and support one another.
When Elle is dumped she is supported by and built back up by her sorority. When she decides to apply to law school her sisters help her practice for the exam. After a harrowing first day she finds comfort in a nail salon with the shy but sweet Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge). Through the first act Elle is supported by women yet there’s a set up of the typical rivalry between her and Warner’s new fiance, Vivian (Selma Blair). They are opposed in typical fashion as ‘The Marilyn and The Jackie’ yet it soon becomes clear that the two have more in common than they thought when they are both treated poorly by Professor Callahan (Victor Garber) for being women, one demeaned through tasks and the other sexually harassed. This connection, fuelled by Elle’s positivity and resilience, brings home the real message of the film about sisterhood and the strength of women together. Both women come to realise that they are smart, savvy and strong and neither of them needs to be with the walking status chaser Warner who offers their lives nothing.
Elle is not defined by her romantic life, she does not fit the mold of patriarchal assumptions about gender and what a woman’s worth or purpose is. Her message in the film is clear. Wear what you feel comfortable in, don’t exclude colours or hobbies just because they’re ‘stereotypically feminine’ and build up the other woman around you because together is always better.
Elle doesn’t suffer through an external makeover, instead she finds her confidence and grows as an individual. She can be a strong, intelligent and hardworking woman whilst still embracing femininity and reclaiming blonde hair and pink for the third wave feminist generation. Elle doesn’t have to give up her femininity to be strong, she embraces it, using those feminine qualities to better herself and raise up those around her. There’s many ways for a character to be empowering as a female protagonist and there should be a wide spectrum of representation. The feminie hero is just as inspirational as the wild woman or the tough action heroine, they just represent different parts of what it means to be female.
Of course, it has to be acknowledged that Elle is of privilege, she is rich, white, pretty and has a massive support network around her which makes things like getting into Harvard much easier, but that doesn’t stop her from being inspirational to anyone who has ever been told they can’t do something because of their identity. She’s charming and overtly positive, not allowing herself to be broken down or judged by those around her. She faces backlash and prejudice from those at Harvard for not being the typical ‘smart girl’ but Legally Blonde doesn’t discriminate against Elle for her hobbies and interests. The spirit of the film is to embrace your own version of feminie power and utilise it to become who you want to be.
On release reviews called Elle a ‘fashion whore’ and damned Witherspoon for her involvement in such a ‘schlocky’ film. It also suffered from being overly compared to, and forced to battle for approval against, Clueless, because god forbid there be more than one film that treats an intelligent woman well in the rom-com formula. There were a lot of positive reviews still and Legally Blonde has definitely benefited from a retrospective look back from all the pre-teens that watched it during their youth. Through a modern lens it has some issues as far as its lack of intersectional feminism, but for it’s time, and as a stepping stone, it was an incredible film for young women of the 00’s.
The legacy of Legally Blonde still stands today and it is held fondly in the hearts of many. We still laugh at the ridiculous nature of the ‘bend and snap’ but we also relisten to Elle’s valedictorian speech to empower ourselves and boost our confidence. First time director Robert Luketic and screenwriting team Karen McCullah Lutz and Kristen Smith managed to make a female positive film that has held onto its loved status after 20 years. As Elle would say “What, like it’s hard?”
Witherspoon and her production company Hello Sunshine are keeping the lid tight on what Elle’s new story is going to be in Legally Blonde 3 but I am just happy that by May 2022 I will get to find out. Looking forward to reuniting with our favourite Gemini vegetarians.