Miss Elle Woods: pink, perfect and picturesque. She went to Harvard Law School in pursuit of a man and left with something far more valuable: confidence in herself and support from the women around her. With the recent return of the 2001 hit film “Legally Blonde” to Amazon Prime Video, it’s worth examining its feministic attributes that so many continue to resonate with today.
The film follows Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), a blonde sorority president from Malibu, hoping to get a rock on her finger from one Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis). Instead of popping the question, he dumps Elle because of his political aspirations and his belief that Elle is not “serious” enough to stand at his side for such an ambitious career. He heads off to Harvard Law School, compelling Elle to prove just how serious she is by applying to and attending that very same university. Elle arrives at Harvard Law only to find out that Warner is engaged to Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair).
One of the key reasons Warner does not take Elle seriously is her hyper-feminine, pink style. Warner says, If I’m going to be a senator, well, I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” Elle replies with the iconic, “So you’re breaking up with me because I’m too… blonde?!” The complexity of deciphering one’s identity in a patriarchal society involves a chasm of social connotations and stereotypes for women. Let’s hear that again in bimbo terms for us bimbos out there. Being “blonde” involves so much more than hair color. The basis of the film’s title, “Legally Blonde,” is a pun derived from the phrase “legally blind,” calling attention to blondeness as a hindrance to one’s capabilities. This trope of male characters discarding female characters for being “just a pretty face” is prevalent even now, a prime example being Joey King’s violent character with an “innocent little girl” facade in the 2022 film “Bullet Train.”
Modern generations of women have taken back the power to indulge in feminine interests while still being both intellectual and successful. Elle wins her big court case in the film by disproving a witness’s alibi via Elle’s knowledge of hair care, specifically perm treatment. Femininity is being reclaimed and recontextualized from its perceived frivolity. So dust off those magazines and keep those lips glossed, you gorgeous brainiac.
What is “frivolity”? Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “lacking in seriousness,” making it a key term for our understanding of Elle’s perception. America is wrought with a history of women begging to be taken seriously in a system that has no ears to hear their plight. The “pick me girl” is a woman who disowns her femininity, presenting a persona based on the idea of: “I’m not like other girls,” or, “I just get along with guys better.” No matter how far she distances herself from her femininity, she receives the same systemic oppression as her hyper-feminine counterpart. Sounding a little like Vivian and Elle perhaps? Ultimately, women are stronger as a united front. Vivian and Warner may need Miranda Priestly to remind them that every article of clothing on their bodies is an element in the life cycle of a multi-billion dollar fashion industry that they are not exempt from. But cerulean is so not Warner’s color.
Another major feminist attribute of the plot of “Legally Blonde” is the support the women have for one another. In a 2014 Esquire article titled, “On the Abuse of ‘Bro’,” author Stephen Marche states, “Insofar as a television show is about women, it’s about the meaningfulness of friendship—Sex and the City, Girls, Broad City, etc.” He goes on to contrast this statement with its inverse, describing male friendship in media as, “a retreat into thoughtlessness, crudity.” Marche cites “The Big Lebowski,” “The Hangover,” and “Dumb and Dumber” as key examples. All of humanity possesses an innate need for companionship and confidence; however, patriarchal norms constrict emotional expression and disclosure among “bros.” Let’s hope that Warner had a true bro he could turn to in the wake of losing both of his emotional outlets, Elle and Vivian.
Amidst its strengths, “Legally Blonde” still possesses a few weaknesses under an intersectional feminist analysis. Firstly, Elle’s existence as a white, rich sorority girl with the resources to attend Harvard Law on a whim places her in an extremely privileged demographic, with a success story that is not accessible to everyone. Additionally, “girlboss feminism” can be seen in Elle’s professional achievements as the means for her being taken seriously. She has done nothing to alter the masculine structure of the legal world.
Another criticism would be Elle’s resulting romance with another man in the film named Emmett (Luke Wilson). Instead of solely finding fulfillment in her achievements or female friendships, she must still end up with a male counterpart. However, his love for her does not inhibit these successes or friendships, but rather supports and is drawn to them, in addition to her fully feminine flair. Elle is getting her “Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure” moment after spending college in her “High School Musical” trilogy era. If you’re not following, Troy (Zac Efron) is Warner, Peyton (Austin Butler) is Emmett, and Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale) is Elle, obvi. Keep up.
Before I exhaust you further by delving into fatphobia and reinforcement of the gender binary in Y2K media, I will say this: “Legally Blonde” remains a key example of the marriage of strength and fabulousness. Movies in the same vein that share its female gaze include “Aquamarine,” “She’s The Man,” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” all of which were released four or five years after “Legally Blonde.” This 2000s era of vibrant fashion tied with deep bonds between women is heavily spotlit today, particularly as Gen Z grows into the age of the characters we watched in these films when we were in elementary school. Now, dear reader, go forth and be fab. What, like it’s hard?
‘Legally Blonde’ is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
By Risa Bolash