Legally Blonde was one of those movies that I knew about growing up, yet it always seemed to just be in the background. I still have vague memories of seeing billboards for the Legally Blonde sequel, with a towering Reese Witherspoon decked out in bright pink (something that’d grab the attention of any four-year-old like me.) Yet I never got around to watching the original Legally Blonde movie until early high school. Once I saw it, I couldn’t believe I waited so long to watch it! It was as funny as Mean Girls, and it also happened to appeal to my lawyer-phase that I had had a couple of years before (long story.) And with each rewatch, I ended up liking Legally Blonde even more. It didn’t hurt that during this time I started learning more about feminism, which made a pretty good movie suddenly revolutionary.
So, when other people started praising Legally Blonde as one of the best feminist movies of the past century, if not ever, I thought: “Hey, no arguments here!” But then a couple of years later I watched it again, and then another time after that, and something felt off. It was still a good movie, but I was starting to notice some… iffy parts of the movie. This became more conflicting as people were (and still are) calling it the best feminist movie of all time and I found myself starting to disagree, even if I still really liked it (I’m even listening to the Legally Blonde musical soundtrack while writing this!) So, the best way I could think about tackling this dilemma was examining the movie through a 2019 feminist lens and asking the question: “How does this movie hold up today versus almost twenty years ago?”
A disclaimer before getting into the nitty-gritty: I still really like Legally Blonde. This article isn’t meant to be a call-out piece or an attempt to discredit the movie. Heck, you would be hard-pressed to find a movie that’s perfect or 100% unproblematic. With that, I feel like it’s only fair to be mildly critical when needed when examining this movie considering the status it has received in recent years, and well, art is meant to be critiqued along with being enjoyed!
Now, it’s time to put Legally Blonde on trial!
What Legally Blonde Does Well (The Defense*):
(*I refuse to stop with the legal puns)
Not Dissing Feminity:
Whether you haven’t seen the movie or need a refresher, here’s the synopsis to the 2001 movie Legally Blonde: Elle Woods, a fashionable sorority queen is dumped by her boyfriend. She decides to follow him to law school, while she is there, she figures out that there is more to her than just looks.
Honestly? This synopsis doesn’t quite do the film justice, particularly in how it characterizes Elle. It’s partially right- Elle does struggle to adjust to Harvard Law and doubts herself for most of the movie after her boyfriend Warner dumps her, but before that? She’s confident in her knowledge: her specialized knowledge of fashion, as well as beauty-related matters.
This specialized knowledge of fashion and beauty helps Elle win the big case at the end of the movie. It’s important that Elle wins the case this way because throughout the movie her knowledge is dismissed as trivial and “not serious”. And it’s not a stretch to say that this is because things like fashion and beauty are seen as feminine, considering that there’s a historical trend of feminity being seen as inferior and weak. And aside from her specialized knowledge, Elle is also emotionally intelligent as seen with her ability to connect and gain the trust of others such as her client, Brooke. This makes the ending of the movie all the more impactful- Elle didn’t have to abandon her feminity or compassion to become a stronger lawyer. In fact, it gave her the upper hand when applied with her newfound knowledge of the law.
Work for Your Dreams and Be Independent:
Throughout the entire movie, Elle works to get what she wants. While initially, she does it so she can be with Warner, this evolves in her studying and working hard not only to prove her peers wrong but for herself. Getting a 179 on her LSATs? Earning a spot on Callahan’s internship team? Winning her case? Without a doubt, Elle Woods is the definition of the word hustle. Her dedication to taking on new and challenging things, and her ability to succeed on her own makes her a role model for women everywhere.
Women Supporting Women:
All too often society is overly judgmental of women and as a result, women are stereotyped and mocked. The worst part of it is that from a young age women are often taught to take part in this toxic mindset, and with that, the cycle continues. It’s downright meanspirited, but you know what else? It’s pointless! There is virtually no winning when it comes to it. If a woman likes popular things? She’s basic and boring. If a woman likes less common things? She’s a hipster that’s trying too hard. If a woman is sexual? She’s a slut. If a woman isn’t sexual when others want her to be? She’s a prude. See? You can’t win! Which makes it all the more distressing that this “Girl versus Girl” attitude exists in our society, and especially played up in the media we consume (with a concerning amount being a part of young adult media). However, Legally Blonde subverts this trope.
Legally Blonde starts with Elle Woods being rivals with Warner’s new girlfriend Vivian Kensington. Elle tries to make an effort to be kind, but Vivian doesn’t respect her and ends up being one of her biggest bullies at Harvard Law. It seems like the set up for the “Girl versus Girl” trope with these girls who seem to be the polar opposite of one another, with Elle being bubbly and fashion-savvy and Vivian being more conservative and academic-centric (at least, before Elle starts cracking down on her studying). Also, there’s the whole blonde versus brunette trope going on. It’s one of the sillier tropes in media, but I guess it’s more warranted here with the movie’s title and the Marilyn Monroe-Jackie Kennedy parallels Warner mentions when he breaks up with Elle.
Anyhow, in a refreshing turn of events, as Elle begins to prove herself in her classes and through her internship during the movie, Vivian grows to respect her and the two eventually grow and support one another. And after the pre-climax misunderstanding and the end of the trial, Elle and Vivian are shown to be best friends by the time they graduate. The rivalry between Elle and Vivian could have easily lasted the entire movie. But instead, Legally Blonde decides to let the character Vivian grow alongside Elle, something incredibly important given the one-dimensional stereotypes that often play a part in “Girl versus Girl” rivalries in media.
Elle and Vivian aren’t the only women supporting each other, however. Throughout the whole movie, Elle supports her friend Paulette, and Paulette supports Elle in exchange, and even at the climax of the movie when Elle almost gives up after Professor Callahan harasses her, the strict but wise Professor Stromwell comes in and gives Elle the pep talk she needs.
Addressing Sexual Harassment:
In this regard, this movie was ahead of its time, having addressed workplace harassment sixteen years before #MeToo even started. Although this doesn’t happen until later in the film right before the climax, this workplace harassment almost causes Elle to quit law school. Not only that, but the film also shows how victims can be the ones who are stigmatized, as shown through Vivian’s assumption that Elle was the one who came onto Callahan. While it’s handled with very quickly, it does handle this all-too-pervasive problem pretty well.
Now, with the defense for the movie out of the way, it’s time to address some of the iffier parts.
What Legally Blonde Lacks (The Prosecution):
Afraid to Use the F-Word (Feminism):
So, if you ever have been vocal about feminism or any social justice issue really, odds are that you’ve encountered at least one person who dismissed you as annoying or used the buzzword “social justice warrior” because some people think it’s bad to care about social issues. Well, the term may not have been around back in 2001, but the movie sure had its very own equivalent caricature in the form of the character Enid Wexler! If that name isn’t ringing any bells, it’s not much of a surprise. Although she is one of the four students chosen for the internship along with Elle, Vivian, and Warner, she “mysteriously” vanishes from the movie after this. But if you don’t remember her, here she is:
Enid Wexler: women’s study major, lesbian & gay rights activist, and the over-the-top “feminist” character. Every time I’ve rewatched this movie, her scenes, in particular, make me wince. It seems so totally out of place for the rest of the movie to have a strawman feminist, especially since she disappears around the halfway mark.
So with that, one of this movie’s main “iffy” parts is just the inclusion of this character in general. For a movie that centers around so many feminist themes, it seems eager to try to separate itself from feminism. Admittedly wide-scale acceptance of feminism has only happened somewhat recently in the media, but the film’s efforts to make the statement “Oh, we’re not like THOSE feminists”, despite espousing a lot of same ideals that “those feminists” talk about is a bit offputting. Because of this, it feels odd to label this movie as “the best feminist movie of all time” when the movie itself tries so hard not to be called feminist.
Elle and Intersectional Feminism:
I’ve already gone on about how great Elle Woods is as a character. She’s a twist on the popular girl cliche where she’s not only smart, but kind to those around her and the last one to be a bully. Unfortunately now, I’m going to have to dig at her a bit. While Elle faces sexism throughout the movie, she is also extremely privileged to the point where while she talks about being discriminated against for being blonde, it never really comes up how privileged she is. She’s rich, white, straight, conventionally attractive and basically part of every other non-marginalized group you can think of. Granted, most of her other classmates are wealthy as well (since they’re all going to an Ivy League school), but with how much the movie tries to perpetuate that blonde-phobia exists, it only skims on the struggles of less privileged women like Paulette and Enid. Particularly with Enid, the movie is quick to get rid of her after she accuses Elle of probably being homophobic just so Elle can get likeability points for saying she doesn’t use homophobic slurs. Then again, the 2000s weren’t particularly kind to LGBT characters in movies, either making them into caricatures, giving them tragic endings, or queer-coding characters only to reveal they were “straight all along” (*cough* Janis Ian from Mean Girls *cough*), but it still feels like a missed opportunity, especially since Enid was selected as one of the four interns meaning that she could have had her character fleshed out more.
All in all, when looking back on this movie from 2019 there’s a notable lack of intersectional feminism: feminism that is inclusive of women of color, LGBT women, and other women from marginalized groups. This isn’t to say that Legally Blonde should have changed its plot in order to have intersectionality, especially since it didn’t set out to be an explicitly feminist movie in the first place. However, for all the praise this movie receives (most of it rightfully so), it’s important to acknowledge that its feminism from one specific perspective that doesn’t necessarily represent the struggles of other women. Sure, a lot of Elle’s struggles are universal to women, but with that, a number of Elle’s triumphs are only possible due to her unaddressed privilege alongside her determination.
Legally Blonde is great for its time, and even today it manages to still be a good feminist movie. It’s not as intense as other feminist media like The Handmaid’s Tale, but that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes it’s nice to have an upbeat comedy where everything works out in the end, including overcoming prejudice. A lot of Legally Blonde‘s iffy parts can admittedly be chalked up to it being a product of its time, as unfortunate as that is. For a mainstream movie, there were just so many boundaries to push, and with gay marriage not becoming legal nationwide until 14 years later, and feminism still being a dirty word for many people until the last several years, it’s not much of a surprise that the film would only briefly touch upon those topics before shying away. And with that, feminism itself is an ever-changing movement, and the goals of twenty years ago are understandably different from the goals of now. In 2019, intersectionality in feminism is still a relatively new concept compared to a few years ago. Either way, Legally Blonde is an uplifting movie that challenges stereotypes and sexism and serves as an inspiration for women to put their all into their dreams, and it has certainly helped pave the way for more inspirational movies for women.