Never underestimate a woman in pink.
Submerged in my sweaty sofa nest a few weeks ago I was channel-surfing the television for some sort of mindless colourful assault to make peace with my exhaustion when I came across Legally Blonde on television. “Why not?” I thought, “Haven’t I seen Reese Witherspoon and her mercilessly right-angled jawline rather a lot in the media recently? Shouldn’t I indulge in one of the most nauseatingly early-2000s productions in her cinematic oeuvre? I’ve earned this right – I’m an adult goddammit!” Here’s what I absolutely did not expect after a thoroughly Legally Blonde-less decade: I fucking love this movie.
Donning one’s pretentious critic hat, it’s easy to condemn this film as a decadently superficial and, sure, fairly un-PC representation of female intelligence. Perhaps Legally Blonde does in fact unforgivably lack the self-awareness of Clueless or the comedic flair of Ten Things I Hate About You. Perhaps it could be argued that the script is mostly confusing gibberish and involves outrageously unrealistic allowances for its faltering protagonist at an Ivy League college. Sure, it might well be an objectively “bad” movie and suspend disbelief so gracelessly that it’s hanging up there by its ankles. But I would also happily argue that it is a remarkably successful feminist film and to miscomprehend its value is to miscomprehend women at large (yeah, I said it – let’s fight about it, I’ve had a lot of coffee).
For those of you who retain the basic dignity to avoid revisiting movies from 2001 on your Friday nights, here’s a refresher on the plot: Elle Woods (played with surprisingly nuanced sensitivity by Reese Witherspoon) is a fashion student and sorority president who is dumped in the opening act by Warner, her slick elitist boyfriend (Warner has a number in his full name so you know he’s hot shit). Warner believes that Elle, as a materialistic, hot-pink clad so-and-so lacks the gravitas that could support him in his political aspirations. Reasoning that she can win him back by following him to Harvard Law, Elle participates in a classic early oughts montage scene involving that home video application that you would definitely remember if you have any sense of true joy.
“I would also happily argue that it is a remarkably successful feminist film and to miscomprehend its value is to miscomprehend women at large (yeah, I said it – let’s fight about it, I’ve had a lot of coffee).”
Upon moving to Harvard and finding that both her appearance and everything she holds dear are wholly incongruous with East Coast academic conservatism, she turns to forging relationships at the local nail parlor (cue the classic “bend and snap”). Elle also discovers that Warner is now engaged to Selma Blair, who you may remember from being typecast as a pristine bitch in literally every 90s movie that was made. After deciding to academically apply herself, Elle finds herself in a hand-picked team of undergraduates defending an accused murderer who also happens to be a fitness instructor that Elle is patently familiar with (as I’m typing this synopsis I am becoming acutely aware of how tenuously the writers threw this piece together). At the climax of this movie, we find ourselves in the courtroom with Elle Woods, entirely ill-equipped and confidently toying with human lives, conducting an examination of a witness with a floppy-haired Luke Wilson at her side. It is a very silly movie.
I love Legally Blonde because its essence lies in its absurd, hyperbolic femininity. It’s not a movie that demands character development from a flawed central character, it’s a movie that recognizes the incongruence of overt, frivolous femaleness with intellectualism in everyday life and suggests “Fuck it, why can’t we have both?”. As Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca argued in a 2017 column, Fashion IS Political, Period, “The notion that enjoying fashion precludes the potential for critical thought espouses an absurd double standard with obvious roots in sexism.” There is nothing inherently asinine about fashion, in fact, it is a deeply symbolic and perceptive form of creativity that is subject to derision primarily because of its strong association with populations that are so often denied access to power and authority (read: any group that is not comprised of straight, white men). Appreciation for fashion is not an antithesis for intellectualism – for fans of 10 Things I Hate About You: it really is possible to have your Prada Backpack and wear it too.
“It’s not a movie that demands character development from a flawed central character, it’s a movie that recognizes the incongruence of overt, frivolous femaleness with intellectualism in everyday life and suggests “Fuck it, why can’t we have both?”. “
I also like that Elle’s best friend in town is Paulette, her gormless nail technician, because it inspects the notion that fashion and self-maintenance are so rarely universes that we can share with heterosexual men, so they have instead become a sacred places of typically ‘feminine’ indulgence where we can form significant relationships. The fact that Elle Woods dresses like a Booze Cruise Barbie is sort of beside the point, she’s still a symbol of uncompromising self-expression and rarely is there any implication that she looks that way for the men that surround her. Whilst I recognize the argument that materialism and aesthetic obsession are symptoms of a patriarchal society that forces women to internalise a desire for sexual objectification, I find that stance just a little tired. I think for the most part women look good for other women, as a means of social networking and it’s incredibly personally fulfilling to partake in the rituals of beauty and fashion when you can identify culturally and intellectually with a certain aesthetic.
Most of all, however, I love Legally Blonde because it has such a legitimately heart-warming appreciation for female friendships. Elle Woods may be a fashion-engrossed sorority president but she shirks stereotypes of materialism with her unerring kindness; she’s a really, really nice character. She acts to empower other women with whatever questionable legalese or seduction technique she may have in her arsenal, she always gives people the benefit of the doubt, and she’s incredibly forgiving. It’s a narrative that begins its trajectory with a heterosexual relationship but it is ultimately directed by its female relationships, it sure as hell passes the Bechdel Test and spoiler alert: she ends up best friends with Selma Blair’s character.
This is also all neglecting to mention that at one point in the film, Elle Woods has to fight off the advances of a male superior who attempts to manipulate her into a sexual relationship. It looks like everything it on the verge of falling apart when the female Professor Stromwell intervenes with the most powerful quote of the entire movie: “If you’re going to let one prick ruin your life, you’re not the girl I thought you were.” If this isn’t a sentiment for the 2018 Time’s Up then gosh, I don’t know what is.
Of course there are problematic elements to this film – largely because it was made in an era where the great majority of films were seriously fucking problematic. I’m not sure if a single ethnic minority graces the screen, Elle’s sorority girl friends continue to whirl around in a heteronormative tizzy, and Luke Wilson’s sycophantic expression makes me question his motivations a lot but Legally Blonde is still a remarkably successful feminist film and absolutely worth re-watching whenever you should next find yourself melting into your sofa on a Friday night.