There’s one movie I can watch over and over and over again. You might’ve heard of it. It’s entertaining, it’s a comedy/romance—which to many people already puts it in the category of not very important or cool—and it’s very pink.
Even though I’m pretty sure I’ve watched this movie every year since it first came out twenty years ago, these days, I’m feeling a sudden onset of nostalgia too, laying on thick pre-social media Y2K vibes, camis and cardigans included. Remember it was just ten years ago when the early "aughts” was known as the ugliest fashion decade ever?
Legally Blonde is a 2001 movie and 2007 musical based on a 2001 ebook, and later, novel (the film was made and released before the manuscript was published, and the first version of the novel was self-published). I haven’t read the book (I’m not sure why, it’s totally up my alley) but there’s a few differences: in the book, Elle is a jewelry design major vs the fashion merchandising major she is in the film, and she goes to Stanford, not Harvard as in the film. The musical spawned a 2007 reality television series documenting the search for Broadway’s version of Elle Woods, who was first brought to life on the big screen by Reese Witherspoon in her now iconic role. (Fun fact: The role almost went to Christina Applegate, who plays Reese’s sister in Friends though the two are never onscreen together.)
Jezebel called it “The Only Feminist Movie Ever Made”, in an article that came out as I’m writing this, because this year is the 20th anniversary of the film.
One of the most famous women in the world, so skilled in the art of fame that she has tricked billions into thinking she’s done nothing at all to deserve it when she’s exploited and reflected the state of our society back at us and actually worked very hard for it—Kim Kardashian, of course—made her own version of Elle’s famous video admissions essay. Arianna Grande, another very famous woman playing the fame game, also featured a scene in her music video for acclaimed pop breakup anthem Thank U, Next featuring a montage of early 2000s homages.
If you haven’t ever watched Legally Blonde and you just watched this video, you might have some ideas about what the movie is about and who Elle Woods is. She’s obviously spoiled, privileged, and shallow. (It’s not a coincidence that this is the exact same perception people have of Kim, who I’m convinced is extremely intelligent—she deserves her own essay coming soon—and not just because she’s skipping law school, studying and apprenticing law on her own, and is set to take the California bar exam in 2022.)
Here’s the ten second synopsis: Legally Blonde is “the sassy tale of Elle Woods as she tackles sexism, snobbery and self-discovery in pursuit of her dreams” (source: another Legally Blonde musical). Elle is a Gemini vegetarian from Beverly Hills, just like her Chihuahua, Bruiser Woods. On the day that Elle thinks her boyfriend is proposing to her, he’s actually breaking up with her to pursue his law school dreams and ambition in politics. And he needs a serious girlfriend, not the First Runner-Up of the Miss Hawaiian Tropics contest. Elle grieves, then in a flash of inspiration, decides to go to Harvard—and no, not on a road trip like her friends suggest—to win her boyfriend back.
There’s a character on the Netflix reality tv show Too Hot to Handle, a bleach blonde lawyer with a tight face, big boobs and puffy lips. In her intro, she calls herself the real life Legally Blonde. But Elle Woods isn’t really about law or being blonde, as obvious and in-your-face that message is, with it literally being the title of the movie and not “How to get over a breakup by living your best self”. Besides, with blonde hair dye readily available to the thousands of students turned lawyers schools pump out every year, and the over-representation of bottle blonde compared to the natural occurrence of it (2% of people worldwide), I’m sure there are many Elle wannabes out there. I just came across one on TikTok, another blonde lawyer whose bio says “Real life Legally Blonde”.
The real real life Elle Woods is the author of the book herself, Amanda Brown, who said that she wrote the book with a furry pink pen. She did indeed go to Stanford Law School but dropped out after the funny letters she wrote about her law school experiences got optioned for a movie and she discovered her ambition was to write. Amanda claimed that she decided to go to Stanford because of the shopping mall nearby. (Fun fact: Reese also went to Stanford in the 90s, but left to pursue her acting career.)
I, on the other hand, am not really any of the things Elle is, at least not on the surface. But Elle seems to resonate with all kinds of women, and not just blondes, real or faux, or lawyer wannabes.
Elle Woods was the first character I had seen on film that presented “feminine”, had “feminine” traits, that liked “girly” things. I put feminine and girly in quotation marks because I understand that all these things are cultural constructs, but as cultural constructs, they exist and people have both feelings and perceptions about them.
Media and society, in a giant self-fulfilling loop, has a tendency to characterize women as feminine and weak, as seen in the damsel in distress trope, or as strong and powerful only when they take on more traditionally masculine traits and energy like aggression, logic and bravery. Nothing wrong with that: one of my favorite fictional heroes is Disney’s Mulan (it’s this version that I know best, not the folktale she’s based off of). Mulan is the literal definition of a woman who took on masculinity, disguising herself as a male warrior to fulfill her story arc. Reporter Lucy Ford’s 15,000 word paper, Dumb Blonde Ambition: ‘Legally Blonde,’ Postfeminism and the Reimagination of the ‘Strong Female Character’ delves more deeply into this view, that strong female characters are almost always just women who conform to male standards rather than asserting femininity as strength as Elle does. She’s watched the film 800 times.
Elle brought us some of the most entertaining and memorable comedic moments in film, immortalized by gifs:
This is the moment after Elle first bumps into her ex-boyfriend at Harvard. He looks at her incredulously. After all, he broke up with her because she wasn’t “serious enough”. And now, just one summer later, she’s here right in front of him in a tweed teal skirtsuit set and perfectly coiffed imitation of a serious student. Teal, I gather, is Elle’s “serious” color, where pink is her signature.
“You got into Harvard law?”, he asks her, with one eyebrow raised so high you know it’s impossible that Elle didn’t see. She acts like she doesn’t. (Elle is not naive. See: scene where a saleswoman tries to push last season’s clothes to her at full price by ripping off the tags.)
The bend and snap is Elle’s signature pickup move.
She leads an entire nail salon full of women (and I think, a couple of men) of all ages, shapes and sizes as they bend and snap as if it’s an aerobics routine. Already, you can see her shrewd nature. She presents the move as having a 98% success rate of getting attention, going further with segmented data: it has an 83% success rate of return on a dinner invitation. It’s not enough to think that it works. Elle’s got the evidence to prove it.
And my personal favorite, how Elle doles out very wise advice in sassy bite-sized form.
Elle’s ability to a) get into law school and b) graduate as valedictorian shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone if you look closely. She was always a high-performer. In fashion school, she had a 4.0 GPA (I’ve been there, it’s not easy) and was homecoming queen, plus had a whole litany of extracurriculars. Any underachieving tendencies are the product of her environment, where she’s the wealthy daughter to parents who say things like “Button, that's for boring, ugly people!” when she tells them about her grand plan to go to law school to win the love of her life back. Speaking of this grand plan, this in itself already subverts the standard of the woman as the object. Elle is not one to sit by and watch.
Her plan plays out like a fairy tale gone wrong, when she gets to Harvard and realizes that her beau is already with someone new, a “stinky old Vanderbilt” at that. Not only that, but she’s not popular and is in fact mocked for things that felt so natural and important in California and sorority life. Change my view but Legally Blonde almost comes off as a parody of real life, in that the things she was mocked for are in fact the things that are advantageous in real life, they just happen not to be in the world of law school. This parallels the vitriol towards the Kardashian family, making it seem as though everyone hates them when in fact they are quite loved, most loved in fact.
Fast forward, Elle drops the guy who never appreciated her for who she really was and by the end of the movie, is attached to someone new. That’s not really the story though. It’s just the side quest, the accidental little something extra that sells books and movies. In fact, the originally proposed ending of the film took it in more rom-com territory, with Emmett and Elle sharing a kiss as the end scene. It was only changed to a graduation scene after test audiences said they wanted to see Elle succeed.
There’s more to Elle’s success than ambition, smarts or shrewdness. And certainly more than her looks. It’s not the most shiny part of her story, but she is actually nice to people. She goes out of her way to help others, which in popular media and perhaps too in real life, is actually quite rare: protagonists are usually single-mindedly achieving their goals or going through a series of events happening to them rather than paying attention to the people around them.
All the sparkles, the glitter, the pink and the artifice, it shows us that femininity isn’t the opposite of strength and that intelligence doesn’t look one way. I used to obsess over wanting to appear smart because I’ve always felt a bit disconnected between who I thought I was on the inside and what people perceived about me, even when I was a kid. It’s gotten easier over the years when I’ve finally allowed myself to embrace the things I naturally gravitate to, and not to give in to my conditioned signals that these things mean that I’m not serious, important or intelligent. Now, I am who I am and I choose to surround myself in color, cartoons and yes, pink.
I think we all move the collective needle of intelligence forward when we start to see more diversity in various forms of what we consider smart, strong, powerful. (The all-male, all-white admissions officers at fictional Harvard were onto this when they made a case for Elle as a push for diversity. Otherwise, there isn’t a lot of racial diversity, save for one Black judge played by Francesca P. Roberts.) Elle is all those things, no less than that guy. Maybe more.
By the end of the film, Elle adapts a slightly more muted wardrobe, with the exception of course being her big courtroom finale scene where she arrives with her big blonde hair, a pink wrap dress and open toe heels, winning a case because of basic grooming knowledge, her social radar and her ability to connect the dots. That’s a point for the generalists of the world where specialists sometimes get so caught up in narrow focus that they don’t see simple and human details. There’s also a point for how much care and energy, as Reese puts it, that Elle puts into everything she does. She dresses up for everything, she studies hard, she is an activist whether for better toilet paper or to speak out against animal testing (a plot point in Legally Blonde 2).
My case for Elle Woods as an unexpected feminist hero isn’t an anomaly, as you may have guessed. She continues to speak to women and girls who see themselves in her, blonde hair or not, who see a model of power and success that doesn’t cater to a singular version of it. Her gospel seems a bit ahead of its time even, when we still live in a world where cultural and social perceptions of power and importance still adhere to norms that celebrate maleness and masculine or even muted/neutral qualities above feminine ones, even in the face of blatant popularity and acceptance.
Harvard Law School’s most recently reported acceptance rate is 15.6%, so who knows if this fictional story is “realistic”. When I, as a fashion student just like Elle, applied to get a second degree in a more “serious” vocation, I was rejected because my degree was not accepted (I had a legitimate Bachelor of Design). So, I never got to live out my own Elle Woods fantasy, if we’re following her plotline. But I did live out another, more important kind: my reality.
How many of us, as woke and as progressive as we are—keeping our maiden names, outnumbering men in almost every major, forgoing motherhood as a choice—still center our lives around the pursuit of a partner? Love, romance, family, these are all very real ambitions forged in biology and social conditioning, and we are no less prone to them than we were a thousand years ago. But in Elle, we find permission to leave partners who don't see us as we really are, not because she had the courage to but because we see that she can do more and do better, and she herself doesn’t know that yet. As the audience we root for Elle, and we see ourselves on her journey. We believe that maybe there is more for us too.
It might not be wrapped up in a shiny pink package, but for anyone who has felt disregarded, overlooked, unvalued, tossed aside, that no matter what you've been told your value is and what you start to believe yourself, it is not be the end and you might just be beginning. You don’t even know what you’re capable of yet.
That’s the real story of Elle Woods.
A sequel to Legally Blonde is in the works, set for release in May 2022.