It’s been 20 years since Legally Blonde bent and snapped its way onto our screens.
This 2001 teen movie has grown to become a cult classic and, surprisingly, as a feminist masterpiece.
Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods is the epitome of the girly-girl stereotype. Her signature colour is pink, it’s even the colour of her (scented) resume. There isn’t much about fashion that she doesn’t know and when in crisis her go-to place is the nail salon.
When wannabe-Senator boyfriend, Warner, decides that he “needs a Jackie, not a Marylin,” Elle decides to get serious. Practically on a whim, Elle Woods decides to become a Harvard law student. She becomes determined to fight for her true love and prove her worth to him.
While this description doesn’t exactly scream feminism, this movie seriously subverts expectations.
Elle studies fashion, her personal style is peak 2001. It’s all about fluffy accents and, obviously, the colour pink. She’s president of her sorority, Delta Nu, and dedicates her time to being a mentor to her sisters.
She knows and values the emotional support a salon provides.
Her best friend is Bruiser, a Gemini vegetarian chihuahua, who she carries around with her everywhere.
Her girly interests are constantly mocked. Even the admissions tutor laughs off her attempt at going to Harvard law, dismissing her degree in fashion merchandising.
It’s a degree from a top college in a business subject, she got the highest grades she could get, and she achieved an almost perfect LSAT score.
It shouldn’t have been seen as an impossible reach.
Sure, it was out of character for Elle but she more than proved she’s capable.
Some might say that she only really got in based on her looks and money. Her video admissions essay features a bikini-clad Elle in her private pool and was directed by a Cappola. Yes, some of the all-male admissions board did seem swayed during these moments, but others remained adamant that her fashion degree made her inadequate. Whatever their reasons for or against Elle, they all seemed to underestimate her qualifications. If Elle presented herself more traditionally and had less feminine interests, would her acceptance be questioned?
When Elle arrives at Harvard, she’s consistently mocked, berated, and looked down on. She picked on and sent out of her first class. She’s tricked into dressing up like a house bunny to go to a party. She’s even accused of bullying by a person she’s never really spoken to just because she seems like the type.
Elle is constantly put down.
Despite it all though, she remains somewhat positive. Even at her lowest points, she manages to push back against the negativity, and never once does she stoop to their level. She remains a kind and sweet person.
Elle, with the help of Emmitt, realises that Warner isn’t who she needs. She only really needs to love herself (this movie is cheesy, what can I say?).
She works hard and knocks it out of the park, landing a coveted internship.
She’s tasked with defending Brooke Windham, a fellow Delta Nu who is accused of murdering her husband.
She manages to get the alibi, a solid way of proving Brooke’s innocence, but Brooke refuses to use it, fearing it will ruin her reputation. Revealing this to her team would not only win them the case but would put Elle in excellent standing.
Elle doesn’t tell. She firmly believes that it’s not her alibi to tell and remains loyal to Brooke.
Elle puts other people’s feelings before her own and she respects her sisterhood with Brooke too much to let her own ambition get in the way.
Elle eventually discovers that the Professor in charge of the case, Callaghan, is only after one thing. He hits on Elle and lashes out after she rejects him. Obviously devasted, Elle seeks comfort with her friend Paulette. It’s at Paulette’s salon that she vents her frustrations and declares that she’s finally had enough.
In possibly the greatest plot twist ever put to screen, it’s revealed that none other than Professor Stromwell, the same woman who kicked Elle out of her first lecture, was having her hair done and listening to the whole thing. She supports Elle (in a very Stromwell way) and gives her the push to get her back on track.
Brooke, who is now devastated by the loss of Elle on her team, decides to fire Callaghan and hire “Miss Woods, Elle”.
Elle is strong and intelligent but without the encouragement from her professor and the faith brought by Brooke she could never have made it that far. Elle needs support from her community and with that, she can do anything.
In the end, Elle cracks the case using the simple and finite rules of haircare. Something “any Cosmo girl would have known.”
Warner wants her back but now Elle sees her own self-worth and realises she can do so much better (enter Luke Wilson). Her happiness isn’t dependent on a man anymore, she knows her own strength and is happiest with the friendships she’s made.
Yes, she also happens to get the supportive, dream guy, Emmitt, but if you removed him from the film completely the story wouldn’t change. Elle still gets her happy ending without him, he’s just an extra victory for a girl who already won.
Legally Blonde was ahead of its time. Nowadays, it’s not especially revolutionary to have a plot focusing on a feminine woman subverting expectations but it is still rare. Lots of girls are still taught that to be considered ‘strong’ or ‘powerful’, you must act like a man. Just look at characters like Katniss Everdeen or Sarah Connor, they make their mark by dropping the feminine stereotypes and picking up new masculine ones. It’s only once they’ve learned how to act and dress like a man that they then become heroes.
Elle Woods never loses who she is. She remains herself and never lets others change the way she feels. Even today, traditionally feminine subjects and interests are seen as being stupid or superficial.
Elle Woods teaches us is that being who you are is the most important quality and that it doesn’t matter who knows it.