As Reese Witherspoon’s Legally Blonde celebrates its 20th anniversary, it’s time to take stock of the world that came after. Although on the surface it seems like a silly and light rom-com, much like the film's heroine, there is more to it when you dig deeper. With smart feminist messages wrapped in a fun and glitzy pink cover, the film actually influenced a generation of women to pursue law, communicating that it is acceptable to be unabashedly feminine while also being smart and driven to realize your potential. In this article, we’ll take a look at the feminist messages that have stood the test of time while also covering the aspects of the film that have not aged as well.
The story follows Elle Woods, a modern-day princess from Bel-Air who gets dumped by the love of her life. Unfortunately, he doesn’t consider her serious enough and is off to Harvard Law. Desperate to get him back, she applies and miraculously gets accepted herself (more on that later). While attending school there, she becomes less enamored with getting her entitled ex-boyfriend back and instead becomes an accomplished law student herself. All the feminine qualities she thought held her back end up setting her apart, and she becomes a model for an integrated and inspiring 21st-century woman.
One of the girls
The story begins in Los Angeles, where Elle is a sorority member and gets ready for her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis). Ecstatic over the thought of being proposed to, she is screaming her head off with her friends. When Warner shows up, he enters a home of doting eyes from all the women jealous of Elle. After getting dumped, her friends offer to get their nails done as a consolation.
Re-watching the movie years later, my criticism is not so much about what the characters are doing but how they aren’t realistically represented. We are told to believe that Elle is a ditzy blond who only cares about getting a man. If that’s possible, how on earth did she score so well on the LSAT, a standardized test that doesn’t take looks into account at all?
To get the score needed to get accepted, she would have scored better than 99.8% of all people who take that test. So, even if she loves her clothes, manicures and smoothies, we still have to believe she’s undeniably brilliant. The film’s conceit falls on its face, but perhaps that reveals a larger point the movie is trying to make. At first blush, it’s easy to dismiss someone based on appearance. But Elle proves that you truly should not judge a book by its cover.
Put your head down and work
Elle arrives at Harvard hoping to get Warner to fall back in love with her. Little does she know that he’s already moved on to a new girlfriend (Selma Blair) who attends the same classes as Elle. After initially trying to get him interested again (in the iconic bunny rabbit costume scene), she realizes that he simply doesn’t believe that she’s a “serious” or smart person. Elle then has to do the unsexy work of putting the outfits aside and spending time with books.
Elle is impressive in her class contributions and soon curries the favor of her professors. She is chosen to intern on a murder trial and eventually earns the respect of her ex-boyfriend’s current girlfriend. Through her determination and grit, she surprises everyone who previously misjudged. She also shows an understanding of what the world values above all else: hard-won skills that transcend beauty. Appearance matters far less than real-world skills when it comes to teamwork, and fellow students take notice of her transformation.
To thine own self be true
Re-watching the movie, I was initially struck by how oblivious Elle seemed to how hostile her surrounding world was or how little people thought of her. When her mentor hits on her and expresses the opinion that she is only allowed to succeed on account of her looks, Elle is horrified. No one else, though, would be surprised. She’s Reese Witherspoon! Of course, a woman who looks like that will have doors opened for her.
Another issue that can be looked at as problematic in 2021 is that Elle is not representative of all women. Her cis-heteronormative privilege as a rich white woman raised in Bel-Air is exclusive rather than inclusive to the vast majority of women’s experiences, especially to minorities and people of color. While we appreciate Elle Woods, we don’t hold her up as the standard.
What makes her naivete more palatable is her lack of pretension in making friends with others. She possesses innate goodness, a quality that is so sorely lacking today in the age of selfies and over-filtered Instagram photos. She dances with everyday women in the hair salon, offers to help outcast students and keeps the confidence of others when it matters most. Her loyalty, sincerity and heart make her a genuine character beyond her initial superficiality.
In the end, her trip to Harvard isn’t about getting the guy after all. Instead, it is about proving to herself that intelligence and heart are the qualities that matter most. The film proclaims that women don’t need to sacrifice their femininity to succeed in the world. They can be authentically themselves, and their success will be deserved. Now that’s a message that deserves to last 20 years!
Hopefully you strive to create impactful and fun characters like Elle Woods in your projects. Like “Legally Blonde,” may your stories entertain and inspire beyond your wildest expectations. Until next time, stay creative!
Jessica Peterson is a travel and documentary filmmaker with a background in journalism and marketing. She has 20 years of experience producing content in 114 cities and 25 countries. In 2016, she directed and produced her own documentary about her then-home of Guam. Working under the name Global Girl Travels, her clients include CNN, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Matador Network, and Tastemade.