Reese Witherspoon / Mingle MediaTV / Wikimedia Commons
When I think of feminist films, I think of Thelma and Louise, The Colour Purple, and the joyous romp that is the Mamma Mia franchise. When I think of feminist characters, I think of Hermione Granger, Lisa Simpson, Xena Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
And I think of Elle Woods.
Woods, brought to life by the inimitable Reese Witherspoon in 2001’s iconic Legally Blonde, is a firecracker of a role. I remember seeing the film for the first time at a sleepover. We must have been 11 or 12, us girls, and I think we spent the rest of the evening – if not the rest of the year – doing the bend and snap, and quoting what, like it’s hard?
Legally Blonde isn’t my favourite feminist film ever, but I've gotta be honest, it’s right up there near the top. And here’s why.
The film, written by Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith, based on the book by Amanda Brown, could have easily fallen down the femininity as vapidity trap. I’m almost certain that if a man had been involved in the writing, it would have done so.
We see it in the best work. Serious Hermione Granger is contrasted with silly Lavender Brown. High School Musical’s softly feminine Gabriella is squared against brashly feminine Sharpay. Janis’ good goth-ness is contrasted with Regina George’s bad preppy-ness.
It’s the girliness of these characters that highlights their bad qualities: their shallowness, their greed, their – shudder – ambition.
Yes, Woods begins her journey in a cartoonishly silly place – primping and preening with her sorority sisters in preparation for a proposal from Warner (say that five times fast). But this is just the beginning of her hero’s journey. Yes, she follows a man to Harvard, but still, she gets into Harvard.
And there’s another way of looking at that: she gets into Harvard out of spite. Someone told her she was too stupid to achieve something. Nevertheless, she persisted.
When she does pull up at Harvard Yard, she sports one of the most iconic costumes to ever grace the silver screen. Sporty pink jacket and skirt, tinted shades, Bruiser under the arm, and a look of great wonderment spread across her face. And here is where Legally Blonde differentiates itself from other films.
Woods cares about her appearance. She wears make-up and dresses and loves the colour pink. In other films this is a marker of bad womanhood – think Dolores Umbridge and Sharpay Evans.
A lesser film would have Woods put aside her girliness when she becomes serious. Or else they would have had the character start out a slob and thrust a makeover upon her.
The makeover scene is so overdone its cliché, but there’s a reason for its ubiquity. It gets our female heroes to a point of conventional attractiveness, without the sin of shallowness.
You’ve seen it: the tomboyish (but fucking gorgeous) girl just doesn’t care about her looks. She’s got substance, thank you very much (because, as we know, looks and substance are mutually exclusive). Her friend (slash quirky gay hairdresser, slash royal grandmother) forces her to don some contact lenses, straighten her hair, and pull up some pantyhose. Suddenly she’s pretty without caring about being pretty. Boy, being a woman is hard.
Legally Blonde doesn’t go for any of that mess.
And the [SPOILERY] icing on the pretty pink cake? It’s Woods’ femininity that wins her the day: her client is exonerated case thanks to Woods' knowledge of the cardinal rules of perm maintenance – something the fuddy-duddy men wouldn’t have figured out with a million law books.
Legally Blonde remains a revolutionary work, and there should be more like it. As Witherspoon herself recently noted: what, like it’s hard?Support Villainesse