Why LEGALLY BLONDE Was An Impressive Feminist Film For 2001

When I was seven years old, one of my best friends told me about a movie called Legally Blonde. “I think you would really like it,” she excitedly announced to me after school one day. “The main character is a girly girl who’s also really smart. She wins a big case because of something she knows about hair.”

That was about 14 years ago. Like most 20-somethings, I have begun the nostalgic backtrack into my childhood days – the simpler times when my greatest concern was returning a film to Blockbuster on time. As part of this ongoing endeavor, I recently re-watched Legally Blonde, remembering the joy it had once given me (though I had not known precisely why at the time).

Unsurprisingly, I still think Elle Woods is a superstar. I stand by the seven year old inside of me who giddily watched Reese Witherspoon‘s character become a powerful lawyer. After re-watching this film, I realized that oddly enough, Legally Blonde was my first glimpse at feminist cinema.

The Evolution of Elle Woods

Initially, Elle’s motivation to attend Harvard Law is to win back her ex-boyfriend. Not exactly a feminist narrative, but things begin to change once she discovers a true passion for law.
If you’ve seen Legally Blonde, you probably remember Elle’s admissions video to Harvard, which features the young beauty a sparkly bikini, floating in a swimming pool and talking about her leadership and decision-making skills when it comes to important things like planning sorority mixers and deciding which brand of toilet paper to order.

Why LEGALLY BLONDE Was An Impressive Feminist Film For 2001
source: MGM

The Harvard Admissions board (a.k.a. a group of aging white men) accepts her application almost immediately, citing the University’s need to “diversify its student body” in this comically literal depiction of the male gaze. But I think this scene shows less about the ridiculous people who decides Elle’s future, and more about Elle herself. She is a smart individual who knows she will be objectified, so she figures, why not use it to her advantage?

Elle brings to mind the character Erin Brockovich, who works her way up the ladder in a small-town business, using her charisma and sex appeal to win over the hearts of key people and clients. Like Erin Brockovich, Elle’s skill and drive to learn ultimately win her success in her field. Both Erin and Elle are daring enough to acquire the business skills they need, in order to achieve greatness. If this isn’t an act of feminist rebellion, I’m not sure what is.

Feminism Was Not Exactly Cool In The Early 2000s

During the early 2000s, Hollywood was stuck on romantic comedies like The Wedding Planner and raunchy series like American Pie and  Scary Movie. It wasn’t the best time for feminism, to say the least. Actually, for feminists, the early 2000s were a little like the dark ages, when it seemed that Americans were regaining favor for more “traditional” gender roles (i.e. men as the breadwinners).
Perhaps this cultural phenomenon was reflective of the nation’s gender wage gap, which had been narrowing between the 1970s and 1990’s but began to slow down significantly in 2001. Keep in mind, this was a time when Paris Hilton was a “hot” new socialite and brands like Abercrombie & Fitch were in style. Los Angeles was still the land of dreams, where girls were like drugs or fast cars – a commodity.

Granted, not much has changed about LA culture, except that today, the American public is significantly less accepting of its blatant misogyny. In fact, artists and feminists publicly abhor the objectification of women. But in 2001, Hollywood big-wigs were busy producing hyped-up films like Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring.

Why LEGALLY BLONDE Was An Impressive Feminist Film For 2001
source: MGM

There weren’t many roles given to powerful leading women in mainstream film, yet somehow, Legally Blonde was ranked #22 in US Top Grossing Films of 2001. I think that women were excited to see a female in a role that required more than wearing a size zero swim suit.

Elle and Emmett’s Relationship

Back to the actual film: when Elle first arrives at Harvard Law, she meets a charming, subdued young man named Emmett (played by Luke Wilson). Initially, Emmett helps Elle navigate her courses and impress her professors. But Emmett is a supporting character and stays true to that role. He wants to see Elle succeed without attempting to change her in any way. Plus, Elle returns the favor five-fold when she helps Emmett and his boss on a major legal case.

I like that Elle and Emmett’s romance is kept as a subplot, if that. We don’t even find out they’ve begun dating until the very end of the film. Legally Blonde could have easily become another cheesy romantic comedy where the ambitious career woman discovers all she needs is to fall in love with a mansplaining prince.

But Emmett is no such prince and is kept mostly out of the picture until Legally Blonde 2. He remains Elle’s cheerleader throughout the first film. For example, after Elle stated that she was “done trying to be someone who [she] is not,” his response was, “Maybe you’re trying to be someone who you are.”

The Privilege Problem In Legally Blonde

Admittedly I am able to analyze this film as a young white woman who, until the age of ten, lived in a sheltered, middle class household. I loved pink and played with Barbies. I found it easy to relate to Reese Witherspoon‘s character because she was, like my friend said, a “girly girl” like me. Plus, Elle attended Harvard, which was one of two colleges I already had on my mind as a seven year old, thanks to growing up in an ivy league-obsessed environment.

Why LEGALLY BLONDE Was An Impressive Feminist Film For 2001
source: MGM

But, there are problems with this movie that are reflective of greater issues of ’90s and early 2000s feminism. Legally Blonde depicts a woman who can afford to spend her parents’ money on law school and whose biggest conflict, until she left Southern California, was her boyfriend dumping her. If you can’t relate to her story, odds are you are not in the minority.

Unfortunately, third wave feminism, specifically the Riot Grrrl movement, was spearheaded by women who were “young, white, suburban and middle class.” The movement frequently left out women of color, trans women, disabled women, etc, meaning that intersectionality was not yet on the table.

Legally Blonde is, on one hand, a product of early 2000s America and its fixation on gender binaries and shallow thinking. But, believe it or not, this film pushed boundaries for the time with a narrative that placed women’s education and careers above the need for romance. Additionally, Legally Blonde questioned women’s place as primarily sexual creatures, allowing a stereotypically “feminine” and attractive woman to flaunt her girlishness while kicking ass in court.

Did you like Legally Blonde when it first came out? Let us know in the comments!

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