Legally Blonde: Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods

Legally Blonde at 20: Reese Witherspoon’s iconic film is far from perfect, but you’d be surprised how well it holds up now

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Whoever said orange was the new pink was seriously disturbed – and ditto goes to anyone who thinks Reese Witherspoon’s Legally Blonde doesn’t hold up in 2021, quite frankly.

If I was ever to have a ‘peak’ in life, it probably happened three years ago when I walked into an interview with Reese Witherspoon and handed her my university dissertation. 

The actor was sat next to Oprah and Mindy Kaling for the promotional run of their film A Wrinkle In Time as I lent over and gifted her a (scented) wad of papers containing 15,000 words about Legally Blonde and its unlikely enduring impact as a feminist masterpiece. And, within a day, the short clip had gone viral on Twitter, forever giving me an association with my favourite film (not to mention a cracking party story). 

I’m not alone in my adoration for the pink-hued masterpiece. Sure, not every fan will have penned a thesis on it, but in the 20 (TWENTY!) years since it was released, it’s continued to exist as a hallowed text on self-discovery and self-love.

For anyone who may be unfamiliar, Legally Blonde follows Witherspoon’s Elle Woods as she enrols at Harvard Law School to win back ex-boyfriend (Matthew Davis) from his new love, Vivian (Selma Blair). 

It’s not long, though, before Elle realises that her dreams, however unanticipated they might be, are more important than pursuing a man who doesn’t see her merits – all while donning her signature colour, pink.

It’s this femininity that’s truly the core of Legally Blonde, as Elle is a sorority girl with bleach blonde hair and an enviable wardrobe of designer clothes. 

At first, it’s an aspect of her character that’s initially played for laughs, as we sit and expect to be led down the same cheap path plenty of films have taken us down before. However, femininity actually proves itself to be Elle’s greatest strength, and arguably the hero of the piece. 

In moments where she feels the need to dull herself to fit in at Harvard, she falters. When she is her truest self, surrounded by like-minded women who appreciate her, she not only thrives, but conquers (winning a trial on the basis of perm care knowledge remains, to this day, iconic). 

On screen we frustratingly continue to see women who are portrayed as ‘strong’ standing alone, or almost exclusively in the company of men. Think about it; how often have we resigned ourselves to only seeing one badass woman in a team? And likely one who openly sneers at the idea of ‘not being like other girls,’ at that? 

It’s a trope that benefits no one, as we all know women are not a monolith. Which is why it’s so refreshing that, in Legally Blonde, the female space is one of sanctuary and solidarity. The sorority house is where Elle passes her LSATs, and the nail salon is where she truly learns she has what it takes to be a successful lawyer. And it’s this celebration of sisterhood and femininity that still feels novel, even some two decades after its release. 

While it has largely stood the test of time, Legally Blonde is not a perfect film. Far from it, actually, as we are following an extremely privileged white woman whose only barrier to exclusive spaces is whether or not she can pass a test.

It’s extremely white, with almost no speaking characters of colour, and conversations around sexuality, though not cruel, are stereotypical at best. But it’s remarkable just how many of its progressive themes hold up today – especially when we consider some of its contemporaries (Shallow Hal, anyone?). 

Reese Witherspoon acts in a scene from Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Pictures'' comedy "Legally Blonde.",(Photo by Tracy Bennett/MGM Pictures)
Legally Blonde is far from perfect, but you’d be surprised how well it holds up now

Over the last two decades, we’ve faced countless public reckonings around misogyny and harassment. Currently we are watching Britney Spears’ battle against her conservatorship expose historic failures in our treatment of young women, while the #MeToo movement continues to shed light on systemic abuse at the hands of powerful men. 

These are themes touched upon in Legally Blonde, both through the perception of Elle by her peers and in the relationship between her and Professor Callahan. Her eventual love interest, Emmett (Luke Wilson), shows how impactful it can be to simply believe women when they tell you they have faced harassment. And, in an outcome that we know is unfortunately all too rare in real life, Callahan is punished for his actions. 

For a light comedy, weighty themes are handled with a grace and delicacy that, in different hands, could have gladly been lost to the sands of time. 

20 years on, we’re still able to find more to say about Legally Blonde, which just goes to show just how much cultural impact it continues to have – so much so that a third Legally Blonde film is slated for release next year. 

This time, Mindy Kaling is penning the film, writing Elle as she might be some 20 years on from where we first met her. And, while fashion and trends may have moved on (and dated jokes fallen by the wayside), I have no doubt that the enduring ethos of Legally Blonde will hold strong. 

Because, as Elle herself states, having faith in people and in yourself, will never go out of style. 

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