Life

Why Elle Woods is a true feminist icon

Posted by
Hannah-Rose Yee
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Reese Witherspoon’s Legally Blonde character is one for the history books: a smart, driven woman who never sacrifices her femininity in pursuit of career goals. Here, we share the life lessons that she taught us. 

When Legally Blonde was released I was 10 years old and my favourite movie was Snow White.

A feminist masterpiece Snow White isn’t. She’s an archetypal damsel in distress who spends most of her story in a coma waiting for a complete stranger to kiss her back to life. Before that, she performs an enormous amount of emotional and physical labour for a house of seven men who work all day while she keeps the home fires burning. It’s not exactly bell hooks, is it?

And then Legally Blonde came along at exactly the right age that a girl needs Legally Blonde to come along, when you’re 10 and thinking about what your life might look like when you’re grown up. What would you rather, to be valued purely on the notion of being the “fairest in the land” and married off immediately to the first eligible prince who stumbled into your secluded wood, or to go to Harvard Law School, smash gender stereotypes and win a headline-grabbing case, all before you finish your first year of study? 

Honestly, at 10, I was probably drawn less to the idea of Elle Woods as a trailblazing feminist figure than to her wardrobe of bright pink outfits and the movie’s hilarious physical comedy. (I remember being obsessed with the very concept of the ‘Bend and Snap’.) But in the 18 years since the movie was released and as it has matured from infancy into a fully grown adult, I have come to realise that the first, and maybe best, feminist movie I ever saw was Legally Blonde.

But let’s back the truck up for a second. You’ve probably seen the movie more times than Elle Woods saw Cameron Diaz in Fred Segal trying on a truly heinous angora sweater, but in case you haven’t absorbed the plot into your bloodstream as I have, here’s the synopsis.

Sorority sister Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is dumped by her good-for-nothing, snobby boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis). Desperate to win him back she gets herself into Harvard, excels in all her courses, stuns student body and faculty alike, solves a murder case and singlehandedly reverses the stereotype of the dumb blonde through her sheer tenacity, perseverance and wit. 

Her love of Warner soon fades, replaced instead by a passion and drive for her new vocation, a vocation that she happens to be really, really good at. Did we mention that she wins a murder case? And that she does so because, not in spite of, her in-depth knowledge of the finite rules of hair care? 

Elle Woods is a great lawyer and a feminist role model

Sure, Elle’s impetus for all this is the desire to follow Warner to the ends of the earth (Boston) and “steal the bastard back”. But who among us hasn’t done something stupid for the sake of a man? The point is not that Elle follows Warner to Harvard, but rather that, once there, she makes it her own. It might be Warner who kickstarts her personal growth, but it sure as hell isn’t Warner who drives it. That is pure Elle, as is her strength, grit and determination.

Throughout Legally Blonde, Elle is continually underestimated by all who encounter her and she behaves with the confidence and self-assuredness of someone who has been belittled her whole life.Her sorority sisters, though supportive of her desire to Harvard, don’t understand where it’s coming from. Vivian (Selma Blair) thinks that she is a dumb blonde. Warner dismisses her as not “serious” enough to be a suitable life partner, courtesy of her love of fashion and beauty.

Elle is none of those things. Her femininity is never sacrificed in the pursuit of power or success. And her love of fashion magazines, celebrity culture and the colour pink is never portrayed as stupid or silly. Instead, its shown as being an integral part of her personality and the kind of thing that doesn’t hold her back but makes her good at what she does. 

But the film’s most important lesson isn’t the power of sisterhood or the crushing of stereotypes or the importance of finding yourself. It’s in the way that Elle handles being sexually harassed by her teacher Professor Callahan (Victor Garber).

Throughout the movie, Callahan has been one of Elle’s early supporters. He handpicks her to serve as an intern on his big murder case, which initially serves as a confidence booster for Elle who worked so hard to secure the position. But once there, she discovers that Callahan intends to have his female interns spend their days fetching coffee. Then, Callahan invites her into his office and attempts to sexually harass her. 

Elle Woods kills it in the courtroom

Elle reels back, calling Callahan a “pathetic asshole” and immediately storms out of his office. But in the aftermath of the incident, she finds herself questioning her position both in the internship and at Harvard. Her self confidence is crushed. She’s no longer the Elle that believes in herself, even when everyone is telling her (gaslighting her, even) that she’s not good enough. Elle decides to drop out of Harvard, much to the consternation of her friend Emmett (Luke Wilson).

“Callahan only gave me that internship because he liked the way I looked,” Elle says. “Which he made clear tonight when he tried to feel me up… I’m going back to LA. No more boring suits, no more pantyhose. No more trying to be something that I’m not.”

“What if you’re trying to be somebody you are?” Emmett replies.

That, plus a run in with Professor Stromwell (Holland Taylor) at the hair salon, helps restore Elle’s badly shaken confidence, and she goes on to snatch Callahan’s job away from him, successfully defending Brooke Wyndham (Ali Larter) on a murder charge.

Elle Woods taught us so much

Elle gets her comeback narrative, but it doesn’t take away the incredibly prescient #MeToo narrative in Legally Blonde, nor its hidden feminist manifesto. How many capable women whose confidence and self belief were shaken by sexual harassment in the workforce quit their jobs because of their experiences? How many women weren’t able to progress in their careers because they  spoke out against injustices? Elle Woods’ story gets a shiny, Hollywood happy ending, but many women just like her don’t.

The inclusion of this storyline in Legally Blonde takes it from fist-pumping flick to empowering feminist manifesto. Its politics are so progressive and its message so powerful that it can rise gloriously above any of its shortcomings, namely, the initial Warner obsession, and also the fact that there’s not a single person of colour in a main or supporting role in this movie. Badly done, Elle.

Legally Blonde isn’t a perfect movie. But it is a film that manages to skewer the patriarchy, dismantle negative stereotypes, empower female friendships and never reduce its female heroine to the role of romantic lead.

It does all that, and Legally Blonde is also funny, smart and stylish, too. “What, like it’s hard?” as Elle would have said. 

Images: Rex, Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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