Hands up if it was your introduction to feminist cinema?
Try and sum up the plot of Legally Blonde, just try.
It defies any easy description, right? Sorority sister Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is dumped by her good-for-nothing, snobby boyfriend, so out of sheer spite she gets herself into Harvard, excels in all her courses, stuns student body and faculty alike, solves a murder case, lands a super cute, super smart guy and becomes best friends with the ex fiancée of her ex boyfriend (after he graduates with no honours and no friends) to boot.
All that, and she singlehandedly reverses the stereotype of the dumb blonde through her sheer tenacity, perseverance and wit.
How many movies have you seen with that kind of sharp, dedication to tearing down misogynistic clichés? How many female characters have you seen onscreen that are as well drawn as Elle Woods? Not many, we’d hazard to guess. Which is what makes Legally Blonde so revolutionary, as set out in this viral tweet from @harleivy.
legally blonde remains a revolutionary movie. reese witherspoon getting into harvard out of SPITE & tearing down the dumb blonde stereotype with her bare hands? solving a murder case, then ending up bffs with her ex bfs fiancee after he graduates with no honors or friends? iconic pic.twitter.com/h5jewQX08O— gabi (@harleivy) August 11, 2018
Remember, this movie was released in 2001.
For many young women, Legally Blonde’s revolutionary story arc might have been their first introduction to feminist cinema. OK, so it starts with some less-than-feminist motivations, with Elle’s drive to attend Harvard fuelled by the desire to steal her boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) back.
But while throwing herself into her studies Elle discovers not only how driven she is towards achieving her goals but how passionately she feels about the law. And how good she is at it, too.
She never once sacrifices her femininity in pursuit of power or success. Her love of fashion magazines, celebrity culture and the colour pink is never portrayed as stupid or silly. Instead, it’s shown as being an integral part of her personality and she uses it to prove the innocence of her client Brooke Taylor Windham (Ali Larter).
What’s more, Legally Blonde never reduces Elle to the role of romantic lead. The film actively subverts all that nonsense by making both Elle and Vivian (Selma Blair) realise how misguided their obsession over a man is. These two smart, savvy women shouldn’t be fighting each other over a – let’s be honest – substandard boyfriend. They should ditch the loser and become best friends, instead.
The same praise can be heaped upon Emmett (Luke Wilson), the senior associate and teaching assistant to the predatory Professor Callahan, played by Victor Garber. (Rewatch Legally Blonde in this post-#MeToo age and you’ll see how that plotline takes on a whole new deeper significance.)
Emmett is a romantic interest for Elle, yes, and it’s true that by the end of Legally Blonde the pair have ended up together. But their romance is a subplot at best, with Emmett and Elle’s connection blossoming out of their shared love and aptitude for the law.
Emmett’s function in the film is not unlike Chris Pine’s in Wonder Woman: to gaze in complete awe of her at all times, as he should.
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 remind you that, as Cher put it so perfectly, a man is a luxury, not a necessity. Like dessert.
It does all that and Legally Blonde is also funny, smart and stylish, too. “What, like it’s hard?” as Elle would have said.