Monday, March 17, 2014

Feminism Is For Everyone - Even Girly Girls (Legally Blonde)

It was a bit of a shock this weekend when I realized that in the two and a half years I have been running this blog, and in all the years prior to that when I was writing for school newspapers or running my sad little livejournal blog that I hope has been deleted, I have never talked in depth about Legally Blonde. How? No, seriously. How?

Legally Blonde is one of those movies to which I give a lot of credit. I first saw it in middle school, at exactly the right age to get swept away by its girl power and feminism, and I fell madly in love. I also thought I wanted to be a lawyer, a thought that persisted well into grad school, but that's another thing. I love this movie. There isn't even really that much I object to about it. In fact, I will now raise my one objection to the film: It's very white.

There. Done. That's it, that's my problem with the movie. Tada!

Now let's talk about all the things I do like in this movie. Which are varied and plentiful. First, it's about a woman whose reaction to being dumped is to prove that she is smarter than him. Yes. Second, it's about a woman whose reaction to being dumped is to prove that she's smarter than him who goes on to not only prove that, but also solve a law case involving another woman and prove that girliness is not only not a bad thing in a professional setting, but can in fact save lives.

Third, it's about a woman who does all of this while being friends with women, learning from women, supporting and being supported by women, and whose only real antagonist is a man who doesn't believe in how awesome she is.

Fourth, the cast in this movie is awesome.

Fifth, she becomes best friends with her romantic rival and they both decide that the guy isn't worth it, dump him, and go skipping off to frolic in a field full of legal briefs and torts. Also she is genuinely a nice person.

So, to recap, Legally Blonde is about a young woman, Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), who, when dumped by her WASPy boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis) because she's not "serious enough", decides to prove him wrong by getting into Harvard Law School - where Warner and his new girlfriend Vivian (Selma Blair) are not at all coincidentally set to go - and showing him that she can be a serious lawyer lady too. 

Elle, with the complete and total support of her sorority, studies really hard, aces the LSATs, gets herself into Harvard, and discovers that Harvard is, well, hard. And full of really mean, judgmental people.

What does she do? Double down. She gets herself a manicure, she buys a laptop, and she decides something very important: she is valuable. She is important. And she is damn well going to show them that she can be a lawyer.

And then she does.

Elle gets the most coveted law internship in the school (with creepo Professor Callahan - Victor Garber), aces her classes, and even befriends most of the campus, including but not limited to: her classmates, her professors, the nice manicurist down the road, Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge), and Vivian, Warner's new girlfriend. Because Elle is a nice freaking person.

Oh, and once she's at her law internship, working on the murder trial as the defending council for Brooke Windham (Ali Larter), Elle continues to be a nice person. She doesn't give herself airs, or act stuck up, or even respond rudely to the rudeness people hit her with. She continues to be a class act. A class act who is convinced her client is innocent, and decides to prove it. She also gets sexually harassed by her professor/boss, runs away, and eventually ends up as lead council. Because she is nice and kind and a damn good lawyer.

And then she wins her case by knowing about proper hair maintenance.

Along the way, sure, there's a little bit of romance, where Elle eventually winds up dating Emmett (Luke Wilson), a third year law student and all around good guy, but that's not the point of the story. The point of the story is that Elle Woods, this beautiful blonde woman that everyone underestimates because she is, well, beautiful and blonde, turns out to be kind of amazing. Really kind of amazing.

This movie is one of the most feminist things I've ever seen in my life, and I am so okay with that. It's feminist because it's about a woman who realizes she doesn't need a man to be fulfilled, and because it's a love story where the woman is falling in love with the law and legal practice instead of a person. And it's feminist because she surrounds herself with wonderful, compelling women who support her and appreciate her support. But most of all, to me, it is feminist because it's about judgment based on appearances, and the idea that the way you look doesn't matter. What you do, does.

When Elle gets dumped in the first place, she's living a nice life at a state school in California. She's from a wealthy background, gets good grades, and seems to be on track to become yet another heiress fashion designer kind of person. I mean, as we later learn, if Elle Woods is going to be a fashion designer, then she's going to be the next Valentino in like a year, but still. She seems happy, but not particularly fulfilled. She's excited to be dating Warner, who is old Yankee blue blood, and she thinks he's going to propose. He doesn't. Instead, he dumps her because he has political aspirations, and he can't have a wife who looks like a bimbo.

Elle's response to this is understandably enraged, and at the same time, understanding. Warner needs a girlfriend who's serious? Okay, she can do serious.

So she goes off to law school, and the first couple of days there, it seems almost like she's LARPing "serious law student". She even has fake glasses. But that's not Elle. Not really. So when she decides to go hard, to really push and strive, she drops the fake geek stuff, and sticks with what she loves: pink, dresses, girliness, and that's fine. Good, even. Elle is being her authentic self.

All throughout this, though, Elle is being judged based on her appearance. Her classmates think that she's a fluke, only there because of a clerical error. Her professors, particularly Professor Callahan, think she slept her way into the school. And even her parents think that law school isn't for "pretty girls".

Elle, of course, proves them all wrong, but it's important to note how much of the movie is devoted to this. Is devoted to other people telling Elle that she can't do what she wants to do, because she's too pretty. Ugly people are smart. Pretty people are dumb. That's just the way the world works. Except for the part where it doesn't.

And here's the thing: Elle didn't ask to look like the ideal of hyper-feminine beauty. I mean, if you think about it, that's just the way she looks. It's completely incidental to her personality and to her aspirations as a person. 

It would be very easy to compare this story to one where a girl who doesn't fit the societal ideal of beauty tries to become a model, or something, but I think that would be a false equivalence. Elle isn't trying to change the standard of beauty, or conform to it, or really have anything to do with it at all. Rather, she's living her life, as herself, and constantly running up against value judgments and obstacles, because pretty people don't go to law school. And that sucks.

But the best part of this storyline, which is admittedly rather depressing, is that it doesn't suggest that Elle herself should change in order to shield herself from this criticism. It would be so easy to think, "Well, if she just put her hair in a ponytail, got a sweater and some jeans, and wasn't so ostentatious about it all the time, she wouldn't have this problem." So? So she should completely change herself and her appearance in order to fit a pre-prescribed idea of what law students look like, in order to avoid harassment? Um, hell no.

Thankfully, the movie doesn't do that. Instead, it shows us Elle doubling down both on her schoolwork and on herself. She doesn't become less Elle Woods, girly girl extraordinaire, she becomes more so. And that's great. Because Elle doesn't need to change. It's everyone else who has the problem.

Feminism as a movement has kind of a bad rap for wanting everyone to express their feminism in the same way. You know, the mental picture you get when you imagine a feminist - that's what some people assume all feminists are like, and that's what some feminists believe all feminists should be like. But that isn't true. Feminism isn't just for upper-middle class white women, but it's also not just for people who dislike shaving their legs and enjoy a hot pink dress every once in a while.

Feminism is a movement dedicated to the economic, political, and societal equality of men and women. Nothing more, nothing less. Elle Woods is a feminist, and so is Vivian. And so is Paulette, and so is Enid (Meredith Scott Lynn). Feminism is for everyone, no matter what they look like.


  1. I have yet to see this film, but from what I've been hearing of it, I really want to at some point :)
    And I agree- feminism is a very multi-layered movement- it contains all kinds of people with different kinds of viewpoints and interests, yet with the same goal in mind: equality for women :)

    1. It is a great movie - I think you'll really like it!

  2. I totally shot this movie down as garbage, even when one of my most vocal, brilliant and girly friends (my only male bridesmaid) told me it was the best thing ever. And then I got roped into watching it with my grandmother or something and OMG I LOVE IT. For all of the reasons you have described. Bonus round: I got to think about how perfectly I encapsulated all of the snobbery Elle endures in the movie prior to viewing it. GOLD STAR :)

    1. Your grandmother sounds awesome. And also, this movie so so awesome and I am so so glad you appreciate it. Yay!

      Bonus round: You got to understand the movie on a more mature and awesome level than the rest of us!

  3. I love this review because for every positive comment about a feminist character (Elle, Buffy, etc.) I hear someone else say a negative comment about them because of how they look.

    So many proclaimed feminists end up saying that this or that fictional character isn't a real feminist or inspiration or heroine because she is white or blonde or thin. That if the female in any way has privilege, even if it's in ways she can't help like genetics, that she isn't helping the cause. Which of course is ridiculous.

    I'm a multi-ethnic, bisexual, vegan, pagan woman and I have zero problem being inspired by and seeing the struggles faced by pretty white blondes. You can never tell by looking at someone what kind of life they have or what they've overcome. Their looks may make it easier for them in some ways but it also makes it harder in others.

    1. I love that this movie's main principle seems to be, "Be kind to everyone, because everyone matters." It's what I feel feminism *should* be. A belief that all people are equal and should be treated equally, but also that all people are valuable and should be treated with their value in mind.

      I have so many feelings about this.

  4. I have always enjoyed this film. Even while going through that awkward phase that most young feminists go through, where because you're desperately fighting to get out of the box where people have been labelling you with pink 'girly' things your whole life (which I still hate), you forget that those things aren't inherently bad. Just because something is stereotypically girly and doesn't fit me, doesn't mean it won't fit someone else.

    My group of friends and I had a movie night recently and after finishing 'American Psycho' there was a vote for 'Legally Blonde'. One of the guys moaned something like "But it's so piiiiink," and I responded that he might be surprised by it and "The pink ones are people too."

    I think that's why Legally Blonde survived my early-grumpy-feminist stage, and why I still don't mentally count it as a chick flick (a genre I also hate) along with a few others. Everything about the first five minutes of the film - the bubbly music, the squealing, the piiiiiiinkness - tells me I ought to hate what's coming... but I love it. It's *not* all about the romance, and Elle *is* an active character in her own story, and she *succeeds* not because she is 'special' due to her looks or anything else, but just because she tries hard and is a nice, respectful, caring person to everyone she meets. Her sense of style isn't her defining feature, but just a part of a deep, multi-faceted, likeable character.

    Surely that's the whole point of feminism. The pink ones are people too. Everyone is people too :)

    1. "The pink ones are people too." That's amazing. Can I borrow that? It sounds like a book title. An awesome book title.

  5. Feminism isn't for everyone, and this shit looks degrading to women.