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The Hollywood Insider Legally Blonde Reese Witherspoon Elle Woods

Women constantly face the stigma of having their looks and personalities used to determine their capabilities. A girl’s life choices should be up to her, not the biases and demands of those around her. In a time where phrases like, “girl boss” and, “good for her” movies have become entwined in our cultural lexicon, ‘Legally Blonde’, a film released back in 2001, remains a beloved classic of female empowerment. ‘Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is surrounded by people who don’t take her at all seriously and instead perceive her as a beautiful, dumb, blonde. Conversely, Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair), Elle’s brunette and less blatantly feminine classmate is viewed as smart, respectable, and less attractive. Through these characters, the film emphasizes the absurdity of allowing a woman’s appearance to dictate our perception of her intelligence and value.

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Beauty is a double-edged sword for women. Yes, Elle is extremely feminine, but femininity doesn’t equate to stupidity. Women are also expected to act in the way that Elle does to be seen as desirable, but they are also looked down upon because of their femininity. If a woman doesn’t use makeup and wears more traditional comfortable clothing, she’s seen as slovenly or masculine. Societal standards force women to struggle to fit into the small gray area between too much and too little femininity. Elle just so happens to be extremely feminine and fashionable, which unfortunately works against her in many settings. 

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Girls Should Be What They Want To Be And Not What People Expect Them To Be

The inciting incident of the film comes when Warner (Matthew Davis), Elle’s wealthy and egotistical boyfriend, breaks up with her because he doesn’t see her as sophisticated enough. He explains, “I need a Jackie, not a Marilyn”, meaning that Elle is a great piece of eye candy, but not elegant enough to add to his respectability. There’s a popular saying that “Behind every great man is a great woman”, and Warner believes that to cultivate the image of a great man, he needs the woman behind him to appear intellectual at a glance. Elle believes she can be this type of woman, and is determined to prove it by attending the same program as Warner: Harvard Law. But, as her journey throughout the film progresses, Elle is forced to question whether she even wants to stand behind a man at all. 

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When Elle announces that she wants to attend Harvard Law, no one believes in her. Even her mother accuses Elle of throwing away her beauty-based talents to pursue law. Her father joins in by saying, “Sweetheart, you don’t need law school. Law school is for people who are boring and ugly and serious. And you, Button, are none of those things”. Her parents believe that, because their daughter is so glamorous and feminine, she can’t handle the law. They expect Elle to build off her major in fashion marketing, a field that is socially acceptable for her to go into, compared to law, a subject she was never encouraged to pursue. But everyone starts somewhere, and Elle’s starting point is not invalid just because it comes as a surprise. This plot point reminds us that the gendered perceptions of many fields can force people who were always pushed away from them to put in extra effort to have a chance at catching up with those who were not. Furthermore, the film asks the audience, why can’t a girl be passionate about both fashion and law

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Elle demonstrates serious dedication to making it into Harvard, skipping frat and sorority events to study. When she takes the LSAT exam, Elle scores 179, out of a possible 180. This alone shows that her brain and potential more than match her ambition. Yet, once she makes it into Harvard, no one there takes her seriously either. Compared to the conventional students there, she’s a sparkly, pink, outlier. As soon as she arrives, a college boy derisively quips, “Hey, Brad, check out Malibu Barbie”. The Barbie comment is the first of numerous examples of her peers seeing her as a joke. Even though she worked hard to get in, and likely harder than those who spent years being groomed for a future in Harvard Law, the other students see a type of girl they have been conditioned to disrespect. 

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Blonde Vs Brunette

Within her first day of classes, Elle finds a rival in Vivian Kensington. Kensington is initially framed as the polar opposite of Elle: boring, unattractive, serious, and cold-hearted. The battle between blonde and brunette is set into motion. But, despite the stereotypes, girls constantly hear, hair color does not dictate whether someone is ugly, pretty, smart, or dumb. The movie initially plays into societal stereotypes, showing that, at a surface level, girls’ looks are allowed to define who they are, only to then emphasize how ridiculous and false these perceptions are. 

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Women being pitted against each other over superficial physical traits is a useless feud that only exists to make some people feel better about themselves at the expense of others. The film challenges our first impressions by showing that the depth in both Elle and Vivian’s characters goes far beyond their natural hair colors. 

Lawyers, Not Maids

While Elle and Vivian are rivals when they first encounter each other, the audience is quickly shown that the real enemy facing both women is a culture of misogyny. When Professor Callahan, a man of high prestige within the institution, takes on interns, Elle and Vivian are selected. However, Callahan’s treatment of the girls is appalling in comparison to his treatment of male students, as shown through his favoritism towards Warner, his male intern. In a moment of bonding over their shared problems, Vivian asks Elle, “Did you ever notice how Callahan never asks Warner to get him his coffee? I mean, he’s asked me like ten times”. Whether it’s subconscious or intentional, Callahan treats the girls as if they are there for tasks that are too menial for boys. Warner naturally attains full respect from Callahan, and from any other men in the room, while receiving the full educational experience. Only the girls question the fact that they get blatantly inferior treatment while attending such an expensive and laborious university. 

In recent years, it has become more common for women to share stories of workplace sexual harassment and abuse, and how they are often forced to endure it or lose their careers. The film touches on the systemic abuses that women constantly face when a Harvard authority figure flirts with Elle and makes a pass at her. When Elle gets up to leave, he tells her that, “I thought you were a law student who wanted to be a lawyer”. After not being taken seriously because of her looks, Elle is told that the way to prove she is serious about her career is to use those same looks to please a powerful man. He’s her educator, but he doesn’t respect her enough to treat her like a student. Overall, despite both being excellent law students, Elle and Vivian are pitted against each other and treated as inferior to their male associates. 

Life’s What You Make It 

Legally Blonde’ is an amazing film because it breaks stereotypes and shows how capable women can be when they’re able to pursue their goals, whether or not those goals align with how society tells them to act. This movie might seem like just a chick flick, but it’s empowering because of its strong female lead and her ambition. It’s a film that manages to be fun and heartwarming, while also addressing serious issues that women face and the stereotypes that they must battle. Reese, Selma, and the rest of the cast give excellent performances, with Witherspoon pouring her full comedic talent into every scene, supplying the necessary fuel to propel this film to the status of an instant classic.

Even with all the judgment and teasing, Elle never lets others pressure her into giving up her femininity, changing her hair, or hiding her true personality. Instead, she discovers a new passion, develops impressive skills, and puts everyone to shame for believing in stereotypes like the “ditzy blonde”. The world is full of different types of women, and none of them should be bound to a lifestyle based on how they look. While the film clearly understands that coming from an affluent background significantly contributes to Elle getting the opportunity to prove herself in such a big way, its larger messages of feminine empowerment and unity can resonate with anyone. So, as Elle so well put it, “You must always have faith in people. And more importantly, you must always have faith in yourself”. 

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blaire

Director: Robert Luketic | Producer: Ric Kidney

Writers: Amanda Brown (novel), Karen McCullah (screenplay), Kirsten Smith (screenplay)

Music: Rolfe Kent | Cinematography: Anthony B. | Edited: Anita Brandt

By Veronica Waddell 

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