Updated: Apr 20, 2021
When Legally Blonde came out twenty years ago, it became a fan favorite. People quickly fell in love with the bubbly and driven Elle Woods. Her character was automatically deemed a feminist icon with fans citing her ability to challenge stereotypes, enter a male-dominated field, and inspire young women to reach for their goals. The problem? At the start of the film, Elle’s biggest goal is to go after a man. Fortunately, through law school, she discovers her true path is to be a passionate and caring lawyer who uses her extensive knowledge to help others. The inconsistency in the film’s approaches to important societal topics does not end there, it illustrates ridiculous stereotypes of women and the LGBTQ+ community, neglect in reporting sexual harassment, and some not-so-empowering moments that should not have made the final edit.
Legally Blonde came out in 2001 becoming a beloved chick flick to young audiences following the story of the fashionable Elle Woods who fresh off a breakup with her boyfriend, Warner decides she wants to follow him to Harvard Law School. When she is there she not only learns the power of ambition and drive but learns there is more to life than good looks. This film is directed by Robert Luketic and features actors and actresses like Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods, Selma Blair as Vivian Kensington, and Luke Wilson as Emmett.
At its center Legally Blonde is a phenomenal film, I remember watching it in middle school surrounded by my best friends at a late-night sleepover, and constantly quoting Elle’s iconic line “what like it’s hard” at least once a week.
Here’s what the movie does well:
Kindness from a Fellow Student: When Elle first arrives at Harvard, she is met as a berate of judgment based on her looks, not because she is ugly, but because she is beautiful and surely must be at the wrong school. But, Emmett is one of the first people to show her some kindness after she was kicked out of class. During their first encounter he tells her how to be successful in her other classes, and eventually randomly appears in her life as a loving figure of support for her. The representation of at least one person who doesn’t judge Elle on surface level is iconic and contributes to the overall success of the film.
Resilience to Change: One of the biggest reasons this film rose to popularity at release and that many people continue to watch it on repeat is because of Elle’s resilience to being unapologetically herself. Elle goes through a lot during her time at Harvard, constant harassment, bullying, cat-calling, and rudeness, and despite all this, she doesn’t change a bit.
Going After Goals: Throughout the film, the biggest and only that Elle changes is that she shifts her reasoning for attending college. She starts her journey going to college to follow Warner, then to wanting to prove Warner wrong, and then to finally doing it for herself. In each step, Elle proves herself to be driven and successful, but once she realizes that this is what she truly wants for herself, she’s unstoppable. Elle is a great representation of a woman pushing for her goals and being rewarded for her exceptionally hard work.
This film may be iconic and trending on Netflix right now, but it does have a few mildly problematic moments that snuck under the rug into the film in the early 2000s.
Here's what the movie does badly:
The Stalking: Before Warner goes to law school, Elle attends a dinner, fully expecting to be proposed to, but when she rather gets broken up with she falls apart, eating chocolates, and watching movies all day, but this isn’t the issue. Elle then decides to go to Harvard Law, following her ex-boyfriend there in a desperate attempt to win him back. Her friends, rather than stopping her, congratulate her ambition to win him back and push her to follow him there. The overall intentions may have been innocent, and are ironically ignored at a law school, but it sends a troublesome message to young women.
The Bikini: Elle’s tiny pink bikini appears multiple times within the film, which is a phenomenal example of a woman being confident in her body, but each time she is presented wearing that bikini, Elle is quickly objectified. First by the Harvard Law School admissions staff who leave the video of her on-screen while deciding whether or not she will be admitted, and next by a group of men playing football who whistle and stop their playing to watch in awe of her.
The Bend and Snap: Now I have to preface this by saying that as a middle schooler, I did this musical, and doing the bend and snap provided me and the rest of the cast tremendous amounts of confidence. But, upon further analysis, I realized it wasn’t as innocent of a gesture as I thought it was when I performed it. The entire Bend and Snap display is done to emphasize a woman’s body, especially their bottom and breasts, to catch the eye of a man. The use of the Bend and Snap within the film further perpetuates the idea of women as objects, as it reappears throughout the film.
As an adult, this beloved film has moments that make me cringe in disgust and groan in frustration. It is important to note that this film came out well before its time, but shouldn’t just get a gold star for featuring a feminine woman in a male-dominated field.
Stereotyping: This is a difficult topic to delve into when it comes to this film, as the emphasized use of stereotypes works as one of the main comedic aspects of the film, but here are the issues I had with it:
-Women: Stereotypes for women are used extensively throughout this film, Elle is obviously created to be the perfect encapsulation of every female stereotype; dumb blonde, sorority girl, extremely feminine, crazy, and they're even a scene showing Elle as a bad driver. All of these stereotypes piled into Elle make her rise to the top even more endearing. But, by promoting the stereotyping of women throughout the film, they are highlighting the disparities between men and women within the professional environment and the overall use is questionable.
-The LGBTQ+ Community: Perhaps one of the most problematic scenes of the film is when Elle, after having an encounter with Enrique, a member of Brooke’s pool staff, assumes that he is gay. During the conversation, Enrique mentions Elle’s “last season Prada shoes, ” and with that comment, Elle “realizes” that Enrique is gay. She bases this on his knowledge of shoes and even runs inside to ask Warner if he knows what shoes she’s wearing to prove her point. This entire scene serves to further bolster the definition of a stereotypical gay man as flamboyant with a love of fashion and beauty, when in reality that is not the case.
Sexual Harassment: The first time I watched this film as an adult my jaw hit the floor. As a young adult, I had completely neglected the fact that Callahan, a professor and important figure in Elle’s life had sexually harassed her. The scene where Callahan, is alone with Elle and put’s his hand on her thigh, and flirts with her makes my stomach drop every time. Elle does everything right, quickly realizing what is going on, and removing herself from the situation, but everything beyond that point, though is meaningful, does nothing to protect Elle or future law students from being harassed as well. The moments following this scene would have been the perfect moment to educate viewers on the ability and necessity of reporting when these events happen, and not addressing the issue or Callahan beyond that point is problematic.
After twenty years, it is easy to critique this film's issues without noting how much things have changed since its release; Women's Marches, the rise of the #MeToo movement, and the first female vice president, speaker of the house, and presidential nomination. But despite the changes in our world, Legally Blonde is a great film that gives women a wonderful example of a strong woman proving the importance of being unapologetically yourself and going after your goals with pride. But there are a few unfortunate aspects that can’t be ignored including; the unfair representation of the LGBTQ+ community, the handling of sexual harassment, and the excessive use of stereotypes.