Elle Woods’s world may be an idealistic one, but that’s no reason we can’t live in it.
“Don’t be scared. Everyone will love you.”
This is the advice Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) gives her pet Chihuahua, Bruiser Woods, as the two of them arrive at Harvard ready to tackle law school. Already, mere moments into Elle’s arrival, the confidence seems rash; the surrounding students are staring at Elle while she struts into school in her trademark pink clothes, Bruiser in her arms. But Elle speaks with utter sureness, the way she almost always does.
The constant conflict between Elle and her surroundings is at the heart of Legally Blonde, the 2001 pop comedy classic about a sorority sister who goes to law school to win back the love of her life. She walks into her new life with confidence that seems (and perhaps is) unearned and idealistic, and when, sure enough, she doesn’t fit in, she determines to prove her new peers wrong and show them what she’s made of.
Elle’s sureness in herself is difficult to read: Is it really that she knows she has what it takes to handle the challenges that come her way? Or is it just that she’s assuming this because not too many major challenges have come her way thus far?
Because Elle is privileged, there’s no doubt about it. The prejudices and adversities she faces are not quite like the adversities faced by many other groups of people. Elle’s family is wealthy, and when she decides she wants to go to law school, her parents do object — her father tells her that law school is for people who are “boring and ugly and serious,” and that Elle is “none of those things” — but this feels less like a real external obstacle, and more like a handy projection of Elle’s own insecurities. There’s no discussion of whether or how Elle can afford to go to law school, because it’s assumed that her parents will indeed finance her if she gets in. When she gets accepted, that’s that — no further discussion, no arguments. Cut to Harvard.
This is one of the key questions at the heart of Legally Blonde — can something many see as a privilege also be a roadblock? Or maybe a better question is, what truly constitutes a privilege and how can we shift our understanding of that criteria?
On paper, it’s perhaps hard at first glance to feel sympathetic toward Elle — who basically has it all, yet complains about people not taking her seriously because she’s too blonde or too pretty. But Reese Witherspoon brings an energy and charm that make Elle impossible not to like — which is good, because that lack of sympathy plays into a broader and even more telling mindset about women and gender equality. It’s the mindset of, “Why can’t you just be happy with what you have?” Elle demands fair treatment by her peers and professors, and by the world at large, and she refuses to be content until she gets it.
Elle’s idealism is maybe her crowning trait, but she’s also guided by intelligence, compassion and (of course) a good sense of style. Using and honing all of these traits is how she makes her idealism her reality, in a way that seems almost supernaturally possible only because she is the person she is. She doesn’t make blonde girls seem stupid; she makes the rest of the world seem stupid for judging them.
Even though it’s coming up on 20 years old, Legally Blonde pays tribute to many of the social and material trends that we hold dear today. While you might be unlikely to see one of Elle’s furry, bedazzled pink outfits walking around the street (the sight brings to mind Sharpay from High School Musical 2), Elle is a classic proponent of self-care, reliably turning to beauty salons for conversation and camaraderie whenever she’s upset. She supports her friends, and they support her in return. The film is careful about not pitting women against other women; even Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair), Elle’s rival for the affections of her ex-boyfriend, is an enemy less because they’re competing for a boy and more because of the judgment she casts on Elle from the start. When Elle and Vivian finally start coming together as friends, it’s over their shared experiences as women, like their frustrations with their professor not taking them seriously.
In her graduation speech at the end of the film, Elle speaks to the importance of passion and a strong sense of self. The more the world shifts to make room for the goals and dreams of women, even the ones that seem “unreasonable” at first, the more we are equipped to recognize these assets where we see them. Legally Blonde takes care to show that there are plenty of successful and admirable women who don’t look like Elle or approach life the way she does, from her classmates at Harvard to the established lawyers and judges she encounters in the courtroom. But Elle Woods is still a role model for the ages, in the way that she creates space for herself wherever she goes, supports her friends and fellow women and stands out in every room she’s in. Elle Woods’s world may be an idealistic one, but that’s no reason we can’t live in it.