To call Legally Blonde a feminist classic would be a vast understatement: 20 years since its release, the film remains even more popular now than it was then—which definitely says something, since Elle Woods and her ability to defy labels and expectations was a large box office success in 2001. Like other feminist classics of the third wave such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Alias,” or “Sex and the City,” Legally Blonde has managed to retain a beloved rewatchable quality, and for good reason. While it can be laughable to watch generations of young adults nostalgically gush over something truly terrible just because it came out when they were kids, Legally Blonde surely does not belong in that category for reasons that are clear upon even the most casual viewing of the seminally celebrated film: people, especially women, are vast and contain multitudes, and we should never underestimate them based on first impressions.

When we first meet Reese Witherspoon’s arguably most iconic character at her packed sorority house, we’re given to assume that by the color of her hair and the nature of her passions—her major is fashion merchandising—that her one true goal in life is landing a man. And even Elle Woods herself might have told you that in the beginning: all of her sorority sisters are wishing her good luck on a supposedly very special dinner date with her longtime boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis, long before he hunted vampires). But from the moment she goes out shopping with her best friends for the best engagement night look, we know there’s more to Elle than we’re supposed to believe. “It’s impossible to use a half-loop stitching on low-viscosity rayon, it would snag the fabric,” she confidently tells a salesgirl trying to take advantage of what she assumes is Daddy’s plastic. “And you didn’t just get it in—I saw it in the June Vogue a year ago. So if you’re trying to sell it to me for full price, you’ve picked the wrong girl.”

Elle remains devoted to becoming Warner’s fiancée longer than fully grown audience members would like. After he takes her out to an upscale dinner solely to dump her on the basis that she’s not serious or sophisticated enough to be a future senator’s wife, she decides that the only way to get the love of her life back is to apply to Harvard Law School — even after a stranger in a beauty salon embodies all of us referring to the type of woman Warner wants to marry as “practically deformed.” Once again, Elle’s inner confidence continues to rear its head when she dismisses the need for backup schools when advisors tell her Harvard won’t be impressed that she aced history of polka dots. But who wouldn’t be impressed? She’s comfortable using legal jargon in everyday life to object to catcalls, can recall important details at the drop of a hat about what happened on yesterday’s episode of “Days of Our Lives,” and grew up in Bel-Air across the street from Aaron Spelling—can’t we all agree that’s better than some stinky old Vanderbilt? Harvard, as it turns out, does agree and let’s her in, mostly based on the fact that she aced her LSAT with a score of 179; A perfect score is a 180, meaning that Elle placed in the 99th percentile.

Even after getting accepted, getting mocked by the clashing book-smart personalities of her peers and being royally humiliated multiple times by Warner’s new fiancée Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair), Elle’s sole purpose for attending law school remains to win back her ex-boyfriend’s affection. We can’t exactly blame her, either, since she grew up in a family that clearly taught her that her looks and charm were all she had to offer in life. “Oh, 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.” It’s only when Warner informs her that the chances of her getting picked for Professor Callahan’s (Victor Garber) internship are slim—because, well, “you’re not smart enough, sweetie”—that something finally clicks. What’s truly laughable is telling someone who got a near perfect score on the LSAT that she’s not smart enough, but being told that by a man to whom you’ve already dedicated too much of yourself is enough for Elle to prove them wrong—him, the world, herself. “I’ll show you how valuable Elle Woods can be,” as she stomps out of a not-costume party dressed as a Playboy bunny while Joanna Pacitti’s “Watch Me Shine” plays. The film’s soundtrack is not available on any North American music streaming services —is there a manager I can speak to?

Thereafter, Elle’s inner faith begins to grow, or perhaps it was always there and she’s no longer choking it down. She begins succeeding in her classes, helps her new friend Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) retrieve her dog from her sleazy ex, and is in fact picked for the internship at Callahan’s law firm. She begins aiding with the task of defending fitness magnate Brooke Windham (Ali Larter)—accused of murdering her millionaire husband—who recognizes Elle from one of her exercise classes and proclaims that “at least one of you has a brain.” With the help and support of fellow lawyer Emmett Richmond (Luke Wilson), she continues to earn Callahan’s trust and respect and even starts to make friends with Vivian, growing weary of Warner’s appeal—until the night Callahan tries to seduce her in an attempt to realize her dreams of becoming a “serious lawyer.”

Suddenly aware that Callahan, too, only sees her as a “piece of ass,” Elle decides to pack up and head back to California, no longer trying to be something she’s not. In the film’s most pivotal moment, Professor Stromwell (Holland Taylor)—who had initially kicked Elle out of their first class for being unprepared—reappears to say, “If you’re going to let one stupid prick ruin your life, you’re not the girl I thought you were.” We’re given to think that the one stupid prick is Callahan, but she’s referring to every stupid prick who’s ever intimidated or kept any woman down. Thanks to Emmett, Brooke then fires Callahan and allows Elle to represent her with Emmett’s supervision. “Have a little faith,” he tells them. In a turn of events, Elle finds a hole in Chutney Windham’s (Linda Cardellini) testimony, one that perhaps only she would have caught. “The rules of hair care are simple and finite. Any Cosmo girl would have known.”

Inevitably, after winning a high-profile murder trial, Warner is now suddenly aware of how serious Elle is. But if she’s going to be a partner in a law firm by the time she’s 30, she needs to be with someone who’s not such a complete bonehead. Two years later, as the valedictorian of their graduating class, Elle emphasizes the timeless message of always believing in yourself first above all. And it’s that simple message that continues to propel Legally Blonde to the forefront of feminist conversation two decades later: as Mary Poppins once said, never judge things by their appearance, even carpetbags. Elle Woods is one carpetbag you’d never want to underestimate.

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