It is September 2021. New South Wales is still in lockdown, and I am looking for ways to procrastinate some very weighty assignments. Normally, I might go book-shopping or schedule a day out with my friends. The problem is that I haven’t left my house for weeks except to walk around the block, and I’ve taken more to pace the lounge room as a result of my existential dread and too-often watching of Gladys Berejiklian’s 11 am news conferences.
Scrolling through my newsfeed while pacing said loungeroom, I saw that this year was the twentieth anniversary of the hit film from 2001, Legally Blonde. Huh, I thought. Interesting.
The plot of Legally Blonde is light-hearted and isn’t meant to be taken too seriously; but, like the best films of that late-nineties-early-noughties era, it can have a real impact on its audience.
Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is an extremely feminine “girly-girl,” the daughter of rich parents who don’t want Elle to get involved in the world of “boring people.” At her college, she is the president of the Delta Nu sorority and the girl whom everyone in the house adores and praises. The film opens with everyone in the sorority signing a good-luck card for Elle; all the signs point towards Elle’s boyfriend, Warner (Matthew Davis) proposing on their fancy date night. However, instead of a ring, Elle gets rejected. Warner says he needs to “get serious” for Harvard law school because he plans to become a senator by the age of 30.
In order to win Warner back, Elle gets into Harvard law. For the rest of the film, we see Elle being herself and trying to win over Warner while being incredibly sisterly and patient with Warner’s new girlfriend, Vivian (Selma Blair). After a historic legal battle at which Elle is at the centre, Warner attempts to ditch Vivian and take Elle back. But Elle realises she is capable of more in law school than simply winning Warner back. By staying true to herself and her flamboyant style, she is the one who comes out on top.
Along the way, in her generosity, Elle helps out other minor characters who skirt the outer edges of the ‘in’ cliques. Dorky David (Oz Perkins), for example, is tall, slightly overweight, and incredibly nerdy with his Master’s in Russian Literature and his PhD in Biochemistry.
When he plucks up the courage to ask some hot girls out, Davis is actively rejected as the girls mock him something terrible along the classic lines of, “people like us don’t go out with people like you” — this insinuation echoes Warner’s superiority complex and the reason he broke up with Elle at the beginning of the film. Hearing this, Elle walks up to David in front of the girls and pretends to berate him for giving her “the greatest pleasure I’ve ever known” and never calling her again. As Elle walks away, the snide girls rethink their assessment of David and ask him, “So, when did you wanna go out?”
It’s this kind of interaction that saw everyone praise Elle not only as a mere protagonist but as a hero. That was important to audiences in this weird turn-of-the-millennium era. But, on the other hand, Elle’s heroism is exactly what brings her character down in the eyes of modern feminist critics: she’s a white hero in a film that ominously lacks representation of people of colour or LGBTQ+ individuals.
In this sense, Legally Blonde might be grouped with other films of the era, like Mean Girls (loved by many, but is overhyped and unjustified in its subjecting minority groups to the butt of the joke). But I don’t think that Legally Blonde is purposefully using its lack of representation for a point like Mean Girls does. Instead, its formal ignorance of meaningful representation of voices other than those of privileged white characters reflects the film’s content.
Many accuse Legally Blonde of actively overlooking Elle’s privilege: she’s white, rich, attractive, blonde, and has an overlooked high level of intelligence. But even with all her privilege, Warner finds cause to overlook her. The film hints that Warner’s family (the Huntingtons) are old money — these people will never truly accept anyone, even if they have money. This is really put into perspective when Elle is walking home from her break-up date, and Warner is driving alongside her, urging her to let him take her home. She speaks in frustration: “Because I'm not a Vanderbilt, suddenly I'm white trash? I grew up in Bel Air, Warner. Across the street from Aaron Spelling. I think most people would agree that's a lot better than some stinky old Vanderbilt.”
Here, we find a contrast between the different ‘levels’ in the hierarchy of whiteness. So, while many regard Legally Blonde as a white saviour film — not that I disagree — I would argue that Legally Blonde is also an exposé on the ways that anyone can be made to feel like an outsider by those in power, like the Huntingtons. The film vaguely redeems itself by satisfying the audiences at the end, noting that Warner did not graduate with honours and did not receive any job offers at the time of graduation. In the end, Warner truly isn’t as outstanding as he has been taught to think himself.
It’s momentarily satisfying, but is it enough to make up for the lack of social criticism? This question rages war with another critical question, does the film really need to include straight-up social criticism? Arguably, no, so the former question inherently cannot be satisfied. The film is meant to be light-hearted, not critically and academically stimulating. I don’t think it is worth claiming that a movie should be doing more than its purpose or more than what it set out to do.
Even though Elle is incredibly privileged, Elle is put in contrast with everyone else at Harvard: being exceptional at this elite Ivy-League school is the norm. Compared to everyone else, Elle isn’t (at first) truly special. In the introductory circle on her first day at Harvard, everyone goes around introducing themselves. As mentioned above, not only has David already attained a Master’s in Russian Lit and a PhD in biochem, he spent the previous eighteen months “de-worming orphans in Somalia.” Next up is Enid (Meredith Scott Lynn), who claims that she just got a PhD from the esteemed Berkley University in women’s studies, “emphasis in the history of combat.” Then we pan to Aaron Mitchell (Kelly Nyks), who boasts about his IQ and graduating top of the class at Princeton but goes on to suggest that Stephen Hawking stole his A Brief History of Time (1988) from Aaron’s fourth-grade paper. His arrogance and oozing sense of boredom have me chafed as I watch.
The scene feels like being at Harvard is a competition of who can be the best Samaritan and the smartest competitor — but these things are inherently at odds with each other! In my view, a good Samaritan means not trying to compete with everyone all of the time for the ‘top spot,’ whatever that means.
Watching this was what stuck out to me the most in the film. Attending any event at uni — or even just going to classes and mingling with people, you slowly start to feel like an outsider for not being extraordinary. The fact that the film doesn’t truly question this normalised exceptionalism is what I dislike the most. As a law student myself, I am tired of feeling like I should have thirty years of practising and interning experience just to be able to find a job at a law firm or at least feel on the same level as other people my age already working at law firms.
This normalised exceptionalism is itself at odds with the film’s feel-good purpose. While the ending is satisfying, and I did clap a little watching Elle smile like a madman after her graduation speech (Reese Witherspoon’s happiness is infectious through the screen, dammit), I did finish the film wishing it added just a little bit more and maybe had a little less. A little more aggression towards the hostile social scene enforced by the Ivy-League institutions and a little less blatant ignorance of the “f” word: feminism.
Does Legally Blonde pass the Bechdel test? It’s hard to say — there are arguments for yes and no. Arguably, there are more than two women, and there are many instances where they talk to each other about things that aren’t men…but, arguably, most of those instances are men-related, or at least men-adjacent.
Does the Bechdel test a good movie make? It’s also hard to say, but in this case, I’m leaning towards a no for my answer. Of course, I want to see films passing the Bechdel test. Of course, I’m looking for films that look modern intersectional feminism in the eyes. But Legally Blonde is an objectively feel-good film, regardless of its socio-political shortcomings. That it has shortcomings is something I feel privileged to understand now.