On Legally Blonde

I have seen Legally Blonde quite a few times, and as usual, Hollywood is hardly as liberal as a former Vice Presidential candidate has suggested, with this movie, which is no totem pole to feminism, but rather, hyperfemininity, and needing a man to be happy with one’s life (marriage). According to The Rise of Enlightened Sexism: How Pop Culture Took Us from Girl Power to Girls Gone Wild by Sarah J. Douglas:

Poles apart from FBI agent Gracie Hart is Elle Woods (Reece Witherspoon), an ultimate girly-girl president of her sorority Delta Nu in the 2001 hit Legally Blonde. Here the markers of hyperfemininity are everywhere: the room painted pink and filled with cosmetics and hair care products, the stacks of Cosmo, the wedgies with glittery hearts across the toes. The only way Elle and her sorority sisters know how to interact is to squeal, giggle, and jump up and down a lot. Their ultimate goal is to get married. Then, Boom: Elle’s Harvard Law School-boyfriend, Warner (Matthew Davis) dumps her precisely because she’s too girly, he needs “a Jackie,” he says, not “a Marilyn.”

Determined to win Warner back, Elle crams for the LSATs (which her sorority sisters think is a name for a venereal disease), submits a video admissions essay featuring her in various bikinis, and gets accepted to Harvard Law. Not the way you usually get in, but hey, it’s a movie. She arrives in Cambridge in a neon pink, faux-fur-trimmed satin suit and sunglasses with pink lenses; the other law students, in their grey shirts and brown sweaters, eye her incredulously and call her Malibu Barbie. In her first class, when all the other students open their laptops, she pulls out a heart-shaped pad and a pen topped with a pink feather. The fiftysomething female law teacher Professor Stromwell (Holland Taylor), a feminist from central casting, regards Elle with barely concealed amusement and condescension and throws her out of class for not being prepared. Hypergirliness is vapid, superficial, a dead giveaway that someone should not be taken seriously.

But feminism is worse. The face of feminism here is Enid Wexler (Meredith Scott Lynn), another first year student with a Ph.D. in women’s studies from Berkeley and an out lesbian. Enid stereotypes and mocks Elle right from the start. After Elle tries unsuccessfully to join Warner’s study group, Enid mocks, “Hey, maybe, there’s a sorority you could like join, like.” Elle responds that if Enid had come to a rush party, Elle would have at least been nice to her. Enid counters that Elle would then have voted against her and called her a dyke behind her back. Elle insists she doesn’t use that word, and the audience believes her; Enid (typical feminist) has anticipated slurs and slights where none existed. Later, at a party, we see Enid lecturing Warner about the built-in sexism of the English language. Her example is the word “semester,” which she claims is derived from a patriarchal biases in favor of semen over ovaries. (It’s not.) Enid is thus petitioning to have next term called an “ovester.” Once again, feminists are silly, humorless, and obsessed with trivial, utterly symbolic issues and political correctness.

Elle, meanwhile, realizes that she will actually have to study if she is going to be good enough for Warner and survive law school. The pink outfits give way to darker hues; her overly curly hair becomes straighter. She starts interning at a law firm that is defending Brooke Windham, the creator of “Brooke’s Butt Buster Workout,” who has been accused of killing her husband. As she thinks through the case, Elle does not rely on the law; she relies on girly logic. She believes that Brooke-a former Delta Nu sister-is innocent because “exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.” Elle infers that Brooke’s pool boy, who claimed to have had an affair with her in order to frame her, was gay because he knew designer shoes-and Elle was correct.

Callahan, the head of the law firm, hits on Elle, prompting her to quit. She retreats to the beauty parlor that has become her psychic oasis and tells her friend Paulette (the fabulous, nonpareil Jennifer Coolidge), “All people see when they look at me is blonde hair and big boobs,” and that no one takes her seriously. She was just kidding herself that a girly girl like her could be a lawyer; “turns out I am a joke,” she moans. But who should happen to be at the salon but Professor Stromwell, who gives Elle a feminist-inspired pep talk. “If you’re going to let one stupid prick ruin your life,” she says, “you’re not the girl I thought you were.” The key here is that Stromwell calls her a girl, not a woman.

Back at the firm, once Brooke finds out about the sexual harassment, she fires Callahan. Next, the camera reveals her new representation, starting with the feet in red strapped patent leather heels with rhinestone buckles, and tilting up her pink dress and recurled hair; Elle reclaims her girliness. The judge, Callahan, and the district attorney regard Elle as a laughingstock, and at first she is at sea, as she doesn’t really know how to try a case. She tentively begins questioning Chutney Windham, Brooke’s stepdaughter, who has testified that she saw Brooke standing over her husband’s body, “drenched in blood.” Chutney repeatedly testifies that she had been in the shower when the shooting occurred, and Elle keeps repeating that she was in the shower, to the amusement of the assembled court. But then Chutney adds that she had washed her hair in the shower and that she had gotten a permanent earlier that morning.

The lightbulbs in Elle’s head go off. She knows all about perms. Her confidence soaring, she tells the courtroom about a friend who had gotten a perm but lost her curls because she gotten hosed down in a wet T-shirt contest. She then moves in for the kill. “Isn’t it the first cardinal rule of perm maintenance,” she demands, “that you’re forbidden to wet your hair for at least twenty-four hours after the getting the perm at risk of deactivating the ammonium thioglycolate?” Elle then accuses Chutney of not having washed her hair because her curls are still intact, and then goes on to assert that she had the time, however, to hide the gun after shooting her father. At this point Chutney breaks down and confesses to the murder, to the utter amazement of the courtroom. Brooke is acquitted. Hoards of reporters descend on Elle afterward, but she is modest. “Any Cosmo girl,” she says, “would have known the perm rules.”

Here the fantasy is that girly knowledge matters, and not just in sororities. Girls and women are still socialized to understand that detailed information about fashion, hair, and makeup are essential to master, and yet they also see it as ridiculed as a frivolous and useless knowledge base. But surrounded by doubt and ridicule in that sanctum sanctorum of male knowledge, the courtroom, Elle wins her case because she knows how the chemicals in permanents work. Most of us would like to think that such information is no more or less significant than who won the Superbowl in 1992. At the end of the film, when Elle has been elected the student’s speaker at her classes graduation (and we learn she has an offer from a prestigious Boston law firm), she advises her audience that first impressions may not always be correct, and “you must always have faith in yourself.” Hyperfemininity should not be stereotyped as dumbness. Even Enid the feminist applauds. Still, just as Gracie Hart in Miss Congeniality has to move from her antifeminine terminus to a middle ground that balances career accomplishments with getting a bikini wax, so, too, does Elle have to moderate her girliness with achievement in a previously male-dominated profession.

In both films, feminism is with being deliberately unattractive, out of touch with, and indeed antagonistic towards other women. It is hostile to femininity. (It is noteworthy that Professor Stromwell gives Elle her little pep talk at the beauty parlor; Stromwell is a professional, but still feminine, so Elle can take her advice.) And Legally Blonde explicitly reduces feminism to something only lesbians espouse or support. So however ridiculous hyperfemininity may be-we know that Elle cannot possibly her new job as an attorney with her pink feathered pen-femininity is still essential for women, not only to find love but also to be taken seriously.

But Legally Blonde also has stereotyped gay men as feminine, which is a terrible stereotype towards gay men.  According to this post:

Yes. We have a stereotypes about gay men: they are obsessed with fashion, concerned with sex, they love to dance, roll like girls, have tanned skin, etc.

We find these stereotypes a lot in media. And almost always, gay character are used to give a comedy relief and a joking moment.

A famous movie, Legally Blonde, and its musical also use the stereotypical gay character to give a comedy relief. And in the musical, they sing a song, which is about judging whether he is a gay or European according to the stereotypes (waxed chests, pointy toed shoes, clothes etc.)

The song is funny, but it shows that those stereotypes are so pervasive that people can understand the joke.

Because of these well known images of gay men we tend to think they fit in the stereotypes in real life too. But they are not necessarily feminine as media portrays, not all gay men are superstylish and speak in high pitch. Most of them are just like everyone else.

These “special” stereotypes about gay people might make many of them who do not fit in the stereotypical images live in society with difficulty.

According to The New York Times review:

”Legally Blonde,” a fluffy new fish-out-of-water, believe-in-yourself romantic comedy, includes one line that made me and some of my dyspeptic colleagues laugh giddily and helplessly. It’s a throwaway bit of repartee, which I wouldn’t give away even if the mildly vulgar punch line were suitable here. But then again I might, since the movie doesn’t offer enough occasions for real spontaneous laughter to justify the cost of a full-price ticket.

The script, written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kristen Smith and based on a book by Amanda Brown, is the usual midlevel commercial comedy mishmash: a clear, easily digested and wildly implausible concept accessorized with hit-or-miss bits of physical and verbal humor, a fizz of light love trouble and a barrage of huggy, uplifting moments at the end. For every moment like the unquoted line, there is a piece of business like the ”bend and snap” musical number in which the clients of a nail shop jiggle and shake, supposedly demonstrating a sure-fire way to snag a man’s attention.

If the laugh-inducing moments manage to outnumber the cringe-inducing ones, it’s mainly because the director, Robert Luketic, hands this overstuffed Louis Vuitton suitcase of a movie to Reese Witherspoon, a sharp, quick-witted Doris Day for our drab age of screen comedy. Ms. Witherspoon plays Elle Woods, a perky sorority sister who resides in a cloud of pink fluff at Delta Nu at California University in Los Angeles. (Viewers who had no social life in the mid-90’s may wonder, as I did, if this is the same C.U. that Brandon Walsh and the gang on ”Beverly Hills 90210” attended after graduating from West Beverly High.) Elle’s perfect world is shattered when her preppy boyfriend, Warner (Matthew Davis), bound for Harvard Law School, dumps her on the night she had expected him to propose. He needs a mate with more substance ”if I’m going to be a senator by the time I’m 30,” he explains. ”I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.”

Elle may be a squeaky-voiced shopaholic bombshell, but she’s no dummy. Determined to travel to Cambridge to win back her undeserving man, she gains admittance to Harvard. There she discovers a student body of pale-faced grinds in dark clothes who hold her blondness and her taste in clothes against her and a faculty of imperious professors with patrician accents. But our heroine, who graduated from C.U. with a 4.0 average in fashion merchandising, turns out to have a steel-trap legal mind, lots of common sense and a good heart that draws her to a good-hearted young lawyer (Luke Wilson) and a lovelorn manicurist (Jennifer Coolidge).

Really, Elle — not to mention Ms. Witherspoon — is smarter than the movie, which doesn’t quite know what to do with her, mocking her ditzy rich-girl cluelessness at one moment and admiring her moxie the next. The character as written is incoherent, but Ms. Witherspoon has the reflexes to make Elle both appealing and ridiculous. It’s funny — in that slightly queasy, un-P.C. Doris Day kind of way — to watch her suffer tearful humiliations, and also funny to watch her recover her dignity and tell off the snobs and hypocrites who have underestimated or maligned her.

Among these are, in addition to Warner, a pompous law professor (Victor Garber) and Warner’s new fiance, a snooty Ivy League ice queen who, because she is played by the graceful, fine-boned Selma Blair, cannot be all bad. Virtue is rewarded, meanness gets its comeuppance and Elle, after a courtroom triumph too complicated and haphazardly staged to go into here, delivers the commencement address to the Harvard Law School class of 2004. ”You must always have faith in yourself,” she concludes, surely the first time anyone has uttered such a notion in a Hollywood movie.


8 thoughts on “On Legally Blonde

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