sasha_feather: art image of woman pilot (lady pilot)
[personal profile] sasha_feather
I am doing that thing where you try writing the post you've been thinking about forever, in favor of not ever writing it. This post is about how Legally Blonde is a really wonderful feminist film. I've seen it many times and love this movie.

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair. 2001.
Witherspoon plays Elle Woods, president of her sorority at CULA, looking forward to getting engaged to her boyfriend Warner Huntington III, and majoring in fashion design. Her plans change when Warner dumps her for "someone more serious" and she decides to follow him to Harvard Law School and win him back.

This movie is funny, delightful, and surprising at every turn. Just when you think, oh, horrible sexist film (based on the marketing or basic story), it turns out to be a clever feminist story with very witty writing and sharp performances. Elle makes mistakes but they are the kind of mistakes that give her a steely resolve. She expects to find friends in her peers at law school, who turn their noses down at her, so she instead finds friends and allies in places you might not expect, across age, class, and gender divisions. It passes the Bechdel test easily because it focuses on Elle's career, several female friendships, and her general struggles and triumphs; her relationships with men are secondary. And yet it also acknowledges the existence of sexism and sexual harassment: there is an incident at her job that nearly causes her to quit, her co-worker is also casually mistreated in this same workplace.

There are a couple of things I would change. There are not many people of color in this film, particularly at the law school or CULA. There are gay people in this film (I am happy to say), but they do play up the stereotypes pretty strongly for the sake of a plot point or a laugh. The story also falls into the Victorian trope of coming-of-age story in which the heroine must end up with a man at the end. Sure, it's a good man, a kind and respectful one, but still, can't Elle stand alone at the end? I would like the movie better if she did.

The main impression this movie has made on me as a feminist is that it celebrates someone is what we might call "high femme", who embraces everything pink, is really into fashion, shoes, makeup, and celebrity gossip magazines, who is conventionally attractive (and cares about looks), loves her sorority, and has a little dog she carries in her purse. My own coming-of-age journey, finding my own identity as a woman, has largely been about rejecting these things and making fun of them. I am not highly femme, I resisted and still resist a lot of markers of femininity, and with that resistance came a certain derision of those who chose to participate in them. Growing into adulthood as a woman and a feminist has been about reconsidering this stance and respecting other people's choices. And this is what the film does for me. Elle is serious, smart, and powerful. She is a strong woman, a sympathetic one, a relatable one. I identify with her and cheer for her even when I am mystified by her love of pink sparkles and sororities. She is unapologetically herself, and that is something I want to be. Be yourself. Own who you are.

There have been a couple of moments in my life that I call "Legally Blonde" moments, where I encounter some woman who is perhaps blonde, very beautiful, probably petite, probably very femininely dressed. And so I automatically discount her a little, think that she and I have nothing in common, classify her in my head as someone I am not interested in getting to know. And then later, I am surprised, because it turns out she's a scientist or something else I find really cool, and we have many things to talk about. There was one woman in school with me like this, who told us she'd been in a beauty competition before coming to grad school. I had that reaction. How can she be serious, if she'd been in a beauty pageant? But she was very serious and smart. Society trains us to discount things that are coded as feminine. It is one of the strange looping side effects of misogyny. Because sometimes women are into these things (and only rarely are men into these things), we therefore think they are unimportant, frivolous, beneath our attention, just like women themselves.

Date: 2010-03-28 02:05 am (UTC)
owlectomy: A squashed panda sewing a squashed panda (Default)
From: [personal profile] owlectomy
Legally Blonde is one of those things that I rarely admit to liking in conversations because I fear people will think it's ridiculous, but as soon as I say, "Oh, it's actually pretty awesome but I could be just being ironic about that," the other person says, "No, it really IS pretty awesome!"

Which is the same conversation I keep having about Lady Gaga, and clearly I need to be better about sticking up for my own opinions!

So, hooray for the flight to Japan where they showed it, because I'd never have watched it of my own free will.

I think a lot of us are inculcated with this subtle misogyny where we figure out that the trick to getting accepted as a Serious Person is to never, ever act like a Girl. But it's so easy to end up buying into that and think that it's shallow and silly to be into Girl Things.

I was never into Hello Kitty when I was a kid, or a teenager when I was so painfully awkward about my femininity and so desperate to be taken seriously. And yet I also felt that femininity was shut off from me (being 6 feet tall with size 12 feet, and liable to get called "sir"), and I had a weird mix of sad and defensive about that. College marks the point where I started to loosen up a lot and also to become aware of gender as something you can perform, and not just a characteristic you're stuck with... and suddenly I loved Hello Kitty. And I started to be okay with being the kind of person who likes Hello Kitty and wears men's shoes.

So, yeah, this is a movie that resonates for me on a lot of levels.

Date: 2010-03-28 08:46 pm (UTC)
monanotlisa: Diana as Diana Prince in glasses and a hat, lifting the rim of the latter rakishly. HOT! (Default)
From: [personal profile] monanotlisa
to become aware of gender as something you can perform

Yes! This! :)

I too like Legally Blonde, so oy, Sasha, thanks for the post!

Date: 2010-03-28 02:19 am (UTC)
wrdnrd: (Default)
From: [personal profile] wrdnrd
I also love this movie!

I think what really makes this movie for me is Elle's slowly awakening to how the world sees her. She doesn't really KNOW that Harvard lets her in not JUST because she has perfect grades (which she DOES -- she is in no ways dumb!) but also because she's a beautiful and quirky non-Harvard person. But she does start to realize how the world sees her and how it plans to treat a woman like her when that sleazy old lawyer dude starts coming on to her. And THAT's when the movie comes together for me, because she's like, FUCK THAT SHIT. MY SMARTS, I WILL SHOW YOU THEM.

Or, at any rate, this is how i remember the movie -- it's been probably 8 years since i saw it. I think i'll make a note to watch it again.

Also: I love her adorable Mac in the sea of staid PC laptops.

Date: 2010-03-28 03:28 am (UTC)
cesperanza: (Default)
From: [personal profile] cesperanza
If I remember right, her decision to say FUCK THAT SHIT is also aided by--gasp!--an encouraging older female mentor. Or possibly a unicorn, or some other thing which is really really rare in cinema!
Edited Date: 2010-03-28 03:28 am (UTC)

Date: 2010-03-28 02:44 am (UTC)
toft: Gillian Anderson (ladies_gilliananderson)
From: [personal profile] toft
I LOVE Legally Blonde, and I can't TELL you how delighted I was to see this post. I have maintained since forever that it is a great feminist movie, and now I feel validated! I love how it's about, yes, owning who you are, being whatever the hell kind of woman you want to be and still being brilliant and successful, and the important things being kindness and commitment, not how you present to the world.

I too was for a long time guilty of that sort of internalized sexism where I thought that in order to value what I wanted to value about myself I had to reject stereotypical feminist traits like wearing pink and liking flowers and caring about external appearances etc - I love about Legally Blonde that it says that intelligence, ambition, toughness etc are traits that can go with any kind of gender presentation, and I don't need to reject my own femininity, however that might manifest itself, in order to value them in myself.

I'm interested in what you say about the gay stereotype - I mean, you're right of course, but one of the things I like about this film is how they're all stereotypes, and how much the film is about how performing those roles is a conscious choice in some ways, or something. I don't know, I have to think more about this. But you're right that the activist lesbian doesn't get to show depth/her true colours in the same way that Elle, Vivian and Warner do, and there are definitely not enough people of colour, that's probably the biggest problem with the movie. ([personal profile] altariel once pointed out to me that Legally Blonde is actually really structured as a romcom, but around the Vivian/Elle relationship - the dramatic fallout, the missing-you-montage and the reconciliation are all about Vivian. The only thing that could make the movie better is if they got together at the end, but the end-credits *does* say that they're BFF's now, which is close enough for me.)

Anyway, yay Legally Blonde. Me and [personal profile] opinion_rush used to watch it a lot. It's a wonderful oh-god-I'm-a-woman-in-grad-school solidarity movie. I'm so glad you like it too!
Edited Date: 2010-03-28 02:54 am (UTC)

Date: 2010-03-28 07:22 pm (UTC)
raanve: (awesome! [t-rex by Ryan North])
From: [personal profile] raanve
[personal profile] altariel once pointed out to me that Legally Blonde is actually really structured as a romcom, but around the Vivian/Elle relationship...

Wow. That is an incredibly astute observation that actually never occurred to me (and I've seen this film many times)! Awesomesauce. Another thing to love about this movie! (Also that it looks like candy fluff on the surface, but has so many layers to pull apart and examine.)

Date: 2010-03-28 04:37 am (UTC)
badgerbag: (Default)
From: [personal profile] badgerbag
I also love this movie and felt/feel much the same way about it. It got me to face some of my own misogyny, head on!

Date: 2010-03-28 05:04 am (UTC)
laceblade: Kumiko and Reina from Hibike! Euphonium anime, Reina holding Kumiko's face w/one hand, faces close enough to almost touch. (Sakura)
From: [personal profile] laceblade
This movie was in the regular rotation of movies watched by my friends and I at sleepovers (along with Ever After, 10 Things I Hate About You, Center Stage, Clueless, etc).

I wouldn't say the movie helped me get over any prejudices against "girly blonde" types, because a few of my close friends growing up where beautiful, blonde, and ridiculously intelligent, so I was kind of already there. However, I loved it because it was one of those "Yeah! Any girls can kick ass!" movies for me, at a time when I wish I would have been watching them more (if I could go back and change stuff about my life, it would be to go back and get high school!Jackie to watch Buffy, read Tamora Pierce, watch Ghibli movies, etc.).

Also....yay for pink sparkles!

Date: 2010-03-28 03:11 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] alphaviolet
Have you seen Erin Brockovich?

Date: 2010-03-28 05:27 pm (UTC)
were_duck: Ellen Ripley from Alien looking pensively to the right in her space helmet (Leeloo is No. 1!)
From: [personal profile] were_duck
I am ashamed to admit that I have never seen this movie! And part of that is because of the pink and conventional beauty thing, because I also carry around certain prejudices and find hyper-femininity difficult to relate to. I will give Legally Blonde a try, though!

Date: 2010-03-28 06:04 pm (UTC)
blushingflower: Close up of Venus's face from the Birth of Venus (Venus)
From: [personal profile] blushingflower
So, I'd never thought about it because I watched it as light entertainment (which of course doesn't mean it can't have serious meaning) and what I remember is being pleased by it, but you're right in that it really is a movie about succeeding on your own terms. And it's great that Elle doesn't have to reject her femininity in order to succeed in a man's world, because we're constantly being told that we do (and then being told that rejecting our femininity to succeed at work means we've lost the chance to succeed at love, see all the romcoms about unfeminine high-power women who are miserable in their love lives).

Date: 2010-03-28 07:15 pm (UTC)
raanve: Tony Millionaire's Drinky Crow (Fandom - Middle Man - SQUEE)
From: [personal profile] raanve
I am not highly femme, I resisted and still resist a lot of markers of femininity, and with that resistance came a certain derision of those who chose to participate in them. Growing into adulthood as a woman and a feminist has been about reconsidering this stance and respecting other people's choices.

This. A thousand times, this! (Though I think my base level of "femme" has always been a bit higher than I ever liked to let on.) Part of being more at home in myself was learning to embrace the "girly" stuff when I felt the desire to do so. And as you say, there is a direct connection here between the social pressures to discount the traditionally "feminine" and my own impulse to avoid those things, to discount them. I especially spent a lot of energy wanting men to take me seriously (on a platonic level). I don't really think I had many successful female friendships until I was an adult.

One of the things I like best about Legally Blonde is that it's kind of a filmic incarnation of these social tendencies -- that most people aren't interested in it because it seems like one kind of film (girly, frivolous, vapid even) and that when you actually watch it, you find out that it might have some of the surface qualities you expected, but there's this whole other thing going on underneath that. I kind of love that it's sort of sneaky that way.

I have always felt that the ending includes Elle's successful romantic pairing as a kind of secondary element -- it's there because the structure of the film (the structure that is playing off all of these surface assumptions we're likely to make about the film) dictates it. But it's not the sole goal of the narrative line, and I feel that even though Elle moves toward that, it's very much on her own terms and actively chosen. (As opposed to just being The Thing That Happens.) If that line of thought makes sense.

Also, Selma Blair! And Linda Cardellini!! I basically adore everyone in this movie.
Edited (For missing words, b/c my brain went faster than my typing!) Date: 2010-03-28 07:17 pm (UTC)

Date: 2010-03-29 03:25 pm (UTC)
brainwane: My smiling face, including a small gold bindi (Default)
From: [personal profile] brainwane
I also had few female friendships until I was an adult. I rebelled so hard against lots of femininity markers that I missed seeing a lot of stuff going on under the surface. The original post and raanve's reply speak to me, a lot.

Academic Chic is smart women speaking plainly and enthusiastically (and analytically) about what they wear to look good. In one post they ask the reader to name five things she likes about her body.

Date: 2010-03-28 09:55 pm (UTC)
merrily: Mac (Default)
From: [personal profile] merrily
Oh, this is excellent! The last two paragraphs really pinned down my own nebulous feelings about the film, and about femme-ness, and mine and my various friends' mixed reactions to it. I have a friend who's entirely high femme, and who has decided, therefore, that she can't call herself a feminist, because in her head those things are mutually exclusive. Attempts (unsuccessful) to talk her out of this unfortunate conclusion have been made many times -- but if it comes up again, I'm pointing to Legally Blonde as a reconciliation of the two. (And now I'm downloading the movie, so I can watch it again and revel in it.)

Date: 2010-03-29 09:15 pm (UTC)
erda: (Default)
From: [personal profile] erda
I've never seen this movie since I don't like movies much and I thought it sounded kind of stupid. But I checked it out yesterday based on your rec, and hee, I loved it.

via network

Date: 2010-03-29 10:06 pm (UTC)
softestbullet: Aeryn cupping Pilot's cheek. He has his big eyes closed. (Art/ living my life like it's golden)
From: [personal profile] softestbullet
I am doing that thing where you try writing the post you've been thinking about forever, in favor of not ever writing it.


I like this post! I saw Legally Blonde long ago and enjoyed it, but I also loved some terrible things, so it's nice to know it's as good as I remember. :)

Date: 2010-04-08 01:07 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
(sry, couldn't sign in.

Wonderful writing! I had many 'legally blonde' moments in med school, meeting these beautiful women who were very high femme and yet obviously people I could still connect too. In turn some of them helped me be a little more femme, mostly those who still had some wonderful nerdiness I found a little easier to converse with!

Date: 2010-04-14 09:16 pm (UTC)
kangeiko: (sydney bristow)
From: [personal profile] kangeiko
Here via monanotlisa -

I love this film so much. It's one of my unabashed sources of joy and inspiration. All too often films intended to be 'chick flicks' have an ugly duckling suddenly discovering she is beautiful, and society cheers. We validate external appearance as the high of a young girl's life: Cinderella at the ball, or the young bride at her most ravishing. The personality is wiped in this Disneyfication, and, for me, Legally Blonde turned that trope on it's head: here is Cinderella not only discovering she is smart and capable, but going for something in a traditionally masculine environment and triumphing. She slays her own dragon and fights her own battles.

The oter thing I love is how unashamedly it celebrates female friendships. Elle's important relationships aren't with the men, but the women around her - it might be Warner's loss that prompts her to apply to Harvard, but it's her sorority sisters who help her get there. Even in law school, the defining relationship with her teacher turns out not to be with Professor Callahan, but with a female mentor - in that most traditionally feminine of places, the salon.

Finally, being very femme myself, it was refreshing to see a portrayal of someone who loves her shoes and her nail lacquer, and who still manages to be amazingly smart and amazingly warm.

(Also, I recently saw the musical at the Savoy and I have to say, I heartily approved of the down-playing of Elle's Harvard male relationships, and an increased emphasis on the female ones... So much so that I was wondering if the requisite 'couple' ending was actually going to happen!)

Date: 2010-04-29 11:32 am (UTC)
kangeiko: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kangeiko
The music was excellent. Sheridan Smith was a little piercing in places, I have to admit, but she is primarily a comedienne rather than a singer, and managed to carry everything through with sheer adorableness. In terms of musical composition, I think that the second half was much stronger than the first, and also included much more plot-driven songs, which always help. I really enjoyed it, and was humming the songs as I left.

Date: 2012-01-02 07:56 pm (UTC)
omens: sun shining through leaves (Default)
From: [personal profile] omens
Thanks for this! I love that movie even though I don't relate/understand Elle very well at all, I still love her to BITS. She is unapologetically herself, and that is something I want to be. Be yourself. Own who you are. <-- and that's EXACTLY why! <33

Date: 2010-03-28 06:04 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I've always wanted to see the movie(s) but haven't gotten to yet.

Date: 2010-03-28 02:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
It is really good! The sequel, not nearly so much, unfortunately.

Date: 2010-03-28 02:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Let's just say-- I watch this movie a bit too much.

Date: 2010-03-28 09:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
There is no such thing as "too much" of this movie. :D

Date: 2010-03-28 02:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'd also like to add that I heard Reese Witherspoon did a lot of rewrites/restructuring of the ending so that it had a more powerful ending; I think originally it was likely written so that Elle wins Warner back, but I'm not quite sure.

Date: 2010-03-28 09:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Reese Witherspoon, she is awesome!! I was disappointed in the sequel, though.


sasha_feather: Retro-style poster of skier on pluto.   (Default)

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