Getting Serious about Legally Blonde
The 2001 comedy shatters expectations about what makes a good heroine
By Russell P. Johnson|May 9, 2022
I teach courses about religious ethics and film, focusing on how movies depict heroes and villains. Students in these courses learn how to analyze the moral dimensions of film to discover how popular movies shape their viewers’ moral imaginations. My students can choose which movies they want to write about, and to my surprise, three of the best papers have been about the 2001 comedy Legally Blonde.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Just like its protagonist, the movie has a depth and brilliance that our stereotypes and assumptions can lead us to overlook. Rewatching Legally Blonde with my students’ arguments and scholarly literature in mind, I’m beginning to recognize how distinctive its take on femininity is and how it challenges moviemaking wisdom that reflects traditionally masculine assumptions about morality. As we await the third installment in the Blonde saga, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate what makes the original film a source not just of humor but of inspiration, and how the work of feminist theologian Valerie Saiving challenges us to rethink cinematic conventions.
Legally Blonde opens with a montage of Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods doing her hair and makeup. Viewers quickly learn that she’s a homecoming queen, sorority president, and Cosmo subscriber. Intercut with these scenes, we see her sorority sisters signing a card congratulating Elle on her upcoming engagement to Warner Huntington III, who looks and acts exactly like someone who’d be named “Warner Huntington III.” This opening sequence tells us a lot about Elle, but it also tells us about her world: a world of perfume, designer shoes, frat boys ogling co-eds, and—most importantly—women who support other women.
Though encouraging, Elle’s sorority sisters were also premature, since the ambitious Warner has decided he has to break up with Elle. He’s leaving California for Harvard Law School, he reminds her, adding, “If I'm gonna be a senator, well, I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” Warner tells Elle that he needs to be with someone “serious,” and so in an effort to win him back she decides to go to law school. After dominating the LSAT and graduating with a 4.0 GPA, she enrolls at Harvard Law.
As the film progresses, the central conflict is between women’s support for other women, on the one hand, and cultural spaces that are hostile to this support, on the other. One invidious effect of patriarchy is that it pits women against one another. Elle Woods manages to draw support from women from her sorority and nail salon to overcome the toxic elements of law school.
Cosmopolitan magazine has been criticized for contributing to this competitive dynamic among women. But the magazine Elle refers to as “the bible” can also serve to create liberative solidarity among embattled women (much like the real Bible...). While Legally Blonde could simply exhibit female empowerment through a woman succeeding in the historically male-dominated legal field, it challenges viewers to consider where real empowerment comes from. Elle’s flippancy about elite institutions (“You got into Harvard Law?” “What, like it’s hard?”) invites us to re-evaluate whether true power derives from class status or from local sites of mutual encouragement.
Legally Blonde differs from other films in a few other noteworthy respects. First, the hyperfeminine characters are not villainized. As UChicago senior Sophia Michel argues, movies in the nineties and aughts tended to depict young female protagonists as more tomboyish and “not like the other girls.” The foils for these heroines are the pink-wearing, boy-obsessed “queen bee” villains of the type seen in Mean Girls (2004) and High School Musical (2006). Filmmakers wanted to make their heroines relatable for young viewers who feel like misfits in a social order designed to benefit others. In the process, though, they reinforced the notion that women who dress and act in “girly” ways are vapid, manipulative, or both. Michel writes of the 2004 and 2008 Cinderella adaptations, “A more tomboyish Cinderella represents the new era of redefining femininity which often led to a complete rejection of hyperfemininity that women were subjected to back in the 1950s, and there’s this new desire to display more stereotypically masculine traits in order to be taken more seriously.”
In contrast to the villainization of hyperfemininity, Legally Blonde is a breath of fresh air. “God bless Elle Woods,” Michel writes, for helping young women recognize that they don’t have to judge others—or themselves—for enjoying feminine-coded aesthetics and lifestyles.
Legally Blonde neither valorizes nor denigrates hyperfemininity. It just refuses to treat pinkness as an antithesis to serious legal practice. Part of the unique charm of the film is that it never tries to argue, “believe it or not, a girly girl can be smart!” Instead, it turns the question on its viewers, asking why we ever concluded these were mutually exclusive. Legal acumen and fashion sense are not at odds with one another, but the prejudices of Harvard Law School and the reality of Elle Woods are.
As recent as 1994, Carolyn Lisa Miller wrote, “Female attorneys in film have been presented as an oxymoron; they have two identities—‘female’ and ‘attorney’—which cannot logically coexist.” Elle Woods not only maintains both identities, but emphatically shows that her femininity enables her to succeed as a lawyer.
But does her success come too easily? In her book Neo-Feminist Cinema: Girly Films, Chick Flicks, and Consumer Culture, film scholar Hilary Radner criticizes the plot of Legally Blonde, writing, “Elle’s virtue is easily acquired demanding no sacrifices; her happy ending is complete, a fantasy in which competing desires can be reconciled.” I agree, though I see this as a strength of the film. To explain why, we need to consider the gendered dimensions of storytelling.
American screenwriting is indebted to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and its narration of the archetypal “hero’s journey,” but Campbell’s hero is explicitly male. When asked about women, Campbell said that women don’t need to make heroic journeys: “In the whole mythological tradition, the woman is there. All she has to do is to realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.” Authors like Maureen Murdock, who wrote The Heroine’s Journey, have taken up the challenge of rethinking story structure with women’s experience in mind.
This rethinking resonates with one of the earliest and most influential pieces of feminist Christian theology, Valerie Saiving’s 1960 “The Human Situation: A Feminine View.” Saiving argues that theological accounts of sin, written primarily by men, have associated sin with pride and selfishness. On these accounts, the opposite of sin is love, understood as “completely self-giving, taking no thought for its own interests but seeking only the good of the other.” This account of sin and its opposite, Saiving argues, reflects some people’s moral situation but should not be universalized. With the necessary caveats, she explains that the idea that selfishness and pride are the paradigmatic sins reflects men’s experiences more so than women’s experiences.
Women are more likely to be tempted to be “self-giving” at the expense of their own full humanity, and thus the opposite of sin involves a robust affirmation of her value independent of the care she provides for others. Everyone’s ethical reflection is impoverished, Saiving argues, when we treat one characteristically-but-not-exclusively masculine narrative of moral failure and improvement as the universal narration.
Campbell-inspired cinematic story structure tends to presuppose the vision of morality in which the hero needs to have his sense of self, his “attachment to ego,” broken down before it can be rebuilt. The assumption that Elle Woods’s character needs to make “sacrifices” in order to earn the happily-ever-after is thus standard filmmaking wisdom. But standard filmmaking wisdom reflects characteristically male experiences. Elle’s journey—which has some character development but shares traits with the flat arc—suggests an alternate way of thinking about the different paths people take toward uncovering their full humanity.
Saiving’s situation when she wrote “The Human Situation” was in some ways similar to Elle Woods’s—as Rebekah Miles comments, “At the time, there were few women at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and in the Journal of Religion that year only one other article was authored by a woman. In that social context, where simply being a female theologian was an oddity, it’s hard to imagine the difficulties with and consequences of a young female PhD student disclosing such personal information.” The struggles women face in law or academia, UChicago alumna Helen Malley argues, do not always follow the steps of Campbell’s myth, in part because women must constantly struggle against institutional forces that insist they don’t belong.
Fearlessly refusing to conform to an institution when it is dehumanizing is a kind of heroism that does not always follow the steps of a “hero’s journey.” And it’s a lesson that remains relevant in higher education and beyond. Though Saiving later critiqued aspects of her own article and Legally Blonde’s treatment of queer people leaves something to be desired, both continue to inspire to this day. Standing up for women never goes out of style.