Legally Blonde (2001) – dir. Robert Luketic

I have a difficult time discussing women’s issues. Oh sure, I like to think I have a grasp on what good female representation looks like in media. And disseminating my thoughts on characterization or portrayals of women is often much simpler, especially when I’m typing out into this here void of endless content. But even when I’m positive I have a good grasp on a compelling story about or for women, I’m nervous to explain myself, especially to a woman, who can actually speak to the veracity of film’s depiction of a woman’s experience. In most cases, I’m happy to be deferential–though, honestly, why do people like Candace Owens exist?–because as badly as I want to be able to say I understand what living as a woman is like, and as much as I can listen, express sympathy, or use my privilege in aiding others, I can never really know.

But I’m gonna go out on a limb here and make some bold claims in favor of Legally Blonde, Robert Luketic’s courtroom comedy about an aggressively bubbly, feminine law student who no one takes seriously, but manages to defy the expectations of her Ivy League peers and superiors as she dedicates herself to becoming an exemplary Harvard Law grad. Adapted from Amanda Brown’s novel of the same name–based off her experiences at Brown University–Legally Blonde, much like the pink-clad protagonist at the center, doesn’t seem like much on the surface, but is an astonishingly funny and joyful celebration of women, one whose fierce adoration and attitudes are ahead of their time.

There is absolutely no way that Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) could be any girlier. She is the president of her sorority, she’s so devoted to cosmetics and clothing her major is Fashion Merchandising, and even finds herself bending to her boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis). When Elle is blindsided by Warner dumping her, she resolves to win him back by following him to Harvard, and becoming a law student. Because here’s the rub about Elle Woods that even characters in the movie miss: She’s ferociously intelligent, principled, and hard-working. Not in spite of her preppy, blonde image, because why would the two be mutually exclusive?

Elle isn’t a prodigy by any means, but with the support of a college counselor, as well as her sorority sisters, and plain old dedication, she gets a near-perfect score on her LSAT. And in one of the film’s devilishly clever scenes, Elle sends in an application video to Harvard admissions, which she knows is dominated by old, dumb men. She uses her femininity to her advantage, and leans ever so slightly into her sexuality, hedging her bets and playing up the creepiness of men to her advantage. Whether they take seriously her accomplishments or use them as excuses, deliberations over Elle Woods is a cringeworthy affair for these men. Because, in the end, how smart and distinguished some stuffy academic is; chances are, they still have urges that are often poorly expressed.

Of course, Elle Woods is not openly malicious, nor does she have to give some speech about how stupid she thinks men can be. She just understands them keenly, and is willing to appeal to them without being overtly manipulative or dishonest. When Elle arrives at Harvard, however, no one is impressed. This is one of, if not the most prestigious educational institutions in the world, where most of Elle’s classmates have multiple degrees, or at least studied law. And for as far as Elle can coast on sheer charisma and charm–not to mention a killer skirt suit–she’s in a little over her head on those first few days of class. Her tumultuous post-grad malaise is exacerbated by the discovery that Warner has already hitched his wagon to Vivian (Selma Blair), who could not be more of Elle’s opposite–dark-haired, conservatively dressed, and openly competitive.

Practically any other movie would pit Elle and Vivian against one another, and that would be the movie. But before the halfway point, Elle realizes that Warner has never taken her seriously. She is just candy-like fun to him. So, in a move that would go on to spur a similarly jilted, fellow Harvard alum Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Elle busts her ass and becomes one of the top students in her program. And this isn’t a matter of the movie making Elle smarter. We already know she’s smart. She doesn’t just happen her entrance into Harvard. Elle Woods is sharp and capable.

When Elle is selected for law review–a glorified, but significant internship–with Professor Callahan (Victor Garber), as well as Callahan’s number two Emmett (Luke Wilson). They’re taking on a murder case, defending fitness guru, and former member of Elle’s sorority, Brooke Taylor-Windham (Ali Larter), who is the prime suspect in the murder of Brooke’s wealthy, and considerably older husband–Brooke’s the same age as her stepdaughter Chutney (Linda Cardellini). And while this case is oh-so perfect for Elle in a way that is glaringly screenwriterly, the stretch works as a commentary on women’s experiences in the workplace. Vivian and Elle are perhaps the two hardest working students in Callahan’s review, but are relegated to getting coffee. And while Elle does her best to prove herself, she can’t completely shake how people have always seen her.

Legally Blonde could easily be a pandering chick-flick, or a retread of the miscalculated feminism of Working Girl. Instead, Luketic, whose direction is workmanlike at best–save for the brief “bend and snap” dance tangent at the top of the second act–does everything he can to stay out of the way of Karen McCullah Lutz’s and Kirsten Smith’s dynamite screenplay. This is a film that loves women. In one scene, Vivian refers to Elle’s friend Enid (Meredith Scott Lynn) as a dyke, only for Elle to respond that she doesn’t use that word–though, she later calls Vivian the b-word (I know, I know), and there’s a scene with a witness that verges on gay stereotyping. When the film is broadly about women, there are nuances and layers that slyly reveal themselves with every given situation.

Despite various inconsistencies–some big, some small–Legally Blonde is true to that philosophy. Practically every major woman character has an arc–whether this is Jennifer Coolidge standing up to her ex and winning over the UPS guy, or Vivian learning to stop hating other women, or Holland Taylor softening on Elle, this is a film that gives women voices without making a bigger deal than needed. Even Elle’s love interest Emmett exists as a figure to support and believe Elle. He never prioritizes his feelings–the film relegates their romance to some text at the end–and never has to save Elle. Luke Wilson is routinely cast as the unassuming straight man, and while he’s not given as much depth as, say, Bottle Rocket, his presence is felt and welcome. Because Legally Blonde wouldn’t be so enduring if the figures at the center of the film weren’t so likable, and if they weren’t so much fun together.

To be sure, Legally Blonde is a very binary story, and one could argue is more about white, affluent feminism than anything. Though the film would not be considered especially inclusive as a 2019 release–there are flashes of queer and impoverished representation, but little else–the film is presenting a dialogue that is still relevant, and that was saying things that would become significant talking points years later. And frankly, little has changed. While many people are adept at keying into the ideas that Legally Blonde presented upon release–most of which went over the heads of critics at the time–many are also resistant to accepting the reality of gender politics captured so brilliantly by Luketic, Lutz, and Smith. For as long as women have to fight for a seat at the table, and as long as they have to be taken seriously by men and by other women, stories like Legally Blonde will continue to be important.

Rating – 9.0/10


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s