On July 13, the iconic Reese Witherspoon comedy “Legally Blonde” celebrates its 20th anniversary. Its age may be a surprise given its legacy, which constantly simmers on the back burner, occasionally flaring when high-profile fans, such as Kim Kardashian and Ariana Grande, pay it homage. “Legally Blonde” follows Elle Woods (Witherspoon), a bubbly sorority president who ventures to Harvard Law School on a mission to reclaim her ex-boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis). At Harvard, however, Elle discovers her own aptitude and excitement for the study of law; she lands a coveted internship with the respected Professor Callahan (Victor Garber) in which she must defend fellow sorority alumna, Brooke Taylor-Windham (Ali Larter), in a murder trial.
Screenwriters Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith — co-writers of “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Ella Enchanted” and “She’s the Man” — constructed “Legally Blonde” like a Trojan horse, veiling a witty critique of femininity’s devaluation in a confectionary rom-com, a “chick flick.” Critical reception took the bait: Writing for The Austin Chronicle, Kimberley Jones quipped, “No talons underneath this Lee Press-On Nails production — but it still makes for a giggly good time.” BBC critic Ben Falk similarly wrote, “You won’t need much brain power, but you’ll certainly have fun.” These observations are self-conscious and measured, teeing up praise for the movie with digs at the “trivial” subject. Much like its protagonist, however, “Legally Blonde” is much smarter than it looks.
To understand “Legally Blonde” as a breakthrough, we need to step back into the raunch-soaked landscape of the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Prickly contradictions between third-wave feminism’s “girl power” and the sexual revolution ensured that there was no right way to be a young woman, creating a market-friendly middle ground known as “do-me feminism,” in which sexually provocative appearance and behavior were markers (and implicitly makers) of female empowerment. Yet, as sociologist Rosalind Gill notes, raunch culture selectively doled out sexual appeal to buttress, rather than democratize, existent ideals of beauty and power.
In an alternate universe, “Legally Blonde” fits into this blueprint. Actress Jessica Cauffiel — who played Margot, one of Elle’s sorority sisters — told The New York Times this year, “The first script was very raunchy, to be honest, in the vein of ‘American Pie.’ What we know now as ‘Legally Blonde’ and what it began as are two completely different films.” Thank goodness — whoever thought raunch was the new rom-com was seriously disturbed.
Instead, “Legally Blonde” begins in an idyllic, but relatively chaste collegiate utopia. Hoku’s hit song “Perfect Day” bubbles like champagne while viewers watch the main character bask in beautification rituals like they’re leisure: She’s brushing her hair, shaving her legs, painting her nails, clasping her heart-shaped necklace and finally, stepping into her sparkly pink, heart-emblazoned wedges.
The camera, importantly, avoids Elle’s face. During the opening montage, the film beguiles its spectators to decode feminine visual cues into archetypal shorthand — tacitly understanding that “girly” interests represent vacuity, superficiality and immaturity. Tapping into the ethos of the time, the film appears to believe that pretty women can’t be smart. Since “Legally Blonde” mystifies Elle’s image, it frames her as a stereotype, and it’s precisely this generic quality about Elle that venerates her as the ideal woman, a concept which she revisits for the entire movie.
Elle’s getting dolled up because she has a date with her long-term boyfriend Warner — a dapper young man from five generations of American senators — and she confidently believes he’s going to propose. When Warner breaks up with her, however, he reasons, “Elle, if I’m going to be a senator, I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn. … I need someone serious.”
Until now, Elle is, to the viewer’s knowledge, fully on board with Warner’s plan; she’s thrilled by the prospect of marriage, the familiar destiny with kids and a successful, ambitious husband. Now, however, she’s fenced out of this idyllic image. Warner’s rejection reveals the precarity and untenability of being the ideal woman in a patriarchal society. Nonetheless, Elle’s doggedly determined to fix that. So, here we are — at Harvard Law.
But with Elle as the avatar for this quandary, the narrative begets a problem: How does the privileged ideal become the underdog?
To start, “Legally Blonde” reframes Elle’s economic wealth to recharacterize the other rich people around her. At Harvard, Elle reunites with Warner, but it’s too late: He’s engaged to the sleek, preppy brunette Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair). Warner and Vivian belong to the same country club, went to the same prep school — they’re a match made in the bank. And unlike Elle and her conspicuous consumption, Warner and Vivian dress in the same well-tailored basics as the rest of the Harvard elite; they’re old money, and they blend in.
Vivian enters as the villain. Elle’s visual opposite, she sports neutral-colored knitwear and wears her dark hair in the same flipped bob and headband. She antagonizes Elle, believing she’s trashy, materialistic and ridiculous; Vivian mistakes Elle for her raunch culture counterpart.
The two women’s relationship begins to change at Callahan’s internship. Callahan treats Vivian like a doormat, sending her to fetch coffee and perform busywork. He initially embraces Elle’s opinions but eventually berates her with similar dismissive language. Vivian realizes that even though Elle is the ideal, neither of them is immune to misogyny. They’re teammates, she decides, not competitors; the game is rigged, and neither Jackie nor Marilyn are set to come out on top.
If Elle Woods was a simpler character, she may have lurched toward the pseudo-feminist reflexes of the girlboss — capitalism’s cruel trick that claims the key to female liberation is ruthless corporate success. This mirage of empowerment is attractive, given the way women are socialized to be accommodating and likable. If women are taught to “bend and snap” for the pleasure of other people, then “of course the bitch persona appeals to us. It is the illusion of liberation,” writes Elizabeth Wurtzel in her 1998 book “Bitch.”
As a girlboss, Elle would’ve ratted out Vivian to Warner for pulling the “costume” party stunt, or, most obviously, she would’ve betrayed Brooke’s alibi to Professor Callahan — but she doesn’t. What discerns Elle from the girlboss is her aversion to individualism. She cares deeply for others, she’s a loyal friend to Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) and a forgiving one to Vivian. The way she wins the case optimistically shows that there’s no correct, certain way to be successful and the mythology of the ideal woman is impossible.
While most women may not be Elle, all women know a Warner or a Callahan, which makes Elle’s unabashed triumph aspirational, completely empathetic and satisfying. Her success isn’t about becoming a better market asset; it’s about making the world a better — softer, kinder, more supportive — place.
For Elle, it’s important that “Legally Blonde” ends with her graduation instead of her wedding. She’s found happiness aglow within her, and her confidence brightens the lives of those around her. Happy endings abound. In its famous last line, “Legally Blonde” celebrates collectivity and perseverance: “We did it!” Elle cheers, and as the credits roll, it feels like we can too.