25 February 2022
In early January, Mindy Kaling set film Twitter buzzing when she told Access that Legally Blonde 3 will start filming this year. The writer was tight lipped on plot points but did confirm the return of star Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Coolidge as Paulette “bend and snap” Bonafonte.
What is it about Legally Blonde that has audiences twenty years after its 2001 premier? The volume of endlessly quotable one-liners? Elle’s iconic pink-on-pink outfit artistry? Or maybe, it’s because this seemingly bubbly rom-com actually comprises subversive social commentary, feminist ideals, and celebration of women’s value to the legal profession and society itself.
What, like it’s hard?
The famous philosopher William Godwin once said, “Law is made for man.” Some hundred years later, a wise beauty technician said, “Law school is for people who are boring and ugly and serious.”
They were both right. Though women now outnumber men in the legal professional overall, seventy per cent of lucrative partnership positions are held by men. The minority that do attain powerful roles often do so at a cost; two of the four female US Supreme Court judges are childless compared to one of the eight male judges.
Portrayals of female lawyers in film and television reflect (and possibly reinforce) this disparity. From Ally McBeale (an ambitious litigator who ultimately chose motherhood over partnership), to Sex and the City’s Miranda Hobbes (a short-tempered – and short haired- self-sufficient career woman), female lawyer characters succeed when they act “like men”; aggressive, unemotional, and ruthlessly self-interested.
Legally Blonde however, flipped this stereotype on its head with Elle Woods. This was a character who did not succeed in spite of her femininity, but because of it. Though not producers’ first or even second choice (bizarrely, it was feared she was “not sexy enough”), in hindsight Reese Witherspoon was genius casting, playing the role with sweetness, comic timing, and never grating or unlikeable. Which, in 2001, was quite a tall order.
The nineties’ simultaneous dawn of the tough chick and “bitchification” arguably devalued traditional expressions of femininity. It was a tough decade to grow up female. Then again, aren’t they all?
As an eleven year old girl in 2001, I doubt I was very cognizant of limited gender equality in the legal profession. But I was all too familiar with the derision of girlhood. Aware or not, like most women growing up post-1950 my self-worth was seriously eroded by social conditioning intended to consolidate male power and supremacy.
Young women were expected to be many things. Polite. Humble. High achieving. But at times it seems like the only thing they are truly valued for is their youth and sexuality.
And believe me, we received the message loud and clear. The word “schoolgirl” was not synonymous with academics, but with taboo male fantasies. Cheerleaders, the majority of whom take up the sport in their teens, were equally fetishised rather than applauded for their athleticism.
Even today, the highest paid model in the world is Kendall Jenner, twenty-six (she began this career at thirteen). A recent survey of dating app users concluded that eighteen was the age of peak swipe-ability for men up to the age of fifty.
But paradoxically, any demonstration or cultivation of sexual attractiveness such as dieting, heavy makeup, and flirtatious behaviour was at best ridiculed and at worst, utterly dehumanised.
But nobody told Elle Woods that.
Like Ms. Woods herself, Legally Blonde is syrup sweet, upbeat, and unashamedly girly. Sure, Elle is swept off her feet by a dreamy professor. And yes, she cracks the climactic legal case with an unrehearsed closing statement of dubious legal merit.
But in a subversive twist, Elle’s inner growth is not reflected in a tough-chick makeover ala Grease. This is a character who refuses to play by men’s rules and accept that law is a man’s world. She makes the world her own, giving it new colours and a shiny makeover. Blonde, of course.
Girls’ Locker Room Talk: Art, articles and entertainment for women (and everyone else)