Monday, March 5, 2012

Legally Blonde: Bright Pink Feminism

I've been a fan of Legally Blonde for a long time.  Not since it came out--I didn't see it right away--but definitely for several years.  And when MTV filmed the 2007 Broadway musical, my sister TiVo'd it and we watched it three times in a row.

There are problems with both the film and the musical, and obviously with the general premise of the story.  I want to address some of the more glaring issues before delving into the heart of the matter: why I think this story in both forms is subversively and inherently feminist.

Part 1: The Story:

In this story, UCLA (CULA in the movie) senior Elle Woods, a bubbly, fashion-major, sorority girl, is crushed when her boyfriend, Warner, dumps her when she expects a proposal.  He explains that she's just not serious enough for him, since he's about to go to Harvard Law School to prepare for his political career.  Elle decides the only way to convince Warner to take her back is to go to Harvard herself.  She works hard all semester and is accepted.

When she arrives at Harvard, she's miserable.  Not only is Warner now engaged to Vivian, who is intentionally cruel to her, Elle also finds that for the first time in her life, she does not fit in, socially or academically.  After being humiliated by Vivian at a party, when Warner comes right out and says that she's not smart, Elle decides to buckle down and work her ass off to prove herself to him.

Thanks to her hard work, Elle is noticed by Professor Callahan and and his associate Emmett, and she is one of the four students selected for an internship with Callahan, who is defending Brooke Wyndham, a fitness guru accused of murdering her husband.  Elle throws herself into the case and finally starts to gain acceptance from her peers, including Vivian.  However, after a successful day in court, Callahan makes a pass at Elle, who refuses his advances.  Already upset over the harassment, Elle decides to quit law school after Vivian, who saw the advance but not the aftermath, confronts her.

As Elle prepares to leave Cambridge, another professor runs into her and convinces her not to give up.  Elle does return to court, this time decked out in bright pink with big blonde hair, and Brooke--knowing the whole story--fires Callahan and hires Elle.  Elle, with the support and supervision of Emmett, is able to represent Brooke, and manages to completely and confidently destroy the state's case against Brooke by getting the real murderer to blurt out a confession on the stand.  In the aftermath of the trial, Warner runs after Elle to profess his love for her, telling her that she is the one for him.  After admitting that this is something she's wanted to hear him say, Elle rejects him coldly, recognizing him for what he is--a bonehead--and walks away.

In an epilogue scene two years later, it's revealed that Elle is now the valedictorian of her class, and that she's received an offer to join one of the most prestigious law firms in the Boston area.  It's also revealed that Vivian is still one of Elle's best friends, that Warner graduated with no job offers, and that Emmett, who has been dating Elle since the end of the trial, is about to propose.

Part 2: Feminist analysis

Harvard can't refuse a love so pure and true

One of the things I love about this story is that, at its heart, it's the story of a woman who starts off as desperate to do anything to be someone's wife, and ends up as someone who finds her own worth and her own professional passion.  The musical does a brilliant job of really driving this home at the beginning of the show: Elle's sorority sisters sing to her, a "daughter of Delta Nu," explaining that now her life begins because she's going to be married.  They explain what's expected of her now, that she supports her husband, that she'll keep his house, try not to spend his money, and make sure she stays hot and young-looking so that he won't cheat.

Elle's motivation for going to Harvard is solely to win back Warner.  She doesn't care about anything else besides proving to him that she can be a law student, too.  She's entirely unprepared for law school itself, getting kicked out of class for not doing her reading, bringing a notepad when everyone else has a laptop, and asking for her social events calendar.  In the musical, her steps to success are detailed as: get into Harvard because Warner is there; prove to him that she's brainy; then have a huge wedding.

What's, of course, frustrating about the break-up is that Elle doesn't understand that Warner doesn't care about her.  He breaks up with her not because his feelings towards her have changed, but because she's the beach bunny girlfriend he gets to fuck in college, and not someone he would marry if he wanted to be taken seriously as a politician.  He's engaged to Vivian for the same reason he broke up with Elle--it's about having a female partner who works well as an accessory to his own career.

I love costume parties

Vivian doesn't see through Warner right away either.  She knows about Elle and immediately treats her cruelly, simply because Elle is at Harvard to win back Warner, and is therefore a threat to Vivian.  We get some of Vivian's point of view in the movie when Elle shows up to the party dressed as a Playboy Bunny.  Since Vivian is the one who lied to her and told her it was a costume party, Elle snidely insults her before seeking out Warner.  "She's horrible," Vivian comments to her friend, who reminds her that she, Vivian, is the one with the engagement ring.

At the same party, Elle realizes that getting into Harvard fucking Law still isn't enough to prove to Warner that she's serious and smart.  She even points out the absurdity of it--she got into the same school, and is therefore just as capable as he is.  When he then makes it clear that he thinks she's just not smart, Elle realizes that no, she will never be good enough for him.  And it's true.  In fact, the funny thing is that even by being at Harvard Law, he still won't want to be with her because he's not looking for a partner who's his equal.  He wants a partner who can advance his career.

Four hours?

When Callahan posts his interns for the criminal trial, in both the musical and the movie, Elle reaches a turning point.  At first disappointed that Vivian and Warner have gotten the internship (and, in the musical, absolutely heartbroken that Warner has proposed to Vivian), Elle is gleeful and triumphant when she finds that she got the internship, too.  And that's when she first finds that she finds law to be more fulfilling than her relationship with Warner.  In the movie, she walks right up to him and tells him that getting the internship was so much better than the night she spent four hours fucking him in a hot tub.  In the musical, this scene turns into the song "So Much Better," where she not only embarrassed Warner with the same information, but where she also celebrates the beginning of her legal career, and how she's managed to defy everyone's expectations.  It's significant that the song turns from sadness about the engagement to rubbing it in his face to forgetting all about him as she realizes how amazing this opportunity is.


It's during the Wyndham case that Elle and Vivian (and in the musical, Elle and Enid) become friendly, and where Callahan's sexism begins to show.  In the film, Callahan always insists that Vivian bring him his coffee, which she notices and resents.  Vivian and Elle bond over some depositions, as well as their shared interest--Warner.  It's revealed that both of them consider Warner quite spoiled and helpless; he's never done his own laundry, and he was wait-listed at Harvard.  It's at this point where it becomes clear that both Vivian and Elle are too good for Warner.

Additionally, Callahan shows no trust in or respect for Brooke, his client, who insists she is innocent, but refuses to reveal her alibi.  As Elle herself notes, it's not worth jeopardizing their client's trust by revealing the alibi (which Elle got by showing respect), and part of their job is to convince the jury that Brooke is innocent regardless of whether or not she has an alibi.  Vivian (Emmett in the musical) acknowledges that by keeping the alibi secret, Elle is actually being an extremely professional and ethical lawyer.  Callahan isn't either one, as demontrated by his treatment of the women on his team and his own client.

You almost had me fooled

Callahan's pass at Elle (feeling up her thigh in the movie, kissing her in the musical) and his demeanor when she confronts and rejects him, implies strongly that the entire reason he hired her as an intern was because he intended to fuck her.  While it seems unlikely he would have hired her if she hadn't been qualified (he doesn't even take much notice of her until she begins to excel in his class), the key to the implication is that Elle's confidence is shattered.  Rather than destroying him for what he did, she questions her competence.  This is the first time since she began to excel that she's been reminded that some people see her as a stereotypical dumb blonde.  In the movie, Vivian has seen the pass but not the rejection, and immediately confronts Elle, feeling betrayed by her new friend.  In the musical, Vivian sees the rejection and it's Warner who harasses her about the pass.  The reason for this change is to give Vivian a reason to talk Elle out of leaving; that role went to Professor Stromwell in the movie, but her role was cut out of the musical.

And indeed, in the movie, as Elle tells her friend Paulette, a beautician, that she's leaving Harvard, Professor Stromwell, a ridiculously intimidating professor, confronts her, knowingly saying that if Elle is going to let her entirely life be ruined by one asshole, she's not the girl the professor thought she was.  Not that the professor would know this, but it's absolutely true already--Elle wouldn't let her life be ruined after her break-up with Warner, and she's sure as hell not going to let one asshole perv ruin her law career.  Having a female mentor, especially one who is known for being a ball-buster (really), basically say, "You are compentent, by the way, so stop being an idiot," is the perfect kick in the pants for Elle.

You've got the best frickin' shoes!

In the musical, with Stromwell's role cut, Vivian, with Enid's help, talks Elle off the ledge.  Vivian explains that Elle is actually her new role model, even if she didn't want to admit it.  And while the loss of Stromwell does kind of suck, it's pretty brilliant to see Vivian, Enid, and Brooke in the courtroom, telling Callahan to fuck off, to make way for Elle.  The fact is that Elle has proven herself to be an extremely brilliant, capable, and passionate law student, and Vivian does not want to lose her new role model.

And, of course, the entire court case is demolished by Elle's own understanding of sex, gender, and fashion.  While it's not enough to say that knowing shoe designers or being immune to the bend and snap means a man is totally gay, it's definitely a lead.  By at least pursuing that line of questioning, Brooke's legal team (in this case, Emmett, working on Elle's tip) gets the poolboy to admit that he's gay, and therefore wouldn't have been having an affair with Brooke, like he said.

As Elle takes over for the fired Callahan near the end of the film, she clues in on a major discrepency.  Callahan, who seems unable to respect women at all, completely misses a problem with the alibi of the deceased's daughter, Chutney.  Chutney claims she didn't hear a gunshot because she was in the shower, and because of the delay between her finishing her shower and finding Brooke cradling the body, Brooke must have had time to stash the weapon.  But when Elle, floundering a bit, learns that Chutney says she got a perm that day, she immediately becomes confident and professional, cleverly leading Chutney into a trap, and then decisively tearing apart the alibi.  Chutney breaks down and admits that she, not Brooke, is the real murderer.

I had some serious cottage cheese showing up on my ASS

It's worth noting at this point that Brooke's alibi would have been easily confirmed and would have been proof of her innocence.  So why did she refuse to reveal it to anyone except Elle (and the audience)?  Because Brooke, the fitness queen, who makes a living by having a perfectly toned ass, was getting liposuction.  "It's not like real women can have this ass!" she cries in the movie.  What I love about this confession is something that a lot of women have long known or at least suspected: that the Western standard of beauty is not natural, but something that you must purchase.  And Brooke is absolutely right--if it were to become public that her body was the product of plastic surgery and not her patented exercise regime, she would be branded a fraud and she would lose her fitness empire.

But if I'm going to be a partner in a law firm by the time I'm 30, I need a boyfriend who's not such a complete bonehead

Elle's rejection of Warner at the end of the story varies between the film and the musical.  In the film, it's implied that he hasn't actually broken up with Vivian, and is waiting to see if Elle will take him back (or really let him take HER back) now that she's about to become famous and successful.  She sees right through him and rejects him with the same kind of language that he used to break up with her--by telling him that she can't date someone like him because it'll hurt her career.  BAM.  And then Vivian breaks up with him, too.

In the musical, Elle is much kinder.  She guesses correctly that Vivian has already dumped Warner, and it seems more as if Warner just doesn't want to be single.  When Elle rejects him, it's with thanks, since he was inadvertently the catalyst that led her to discover her calling as a lawyer.  I'm a fan of both rejections, as each one fits its particular brand of Elle Woods quite well.

Granted, not a complete surprise

In the end, during the graduation scene, it's revealed that Elle and Emmett are about to be engaged.  In the film, it's revealed in text that Emmett is going to propose to Elle that night, after graduation celebrations have ended.  While it's slightly disappointing (the point is that Elle is no longer desperate for a proposal), it is a somewhat nice bookend, and contrast to the beginning of the film.  Elle is no longer obsessed with getting married, but now looking forward to her law career, and Emmett is a character who has valued her and thought of her as worthy throughout the film.

In the musical, though, it's actually Elle who proposes to Emmett, after giving her valedictorian speech.  While it's not as neat a bookend as the film, it serves to show that Elle is no longer waiting to be chosen by a man, even if it's a man who's in love with her and values her highly.  It's nice to see her continue to take her future into her own hands.

Subtext, by Calvin Klein

One major addition to the musical that the film flopped a bit on is the relationship between Elle and Emmett.  In the film, he seems to be a mysterious guy she sees around campus, and then works with.  They do seem to kindle a friendship during the trial, but it's not terribly surprising when he's unable to convince her to stay after she's harassed by Callahan.

In the musical, after bumping into Elle after her humiliation at the "costume" party (a scene in the film shows that he does see her after the party, but that's the end of the interaction), Emmett admonishes her for coming out to Harvard just for Warner, when she has a great opportunity to actually, you know, be a lawyer.  His character is entirely fleshed out; he grew up in the Roxbury slums and "hasn't slept since 1992" because he's been working so hard.  His working class status is cemented in his wardrobe as well, wearing a ratty corduroy suit to the trial.  He helps Elle study and as the months go by, they appear to have an attraction to each other.

During the trial, Elle is yelled at by Callahan for not revealing Brooke's alibi; Callahan also snaps at Emmett for not successfully leading the interns, and makes a nasty comment about Emmett's clothing.  Elle realizes that Emmett is really unhappy about his failure to impress Callahan, and brings him to a department store to buy him a professional looking suit.  During this sequence in the musical, Elle gleefully shops for Emmett ("God, I love shopping for guys!") while Emmett starts to realize that he's falling in love with her (resulting in one of the best jokes in the show: "Subtext, by Calvin Klein").  Soon after, Callahan makes his move, and as Elle makes the decision to leave, Emmett tries to tell her that he loves her, but she can't hear him.  While the scene in the movie is quite sweet, and reveals that Emmett might have feelings for Elle, it's much more moving in the musical, where he admits it outright, and where the audience has seen the very deep relationship developing over the course of the show.

By the end of the show, when Elle proposes to Emmett, the payoff is much, much more meaningful than it is in the movie.  In the movie, it matters a lot more that Elle is about to embark on what will be an incredible legal career; in the musical, that's still important, but the marriage proposal feels less tagged on.  There's also something to be said for how hilarious it is when Emmett reacts to the proposal singing, "Oh my oh my OH MY GOD," as well as how nothing is actually made of the fact that it's Elle who's proposing with a ring.  For him.

Part 3: Problems


Let's be honest here: There is no way that Elle would have gotten into Harvard Law School.  The movie and musical both include scenes where three other students give their credentials, and it's obvious that Elle is way out of her league.  PhDs, prestigious scholarships, years of volunteer work ... and Elle just has her sorority work, some charity work, and her ability to talk celebrities out of buying unfashionable clothing.  A 4.0 from UCLA and a 179 (175 in the musical) on the LSAT are both fantastic, but even so, not enough for Harvard Law if you don't have anything else.  And the whole point of the personal essay is that you actually have to write it, within the limits.

I'm not entirely clear on exactly how criminal court cases work, but I'm not sure everything in the story really works.  Frequently, the defense is learning information for the first time during the trial, but the prosecution has to share everything with the defense--so why is this happening in the story?  I mean, other than to give Elle a chance to prove herself.

Finally, while I love this story a lot, there's one other huge thing we need to address: Elle, an extremely privileged, ridiculously wealthy, smart, popular, conventionally attractive, white woman faces all of these obstacles and discrimination because ... she's blonde?  I understand that her blondeness isn't just supposed to be her hair color, but also her sorority girlishness.  But even so, she's incredibly privileged, and it's hard to really feel like she's faced that much adversity.

The movie:

My least favorite part of the movie?  Enid Hoops, staw feminist.  Enid is portrayed as an over-the-top "crazy" feminist, who has a women's studies degree, who's worked to help the underprivileged, and who's a proud lesbian.  Obviously, while these things are really ... normal to me in real life, she's portrayed as militant.  She also rants at Warner for a bit about how it's sexist for schools to use "semesters" because it shows that academia values semen over ovaries.  This is a false comparison anyway (ovaries could be compared to testicles, not semen), and it's just plain wrong because "semester" isn't DERIVED from "semen," linguistically.  Nope nope nope.  Enid is also cruel to Elle from the beginning, taunting Elle and accusing her of bigotry.  I won't claim "no true Scotsman" here, but it's worth noting how little sense this actually makes.  Elle has done and said nothing to garner Enid's scorn beyond being a stereotypical sorority blonde, and while perhaps Enid is just not a nice person, the film makes it out to seem as if Enid is not nice because she's a darn feminist.

It's worth noting that the musical almost entirely fixed this problematic character.  In the musical, Enid is still the same kind of stereotypical feminist.  She's an out lesbian who believes that she has to become a lawyer because it's time for women to fix this country's problems.  But she's played as friendly and reasonable.  Her lesbianism is somewhat of a joke at times; she enjoys watching Brooke's sexy exercise video, and she joins in with Warner asking Elle to repeat the bend and snap.  I'm not entirely happy that her sexuality is played for laughs, but she's not ridiculed for it.  She's given a better role than she had in the film, she's openly supportive of Elle around the time where Vivian became supportive in the film, and she's working with Vivian to convince Elle to stay at Harvard.  And the look on her face when she gets a perm is priceless.

I also wasn't totally on board with the romantic relationship between Elle and Emmett, which doesn't actually come into play until the epilogue of the movie.  It seemed as if the two characters had a budding friendship, and that Emmett was more of a mentor to Elle, but having him about to propose to her in the epilogue felt almost tagged on, as if to say, "Don't worry, she still gets to be in a relationship!"  It wasn't entirely awful, just too tagged on, as I said.

The musical:

The musical had to drop a couple of things that I really, really liked about the original movie.  They did make some changes that were huge improvements, but there were some changes that didn't work for me.

First, the friendship between Elle and Vivian was completely lost in the show.  By the time Elle proves that the poolboy was lying about his affair with Brooke, Elle and Vivian are already tentatively friends.  When Vivian believes that Elle is sleeping with Callahan, it's heartbreaking, not just because Elle feels as if her whole world is falling apart, but also because Vivian feels as if she's put herself out there, being friends with Elle.  In the musical, since Vivian is the one who talks Elle into staying at Harvard, she does see that Elle rejects Callahan.  But her turn seems abrupt.  It doesn't seem entirely unwarranted; again, she sings about how she really didn't want to like Elle, but now finds her inspirational.  But I loved Elle and Vivian's friendship in the film.

The musical touted the idea that girls have to stick together, and not make themselves look better by making other women look bad.  It's actually a great point, and that's one of the reasons why Vivian wants Elle to stay.  But the movie's friendship made that point better without having to come out and say it, and it also addressed the true reason for the animosity between the women: Warner.  It was important that he was the reason they hated each other, and it was just as important that they became friends while he was still a factor.  Vivian was still engaged to him, and Elle, for all intents and purposes, was still hoping to be with him.  What changed?  Vivian had seen Warner be a jerk (he told Elle to give up the alibi and to think of herself and not Brooke), as had Elle, and Elle had begun to forget about Warner as she focused on law.  But they didn't seem to realize that as they bonded.

Closing thoughts:

This film and musical aren't for everyone.  The musical is available on Youtube; MTV actually filmed a performance.  It's a bit distracting because it's a sing-along (so there are words on screen during  songs), and because MTV's behind the scenes crap is very stupid.  Elle Woods in the musical is a much more relatable character, but Reese Witherspoon is pretty hilarious in the movie.  The biggest difference is that movie-Elle doesn't change much beyond no longer needing a relationship (or specifically, Warner's approval and love) to be the person she wants to be.  Musical-Elle doesn't become 100% serious, but she certainly matures more and by the end, her residual silly-dumb-blondeness characteristic is her insistence on wearing bright pink.

If you can get over the fact that Elle Woods wouldn't have gotten into Harvard, and that the legal aspects of the movie are a bit, "Huh?" the story is pretty damn enjoyable.  And honestly, by the end of it, I think it's important to note that part of feminism is that people can express their own gender in whatever way they see fit.  Elle Woods, accomplished law student and soon-to-be lawyer, is not less of a success story because she's a blonde sorority girl who loves all things pink and fuzzy (seriously, check out her room in the movie).  She is not less of a success story because she does the bend and snap and has a tiny dog.  She's not less of a success story because she still gets engaged by the end of the story, and that engagement is still important to her.

And honestly, the bend and snap?  Works every time!


  1. I found this post on Legal Blonde, a favorite film of youth, to be both socially informative and morally insightful. The author of this post is clearly an assiduous student and a pupil at BU so I guess her insight on Enid has valid merit(Boston marriage). The only thing I question was I believe Elle was not valedictorian, but instead class elected speaker. As far as everything else goes brilliant work.
    Politcal science and history double major(and American film enthusiast)

  2. Thank you for your post. I have recently begun working on a production of the show and watched the Musical and am in the process of re watching the film.

    I was struck by the changes made to the musical. Some seemed warranted for the translation, but severely damaging. Like the removal of Stromwell. Vivian's approval of Elle feels less weighty than Stromwell's. In large part because Stromwell is a role model because she is a strong woman in a man's world and Vivian is only a role model because she is in the role of Warner's fiance.

    The development of the love interest with Emmett is not surprising, given the musical format, but I felt that it robbed Elle of the self motivation to buckle down and study. Instead she is having the opportunity she has been given explained to her by a man. One who is more open and accepting, but still. Which I think it kind of problematic. Like you, I think I would have rather seen time given to developing her relationship with Vivian.

    Little changes were also perplexing. Like the change from the 179 score to the 175 score. And the bathroom stunt. I suppose it is more "theatrical" but as a technician it feels like a lot of extra work for just a wig gag. And I found the display less impressive than Elle convincing and captivating based on the strength of her case. Paulette's Irish thing was also weird. Technically a lot of that plot seems to exist to cover scene changes.

    As to the getting into Harvard on not enough merits. This I almost like. It is made clear in both the film and the musical that Elle is approved by the board more for her appearance than her merits. ("Gentlemen, this isn't it's Harvard Law) Women are often given more opportunities if they are conventionally attractive, Elle's challenge is not to overcome the discrimination that Blondes, attractive women, or women in general face, but to overcome the limited expectations put upon any of these groups. And to succeed not based on the rules as written (as Vivian would have if not for her encounter with Elle) but to succeed on her own terms and writing her own rules. She gets this opportunity because of prejudices and makes use of the opportunity far beyond expectations.

    I'd love to chat more about it. Who doesn't love a good feminist debate?