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Legally Blonde and Feminism

For the last week, I’ve been on a road trip with my hiking cat getting out of the California smoke. I got a motel room last night so that my little monster could get some a/c after a few days of hikes in the desert heat and I have zero regrets. For one, a motel in the middle of nowhere Arizona is as cheap as a campsite, and I needed a shower about as badly as my cat needed air conditioning.

One of my favorite parts of staying in motels is television. I’m a millennial, so I have never paid for cable in my life. No one my age can afford it, and who needs it when a netflix subscription is only $10 a month? I have major cable nostalgia though and every time I stay in a hotel I get really excited to put on USA and binge a night’s worth of Law and Order SVU, which is exactly what I did last night. On a commercial break I was flipping channels and Legally Blonde was on, I tuned in right as Elle is getting to Harvard and I forgot all about Olivia Benson.

For most women around my age, Legally Blonde is a go-to feel good movie. It’s cute, it’s witty, and Reese Witherspoon manages to play ditzy in a hilarious way. When I looked beneath the surface jokes I realized that Elle Woods, while definitely ditzy, is never stupid. She’s naive, she’s obsessed with material things, and I would argue that she is the O.G Basic Bitch. But she is not stupid. In fact, she has a more dedicated work ethic than a lot of people I know, including myself. She never half asses anything, and when she sets her sights on something she works until she gets it. When she wanted to follow Warren to Harvard, she dedicated herself to studying for the LSAT and made a hollywood level video application. She knows what she has to do and is willing to make sacrifices in order to bring her dreams to life.

I think that confidence is what attracted my generation to Elle Woods. We have been indoctrinated with insecurities since childhood and spent most of our formative years wishing that we could ever be so bold as to be ourselves. When we see Elle arrive at Harvard, everyone’s eyes on her, we cringe even though she doesn’t. Even when she’s humiliated after being tricked into wearing a bunny costume to a not-costume party, she takes a deep breath, walks up to her enemy and lands a solid burn before leaving to flirt with her boyfriend! That is a boldness on a level that my high school self could only achieve when having imaginary arguments in the shower.

Elle does conform a bit after that party, because Warren told her that she was dumb. It’s what he implied when he broke up with her but she didn’t get it not because she was stupid, but because she was naive. At the party he spells it out for her but does she go hide in her room and cry like I would have? No! She goes in full bunny costume to buy a laptop and spends every second studying. She doesn’t stop doing all the things that she loves. We still see her in the salon and on the elliptical, but instead of reading a magazine – she’s studying. She stays true to herself while simultaneously applying herself in a field that everyone has told her she’s not good enough for because she clearly does not believe them. I’m going to say something pretty radical here – she knows her worth.

During this part of the movie, she does start wearing more muted colors and I wonder if she’s actually trying to conform to Harvard, or if she’s so busy with her studies that she can’t be bothered to accessorize. I think it’s a combination of the two, honestly. There’s a wonderfully peppy montage showing us how she applies herself in classes and starts to fit in with the other law students, who warm to her after they see that she is truly kind and willing to stand up for the underdog and lend a hand.

She’s eventually offered an internship with Professor Callahan and ends up on a team defending one of her idols, Brooke Taylor Windham, who has been accused of killing her husband. When it turns out that Callahan only offered her the position to get in her pants, she leaves. She doesn’t succumb to the pressure put on her by a man in a position of power, she leaves. She almost leaves town and law school until another bad ass bitch, Professor Stromwell, tells her to shake it off and keep going. Women encouraging women.

When Brooke finds out about Callahan being a total sleeze, she fires him and hires Elle as her attorney. Elle shows up in full Pink, with a sparkly belt accent on her dress and Bruiser in her purse, hair blown out to the heavens. She shows up to her big moment as herself. She does get nervous (brilliantly played by Witherspoon, by the way), but in the end she wins the case because she was smart enough to catch a gaping hole in the witness’s story that no one else had caught. It was so simple – the real murderer said she was showering at the time that Brooke was murdering her father, but also said she’d just got a perm that day. Everyone who lived through the nineties knows you can’t get a perm wet for 24 hours. Since the crazy daughter still had her curls intact, she was clearly lying. Elle exposing her story as a sham causes her to lose it and scream across the courtroom that she meant to kill Brooke and killed her father on accident. The case against Brooke is thrown out, Elle won. She won as herself, not a cookie cutter. Not how anyone expected, but in a fashion that was true to herself.

I wonder if a person who doesn’t like Legally Blonde (I’ve never met one) thinks that this movie is stupid, about a dumb blonde bimbo and girls that went crazy for Spice World go crazy over this movie because that’s what crazy girls do. On the surface it can seem like a fluff story of no importance, but I would argue that it’s a feminist anthem. Just because Elle doesn’t look or act like RBG doesn’t mean she’s not following the same path. She never changed herself for anyone but herself, in the end. She became what she wanted to be. Circumstances in her life pointed her in directions that she wouldn’t have otherwise gone, but isn’t that true for all of us? I once had a bad break up and then jumped on a bus and moved to California to work in a national park that I had never been to before. Just because we do something drastic in the throes of heartbreak doesn’t mean that we’re ditzy, it’s just how life goes sometimes.

Elle may be the O.G Basic Bitch, but she shows us that there is nothing wrong with being basic if that’s what you like. Wear pink, drink pumpkin spice, study something you’re passionate about and kick ass at it. Underneath the pink and the glitter, Legally Blonde is a movie about true feminism. It may be dressed up and not easy to recognize, but it’s true. It’s a movie about a young woman who, in response to getting dumped, applies for law school and wins a major criminal case as a first year student after rejecting advances from her powerful professor and mentor. She propelled herself upward and brought all of her friends with her, she was never too busy to lend a hand where she was needed. She kept an open mind and heart, forgave freely and rarely judged. And everyone in the movie wanted to write her off because she liked pink a lot?

No. No thank you. This movie inspires women everywhere to be themselves and to not let any man stop us from reaching for our dreams, and it reminds us that we should never judge a book by its cover. Just because a movie may look like it’s about a basic bitch going to law school, doesn’t mean it’s not a feminist masterpiece.

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