Legally Blonde & The Policing of Femininity

“Policing of femininity was limited to academia & the workplace in Legally Blonde. But, in reality, this issue is bigger than that.

20 years after its premiere, it remains as relevant as ever.”

Let’s talk about Legally Blonde & The Policing of Femininity

Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in "Legally Blonde”. Image via MGM Studios; Marianne Ayala/Insider

Legally Blonde is my favourite movie. I watch it whenever I am heartbroken, feeling down, or when I want to see a lot of pink outfits. When I first watched the movie years ago, I expected a cute and quirky romantic comedy about a sorority girl. Instead, what I got was one of the best feminist accidents I’ve seen. Legally Blonde is an excellent portrayal of the policing of femininity in academia. Twenty years later, and yet this movie is as relevant as ever. We still have so many of the same problems and outdated mindsets. As someone in the STEM field, Legally Blonde became more than just a rom-com; it became an inspiration to me. Similar to Elle Woods, I had trouble navigating the male-dominated world of academia. 

The movie starts with Elle Woods, the sorority girl who thinks her boyfriend is proposing.  While some may view her as ditzy, she is brilliant. When trying to buy a dress, a saleswoman tries to trick Elle into spending more money on an out-of-season dress. Elle quickly sets her straight. Explaining to her that not only can the stitching not work with low viscosity rayon. That she also saw the dress in Vogue last year. Elle’s knowledge in fashion is both incredible and undervalued. But even at the beginning of the movie, the audience sees how academia undervalues knowledge, careers, and interests that women find interesting.

Her boyfriend Warner breaks up with her because he also sees her as frivolous. Saying he needs a “Jackie, not a Marilyn.”. Desperate to get Warner back, Elle decides to apply to Harvard Law to prove she can be serious for him. Later, when she talks to an advisor about applying to Harvard Law, she receives a lot of pushback. All because her major is Fashion Merchandising, and her extracurriculars are sorority-centric. A panel of all-white, presumably cishet men, are the ones who review her application video essay. While her sexuality and beauty are what catch their eyes, the audience sees behind the scenes. Elle studies long and hard to get a 179 on her LSAT, one point shy of a perfect score. The men may not see past their sexual interest in her. But we can see that she is a perfect candidate. 

When Elle gets her acceptance letter and arrives at Harvard, sticking out like a sore thumb, everyone else is very drab and dull, while she is sporting big curls and something pink. Everyone around her constantly telling her that she is not smart or serious enough. Despite getting into Harvard, studying hard, and being nice to everyone, even Warner’s new fiance Vivian.

Elle’s chilly reception isn’t because she is not smart. It’s because she does not reject her femininity to fit in like everyone else. Harvard Law is a toxic masculine environment where she receives little to no support. She can only find this support at a nail salon— a place where women and their interests can take up the space they deserve. Still, as strong as Elle is, she does eventually tone herself down. Gone are her curls and glorious pink outfits. She slowly rejects more and more of herself until she stops wearing pink altogether.

It isn’t until a professor sexually harasses her that she realizes rejecting her femininity. But, unfortunately, becoming something that she is not doesn’t help her. Elle admits to a friend and the audience that she knows most people, including her parents, do not take her seriously. She tells us she knows people see her as “blonde hair and big boobs.” As “a joke,” or “a piece of ass,” but she felt like someone had expected more of her.

Perhaps she even learned to expect more of herself. Just as she is about to leave and go back to LA, Professor Stromwell stops her. Stromwell, the only woman professor we have seen in the movie, inspires her to not “let one stupid prick ruin her life.” From this point on, Elle fully embraces her femininity again, and in the end, it’s what wins the case. Almost everyone around her undervalued Elle’s unique perspective, but it led to the biggest breakthroughs in the case. 

Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods on Left Image via MGM Studios

Legally Blonde challenged so many beliefs about women. But some questions remain, how does this apply to those of us who are not cishet, white, blonde women? How can we even relate to this movie? Legally Blonde shows areas where we still need to do better regarding toxic, unsupportive work and academic environments and hatred of women. Women are pushed into the workforce. Told to work at least twice as hard for less pay and recognition with little to no support.

Although this movie aired in 2001, we still deal with the themes. Even with the Me Too movement, that didn’t gain traction until 2017. In 2021 we are still failing sexual harassment and assault victims. Academic environments still make women tone themselves down to be taken seriously. Classes, career fairs, and jobs have very strict rules about what women can and can’t wear. There is an unwritten rule that in male-dominated fields. Women have to be feminine enough to be desirable. While also not too feminine, so we are taken seriously. Anyone on either end of the spectrum faces ridicule. 

But this goes deeper than just women. This is also about the privileges white women have over their non-white counterparts. The Crown Act, which prevents discrimination based on hair texture, is only passed in 12 states. Women of colour are often told our clothing is inappropriate for the workplace because of how it fits our bodies. As a result, white women can often show up to class and work with their hair wet and in more casual clothing. While myself and other women of colour never receive the same privilege. So we have to make sure we are still “respectable” enough. Also, while not doing so much that we are not taken seriously.

As a Black queer woman, this has been especially hard for me. Myself and other queer, especially trans, women are constantly told how our womanhood is not enough to be desirable by cishet men. Juggling race, sexuality, and the specifics of gender identity to go to class or work are tiring. Tiptoeing on the line of femininity never becomes easier, and it changes constantly. Even if women tread the line of femininity perfectly in the workplace, they face dismissals like Vivian or harassment like Elle. In addition, if women choose to go after careers that focus more on women. They face judgement and ridicule just as Elle was for her Fashion Merchandise major.

Fashion is important for movies, celebrities, politicians, or just for anyone who wears clothes. And yet, it never gets its dues because women like it. Fashion doesn’t get respect because women don’t get respect. Female-dominated careers matter, especially because women matter, and although Elle pursued Law, that does not mean every woman has to pursue a male-dominated career to be important. 

Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods Image via MGM Studios

Despite having so little in common with Elle on the outside, this movie taught me one of the best lessons I have received. Being powerful and successful does not mean forgoing your femininity or not being yourself. Stereotypes are used against us. Many women like pink, are in touch with their emotions and like going to the spa. A lot of women don’t like those things, and that’s okay.

None of that means they would be bad lawyers, doctors, or politicians. Women also do not have to go into male-dominated fields to be serious or the “right” kind of successful. Elle Woods is more than one thing. She is blonde, a lover of pink, a Gemini, vegetarian, and stubborn, ambitious, and smart. She is all of that at once without sacrificing any part of herself. Just as Elle Woods is not just one thing Legally, Blonde is not either. It is a romantic comedy about a blonde sorority girl that challenges stereotypes around gender and empowers women from all backgrounds (even brunettes) to have faith in themselves and the women around them instead of the system that oppresses them.

The policing of femininity was limited to academia & the workplace in Legally Blonde. But, in reality, this issue is bigger than that. Today, 20 years after its premiere, it remains as relevant as ever.

Femininity is policed in every place where women are hated. And it will take a lot more than a romantic comedy to change that. Women from all backgrounds should take a page out of Elle Woods’ book and refuse to tone themselves down just to fit in. What? Like it’s hard?

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