The Parable of Elle Woods
A quick Googling of the definition of ‘parable’ tells me they are akin to stories that contain a moral truth, lesson or simple allegory. A quick Googling is all I am willing to do in the research of this article. Legally Blonde was released in cinemas in 2001, its story is a clear ‘don’t’ judge a book by its cover’ tale, thus I imagine many feminist film writings have already been written on the topic. So this piece is very much a ‘my positive thoughts about the subtext’ article within the context of first seeing Legally Blonde at the age of twenty-four in 2016. Essentially I want to keep things simple, much like the spirit of the film, thus academic research may drag down what I am trying to achieve: making sure people keep talking about the simple and good lessons in this parable.
ANYWAY. Legally Blonde, eh? It’s a good film. Brisk, delightfully direct, earnest, optimistic, funny and very likeable. Am I describing the film itself or its protagonist Elle Woods? Both! And just like Elle Woods the film has an intelligent core that some may too readily dismiss. I should emphasise the use of the word ‘some’. Obviously many people recognise Legally Blonde as the subversively feminist text sitting under the light hearted rom-com trappings, it has much skill in not hiding that fact nor hitting the audience over the head with it. I described the film as ‘simple’, but I do not mean stupid, I mean (as also stated previously) the moral is ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ via more contemporary feminism.
First things first, how would one describe Legally Blonde‘s tone? I already described it as light hearted. Earlier I also picked the word ‘parable’ for a reason. There is something very fairy tale about the portrayal of reality. Obviously a film this pink isn’t going for a realist aesthetic, but it pushes a hyper version of reality quite far. As Elle demonstrates a move to catch the eye of a man to her friend Paulette, the entire nail salon they’re in erupts into a comical sequence of every woman trying to mimic the move. This moment is reminiscent of when everybody in a scene suddenly bursts into song in a musical. When Brooke is charged with murder she has an alibi that she was receiving liposuction, however she refuses to use it to not corrupt her image as a fitness instructor. Both of these instances, amongst others, are clear examples of heightened reality. This is important because of Elle as a character. An argument could be made that Elle is a Mary Sue. That she is without relevant flaws and learns nothing throughout the film.
However, the tone being one of heightened reality allows the film to tell its parable through Elle being somewhat perfect. That’s the point. She’s smart, kind, she knows what she wants and what she likes and can commit herself to hard-work. Thus proving how ridiculous it is that her major conflict is that no one sees these qualities because she dresses in pink, loves fashion, doesn’t hide a leisurely attitude and probably appears like a valley girl stereotype to some. Elle doesn’t match the traditional imagery of a female intellectual and thus is assumed to be stupid. Or to put it another way: Elle lives in a world where even Mary Sues are considered incompetent because of optics.
The only thing she ‘learns’ over the course of the film is not in any way drastically personality changing, she’s the same person in terms of how and why she does stuff, she simply finds a career she likes and rejects her idiot of an ex. I could see some people arguing that the film is sexist because the action is initiated by the protagonist trying to win back her ex: a Harvard law student with clear potential for a career in high politics. However Elle isn’t with him for his potential gains, she’s with him because she loves him. So even when she does the ‘wrong’ thing it’s for decent reasons. In fact Legally Blonde walks this thematic tightrope with the character of Emmett too.
Emmett is another Mary Sue. He’s the man who is what men should be like. Primarily that he’s accepting of who Elle is and what she wants to achieve without even blinking. He sees no reason to have no faith in her becoming a lawyer just because she’s wearing pink. Another possible criticism could be that Elle achieves her ‘goal’ in the film by starting a relationship with Emmett at the end. One might argue that this means the film is sexist for having the protagonist overcome her problems by winning a good man. However their relationship is only revealed by on-screen writing in the final moments of the film, it is an afterthought. The actual climax is Elle winning a murder trial, wherein those who believed in her (Emmett and Brooke) benefit and those who didn’t (Professor Callahan and Warner) lose out. Callahan loses a case along with the money and prestige it would carry and Warner is rejected by Elle and fails academically due to his uselessness in the trial. So a further addendum to the moral of the story could be a loss of personal opportunity when judging a book by its cover.
Clearly then the story in broad strokes demonstrates one shouldn’t assume ‘girlishness’ means you aren’t equipped for law school. But how does the film critique that societal flaw outside of narrative beats? Firstly Elle’s parents are dismissive of her aims of going to law school. They consider her unable to do the work and dismiss the idea that she really wants to do this. They think she’s being a fickle little girl. Importantly this viewpoint is mostly espoused by her father. This is the most direct reference to the patriarchy in Legally Blonde. Secondly, Warner dumps Elle because she doesn’t match the traditional imagery for a politician’s wife. He states she’s a Marilyn, not a Jackie. Essentially he considers her worth sleeping with as a party girl for a few years, before finding a woman to marry with a more traditional image of a politician’s wife. This is all in spite of her genuinely serious devotion to him. Both Elle’s significant other and parents have her pigeon-holed simply because of her image and demeanour. Legally Blonde is pushing the ideals of feminism past simple economic inequalities, but to a place where strong women can look like Elle. This point isn’t made more clear than by the feminists in the film.
Early in the film Elle clashes with what are clearly supposed to be the caricatures young and aspiring feminists. They dismiss her due to her fashion-obsessed appearance and apparent lack of intellectual pursuits. For them Elle isn’t what a feminist hero is supposed to look like. I could see their characterisation being treated as an example of ‘straw feminism’, however I’d find that somewhat reductive. The film isn’t saying ‘this is what feminists are like’ but rather ‘some feminists might feel a feminist is supposed to act a certain way’. Now, this can be a contentious issue. Debating how ‘feminism’ feels about sexualisation, fashion culture and so on, is a long series of debates in and of itself. So I’ll just say that Elle does fit easily with some branches of feminism and less easily into others. I don’t believe a film with this much of a feminist subtext would be disdainful towards feminism. It is likely instead that these ‘feminists’, in the parable, represent further this idea of what intellectuals look like. These ‘feminists’ are law students at Harvard, not the average woman on the street. Elle is even being judged for not looking like a feminist regardless of how else she acts.
In her subplot with Paulette, Elle is clearly acting according to feminist principles or those outside of academic exercises anyway. She helps Paulette gain a sense of control over her life (specifically her dog) and encourages confidence in her sexuality. The sequence in which Elle teaches Paulette how to seduce a man (to ‘snap and pop’) is notable for several reasons. The sequence treats women seducing men as normal and has the method of seduction be pro-active rather than submissive. Elle literally teaches Paulette to thrust her body towards the man she wants. It is rare to see female sexuality ever treated as something other than submissive and coy. Often when female sexuality is more aggressive it is done by women who are less than emotionally healthy, or are described as ‘slutty’. (It is somewhat unfortunate however that there is some underlying classism with Paulette’s ex being stereotyped as trailer park trash.) It is even more refreshing that the man Paulette wishes to attracts is someone she just wants to sleep with (as far as what can be inferred from dialogue and body language) rather than necessarily have a long term relationship. Rather than her aim to be marriage and children, she just wants to bang the hot delivery man just because she wants to.
This positive treatment of female sexuality is further deepened by the negative portrayal of how sex is often co-erced by men in powerful positions. Elle is shown to be partially accepted into Harvard by Callahan as part of a diversity scheme. (Elle is white and upper class, so the joke here is that someone that dresses like her can be considered ‘diverse’ to the old white men in power.) Later on Callahan attempts to get sexual favours from Elle in clear exchange for academic and professional bonus’. The film doesn’t pretend Elle would go for this even for a moment. Elle’s image is classified as a sexual playgirl by her lecturer and as stated previously that underestimation by him ultimately ruins his aims.
And then there’s Vivian… Mean Vivian. Cruel Vivian. Whilst a screen caption informs us that ultimately Vivian dumps Warner and befriends Elle, for her entire screen time she is more or less an antagonist. She makes Elle’s life harder than it has to be at Harvard and is generally hateful. On the other hand, if the film is viewed from Vivian’s perspective she doesn’t have a good deal either. She’s a trophy for Warner. Callahan uses her to fetch coffee. And the kindest person in her life (her enemy Elle) is a rival for Warner’s affections. Ultimately Elle and Vivian bond over the fact they’re both being used by the same two men (Warner and Callahan) and gain from their rejection of these men’s terms. Legally Blonde is obviously making a statement here about patriarchal standards also being contributed to by the same women that are oppressed by said patriarchal standards. Vivian is the only character to move past pre-conceptions about Elle, because she’s suffered from similar conditions. Even though Warner begs Elle to come back to him, he’s only doing it because she’s closer to his ideal as a now successful lawyer.
So in Legally Blonde Vivian gets to change, but Elle doesn’t. That’s okay because Elle doesn’t need to change, its others that need to change their perceptions of her. Society quite literally benefits by not doubting her when she prevents an innocent woman from going to jail. One doesn’t have to dress a certain way or maintain certain hobbies to be considered intellectual either. Feminism isn’t just about theory, but also practice. (The irony of me using vague feminist film theory isn’t lost on me here.) Ultimately Elle Woods can teach us that inequality is not just expressed through the abuse women suffer and the jobs women lack, but also the simple expectation of women to look a certain way when doing a specific action, be it law, love or plain old seduction. Let’s hope this is one parable we’ll repeat throughout the ages, because when Elle Woods turns up to win a case, she dresses in pink.