A look at why Elle Woods, of Legally Blonde fame, should be considered an icon of twenty-first century feminism.
It could have been the sugar high I was getting from the gimicky cup of pink sweets the theatre was selling, or perhaps the fact that our £23 crappy second-balcony tickets were upgraded on arrival to three or four rows from the front, centre-stage, but I was, in all honesty, extremely happy sat there in the Savoy Theatre, watching Legally Blonde: the Musical. The songs were good, the acting, the singing and the dancing were fantastic. But I think what really got me were the feel-good feminist undertones and the inspirational message of the story. (This may sound ridiculous, but bear with me).
Although light and frivolously delivered, Legally Blonde the film and the musical echo some very important aspects of feminism over the last few decades. Elle Wood’s transformation from a romantic bimbo into a successful graduate from Harvard law school is encouraging, but the way she enters this fierce, male-dominated domain remaining a well-principled individual is inspirational.
Some cynics may disrepute Elle Woods as an icon of feminism and say that the only reason she decided to go to law school is to chase a man. Which is true. But isn’t her recovery from this break-up impressive? She doesn’t give up on men altogether, but instead finds a great guy who respects her (forgive the cliché) for who she is, and most importantly, she stops seeing romantic love as her life’s only ambition, and instead discovers her talent in a field where she can help society and spread a more productive, altruistic kind of love. Is it not in fact reminiscent of the famous scene in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House where Nora leaves Torvald? (Answer: Yes, and Elle Woods has actually made plans.)
By the end of the film she is a strong but kind-hearted vision of success, not an aggressive man-hater like the lesbian on her course played by Meredith Scott Lynn, or a bitchy woman-hater like Vivien, who has imitated men in order to succeed. Elle challenges the idea that you must be cruel and macho to succeed in life – throughout the film and the musical, she is a consistent, skilled do-gooder, helping Paulette get her darling dog back after a traumatic break-up, assisting a geeky guy on her course in getting a date, and furthering Emmett’s career by teaching him to dress more professionally.
Elle is an example of a woman who achieves success without sacrificing her principles or her identity. In the musical, when Elle has become disheartened by the unwelcome sexual approaches of Professor Callahan, Vivien tries to cheer her up and urges her to get back into her dull black suit and continue with the case. A great moment ensues when Elle refuses, emerging onto stage in a little pink number, and voicing her determination to do things her own way. This illustrates a necessary and important restructuring in the world of law, which has been going on in many other worlds of work like banking and politics, as it did centuries ago in literature and theatre.
A woman’s perspective proves essential in the law cases shown in the film and the musical. Without Elle’s knowledge of fashion and hair styling, she would never have known that the pool boy was lying about having an affair with Brooke and was indeed homosexual (gay and European), and she would never have known that the witness’ alibi of washing her hair and so failing to hear the gunshot which killed her father to be false. Although this may seem trivial and silly, it represents the need in professions like law and banking and politics, which deal with people from every realm of society, to have a variety of thinkers working on each case and searching through every possible solution. There are even theories that the recession was caused by too many of the same mind-sets working together and thus not spotting approaching disasters which people of different backgrounds may well have spotted sooner. (This may be pushing it – but still).
Elle’s response after being betrayed by Vivien in class is telling Vivien that ‘we girls have to stick together’. This principle of solidarity has perhaps been enforced by the sorority culture both she and director Lutz have been brought up in. This teaching helps Elle win over the trust of defendant Kim, also a sorority girl, and Elle maintains her integrity by keeping her promise. This solidarity does not just apply to women but is a message to all groups discriminated against and treated as inferior in society to not turn against their own group members but to work together for social equality.
So, after comparing Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods to one of Ibsen’s greatest dramatical figures, I will leave you with one of the film’s albeit cheesy, but ultimately great taglines: ‘Believing In Yourself NEVER Goes Out Of Style!’ and I will urge you to consider Legally Blonde as one of this generation’s best (and most fun) arguments not only for feminism but for strong, good-willed and impassioned individualism and cultural diversity.
Image credit – yumiang