“I’ll show you how valuable Elle Woods can be.”
When I first saw Legally Blonde, I hardly thought the film was going to be formative. What could Elle Woods, the film’s protagonist as portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, possibly have to teach me? What was I going to learn from this blonde sorority queen Valley girl?
Elle, to a younger me, should have been shoehorned into the box of mean girl. The movies and TV shows that I was most exposed to, be they Disney Channel Original movies or Bollywood movies, taught me that girls who cared about beauty were not aspirational figures. According to these stories, there were two types of girls: girls who wear makeup and girls who don’t.
The girls who don’t are naturally beautiful but they probably don’t know it. How lucky, then, that a guy will come along to tell them otherwise she would have never known because she has literally never seen her own face without glasses and has zero self-esteem when it comes to her looks. She is like the cool girl trope’s younger sister, someone who apparently gives no thought to beauty despite being effortlessly beautiful. This girl was the protagonist of all my favorite movies and I wanted to be her. She was happy by the end of these movies, it seemed, and who didn’t want to be happy?
And the other girls, the ones who wear makeup and heels? Harpies, typically. These are the mean girls, the girls who are popular despite the fact that they treat their friends and boyfriends poorly. To care about beauty before a man entered your life meant that you were typically vapid, shallow, and devoid of interests that would carry you past high school. The more makeup, the more shallow the girl. The example of Susan from the Chronicles of Narnia comes to mind, and how she would never return to Narnia with her siblings because she had developed an interest in makeup.
This dichotomy is not new. The distinction between virgin and whore is an old one, and the message is clear as to which one little girls are meant to want to be.
Elle Woods was a beautiful girl who knew it. She has always been beautiful, potentially to her own detriment as she worries it is all people see when they look at her. The catalyst of the film’s action is admittedly driven by a stupid man’s rejection. Elle decides to become a student at Harvard Law School in order to get back together with her ex-boyfriend Warner who broke up with her because she is not the “right kind of girl” for a guy like him to marry (“Elle! If I want to be a senator by the time I’m 30, well I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn”).
But she was no doubt that this is a goal she can achieve and works hard to become a law student. When she realizes that Warner will never see her as good enough, Elle works harder than ever, gaining the respect of her colleagues and landing coveted internships. Eventually, Warner and any men become irrelevant to Elle proving herself to herself and realizing a new dream. Just as Elle knows she is beautiful, she knows she is smart and worth taking seriously, even if no one does, and she fights for herself.
Elle is also a fairly nice person. She takes care of her loved ones and sorority sisters, and is ready to become friends with just about anyone. She is sweet and tries to give others, particularly other women, a chance. This is in direct opposition to the “girls who wear makeup are mean” rule as well as the adage that women have to stomp on one another in order to succeed because there can only be one woman at the top.
In a world where women’s success is still predicated on what men want, a character like Elle was and still is refreshing. Femininity continues to be degraded in our societies, to the point where, in order to succeed, women are encouraged to downplay any semblance of the girly. There is nothing inherently wrong with a woman not preferring the conventionally feminine for herself. Indeed, everyone should be given a choice, but just as no woman should be forced to make herself more feminine to succeed she would also not be forced to do the opposite should she not choose to. I am not anything close to lawyer, but in Elle’s case, I would imagine whether or not she chooses to wear her hair long and her suits pink and tailored is irrelevant to the quality of her work.
Elle chose to present herself as she desired and to be a badass lawyer at the same time. I wish I had as much drive as her, but when I figure out what I want to do, I’ll remember that I can do it while expressing as much femininity as I should please.