Beauty, brains — blonde. Elle Woods is that girl. I love a feel-good comedy as much as anyone else, and “Legally Blonde” is no exception in my infinitely-quotable-early-2000s collection. But, like every other Hollywood movie, it's also somewhat unrealistic.
And no, I don’t mean it in the way that she has a 4.0 GPA at CULA, or that she got a near-perfect score on her LSAT — even if she did skip Greek Week to study for it. Or that she could represent a client as a first-year law student because of a niche statute (although I’ve memorized her perm-care monologue by heart). And I don’t mean unrealistic as a disservice to the film that has formed the crux of my childhood.
I mean unrealistic in the sense that I really wish that “Legally Blonde” did not raise my hopes that high.
The film follows the story of Elle Woods, a fashion merchandising major who enrolls in Harvard Law School in an attempt to win back her ex-boyfriend, Warren Huntington III. In the process, she begins to discover her genuine passion for law, while also exonerating influential fitness instructor Brooke Windham of her husband’s murder. By the end, she’s established herself among her peers, with an entourage of friends including Huntington’s ex-fiance and Woods’ former rival, a brand-new beau who has established his own law firm and her nail tech.
Elle is unabashedly — and almost cartoonishly — feminine, a character who was a breath of fresh air in the era of mean-girl tropes. She takes pride in her female friendships: her sorority sisters surround her with nothing but love and support, while she develops new friendships at Harvard even with the most initially hostile classmates. The film makes it very clear that its message is to not judge a book by its cover and to live authentically.
The problem for me came when I realized that to live the way I want, I was going to have to rely on people to not judge me by my cover — and that’s something I can’t depend on.
Over this past year, I’ve struggled with how I want to invest in my future, knowing that for many women, the fields I want to go into are antagonistic to and sometimes directly hostile toward them. The consideration is doubled with the knowledge that I am a woman of color. At the same time that I want to consider law and academia, I also have to realize that those fields won’t consider me with the same care unless I mold my image for them.
For women in professional fields, appearance marks a fine line between what is deemed professional and unprofessional, in a way men simply don’t need to think about. Men don’t need to consider if a judge will chastise them in front of the entire court if they wear a sleeveless blouse (“Are you stripping in my courtroom, Ms. Bazelon?”). They don’t need to train their voices to speak a certain way for fear of being called too shrill or too loud or too soft or too aggressive. For Black women, natural hairstyles are often perceived as “less professional” than straightened ones by white co-workers and supervisors.
How you act, how you dress, how you speak, how much you eat, how you wear makeup — if you are a woman, you accept with a smile that you are going to be judged for all of these at any point, and far more harshly than if you were a man. It’s doubly unfair to place the onus on women to tone down or placate their femininity when double standards are a structural issue they’re the victims of.
Regardless of how the burden of femininity should be placed upon women, it’s also equally damning how hostile professional fields are for women, even if they do meet this standard. Each of these deserves its own article, but a list might brush on the breadth of these issues: the pay gap, the baby gap, the partner gap, the publication gap, the tenure gap. Vivian Kensington — Woods’ ex-rival who is feminine in the preppy, Jackie O way compared to Woods’ Marilyn — alludes to this when she points out that she is consistently overlooked by their professor in favor of the only man in the room.
“Did you ever notice how Callahan never asks Warner to bring him his coffee? He's asked me at least ten times.”
“Legally Blonde” outright rejects this idea of toning down authenticity for the sake of others’ opinions. Woods is a caricature — I doubt I’ve met or will meet anyone who totes around a chihuahua everywhere and sent in an admissions video of themselves in a bikini. But simply because she’s a caricature doesn’t mean that the audience is not meant to be on her side. Just because she entered Harvard to win back her ex-boyfriend doesn’t mean that she’s not just as or more qualified as everyone else there. She’s not intelligent or hard-working despite being feminine — she’s all of these things at once, and she doesn’t need to make an effort to suppress it.
Look — I’m not Elle Woods. For one, hot pink clashes with my skin tone, my nails are really chipped today and my hair does not react well to bleach. For another, the probability that I’ll get a 179 LSAT and get into Harvard Law is statistically slim. Frankly, the biggest difference is that it’ll take me more work to get to where Woods is.
It took me a lot of time to love being a woman because I was always terrified that I would never be taken seriously as one. I’ve taken way too much time and consideration to even begin enjoying traditionally feminine things. It’s exasperating, honestly. I exhausted myself coming to terms with my femininity, and now you’re telling me I have to do this all over again in a few years when I end up in grad school or the workforce? Give me a break.
But at the same time, “Legally Blonde” points out that femininity is a strength, albeit one that is valued far less than it ought to be. It’s not just the “aha” moment when she knows more about perms than everyone in the room — it allows her to think creatively, offer new experiences and be more inviting and relatable to her peers. Elle Woods isn’t a hodgepodge of traits with femininity sprinkled on top — she’s all of these things because she’s feminine and secure about it.
At the same time that I struggle with my femininity, I’m not going to hide my strength just because someone else can’t see it for what it is. I’m not Elle Woods, and I can assure you that we are both fine with that. What would not be fine is me feeling so scared of other people’s opinions that I bar myself from reaching my full potential. At the end of the day, they don’t really matter — and if they do, one day I’ll look back at them and ask:
“What, like it’s hard?”
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Audrey Wang is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.