For her first review, Jessica Campbell takes a look back at the candy-pink world of Elle Woods and examines what it means to negotiate personal and professional spaces, the danger of stereotypes, and the finer points of the bend-and-snap.
When Legally Blonde came out ten years ago, I had just turned fourteen. Which meant, among other things, that it was no longer necessary for me to keep trying to disabuse my mom of the notion that a “PG-13” rating meant you shouldn’t see it if you were 13 or younger. (Ah, the battles of the preteen years.) As a matter of fact, my mom and I ended up seeing it together (because I was just that cool), courtesy of a VHS from Hollywood Video a few months later (because I was just that current). I seem to remember this rental happening at the end of a busy weekend involving some sort of piano competition and a lot of studying for tests.
All this is to say that I, on my first viewing of Legally Blonde, was most definitely not leading a life much like that of Elle Woods. But even though I’d never even seen stilettos like that, let alone worn them, I liked that character from the moment she demonstrated to a conniving saleswoman that she was not, in fact, another dumb blonde.
And that, as I’ve reflected on watching it again this week for the first time in several years, is an example of why this movie is so satisfying: it’s about a person trying to negotiate the distance between how people perceive her and what she really is, or could be. Some people are bound to dislike the movie for the same reason that they probably wouldn’t give Elle the time of day — I can see how the accoutrements could be a turn-off, because the visuals of the movie are all about platinum blonde hair, pink everything, perfect nails, and toothy smiles. I can’t imagine my father, for instance, having been convinced to sit through the thing, even with the promise of a little genre shift from rom-com to courtroom drama at the end. But Elle’s challenge is to get people to see that there’s substance and intelligence beneath her external appearance; it’s true for her, and it’s true for the movie, too. After watching it again critically, I’m not nominating it for the AFI’s list of the 100 best films of all time, but I’m going to defend it in the same way I defend Sex and the City (the show, mind you): yeah, it looks like it’s about a bunch of shallow women who only care about makeup and shoes, but if you listen to them, you realize they’re saying substantial things about life in general, and women’s lives in particular. The heart of the movie is Reese Witherspoon as Elle; she’s believable and likeable all the way through, and as good as the supporting players are, it holds together because of her. And because of the screenplay, by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, who, as I just learned for purposes of this review, were also responsible for 10 Things I Hate About You.
I loved Legally Blonde as a fourteen-year-old, and it’s worn well. It’s about two things, really: what it means to be “smart” or “serious,” and dealing with the disconnect between how you’re viewed on the outside and what you think you are on the inside. I remember being struck the first time around by Elle’s remark to Emmett, “I’m discriminated against as a blonde.” While a lot of people would tend to respond to that with a snicker, I didn’t when I was fourteen and I don’t now. Because she is discriminated against as a blonde, throughout the whole movie — I’d forgotten just how nasty her Harvard Law classmates are, and just how dismissive even her own parents are whenever she tries to do anything that clashes with the flouncy hair and fluffy pink slippers. And it’s a good reminder that being open-minded and tolerant goes both ways. Obviously, when we talk about discrimination, we’re generally more concerned with historically oppressed populations than with a girl whose boyfriend dumps her because she looks more like Marilyn Monroe than Jackie Kennedy (yes, Mad Men fans, Warner draws this exact contrast). But the common underlying problem is that people hurt each other by making assumptions based on external appearances. Hell, when I was fourteen, I was getting pretty damned fed up with people talking to me in a patronizing tone and handing me children’s menus and crayons because I looked so young for my age. I knew where Elle was coming from.
The other main reason that Elle is so likeable is that unless they give her a strong reason not to, she’ll be friendly and helpful. Unlike her parents and SoCal BFFs, who don’t really understand, and her fellow law students, all of whom but Emmett seem entirely self-interested, she’s other-directed. She helps Paulette get her dog Rufus back from the evil ex-husband. She teaches the denizens of the New England beauty shop the intricacies of the “bend and snap.” She uses her looks to help her awkward classmate David get a date. She opens up to Warner’s new fiancée, Vivian, after the slightest hint of a crack in the icy exterior. Reese Witherspoon strikes a good balance between maintaining that core character and showing how her demeanor changes from bouncy sorority girl to “serious” law student. Her performance reminded me of Amy Adams’s in Enchanted, another one that easily could have, but never did, cross the line and become obnoxiously bubbly.
The parts of the movie that are bubbly are the ones that did bore me, ten years and several slumber-party viewings later — the opening sorority stuff (I mean, really, do all girls in sororities just spend the day jumping between the Applying Makeup Wrapped in a Towel Room and the Exercising and/or Dancing to Peppy Music Room?) and the lengthy pseudo-courtship of Paulette and the UPS guy. I’m glad they work it out after the nose repair the poor guy needs after suffering from a wayward bend and snap, but they never actually talk to each other, and the slow-mo encounters make me want to look away. The relationship between Elle and Emmett, though, still seems pretty convincing. It begins with actual conversation and proceeds slowly (generally a good sign), and they not only work well together, but also influence each other in positive ways. It’s logical that Elle would be drawn to the one person who treats her decently at Harvard, who actually trusts in her intelligence. And she’s a good influence on him, too: when he goes over his boss’s head and helps Elle take over the murder case in the end, he’s behaving like her in going outside the box. She has trouble at first reconciling the two very different worlds she has lived in, but she ends up successful and satisfied because she does manage to integrate them. I still think the finale of the court case, where Elle incriminates the real killer thanks to her knowledge of how long you have to wait to get your hair wet after getting a perm, is damned cool. It’s the same reason med schools are starting to accept kids with BA’s in the humanities — it’s good to be versed in different areas. This finale makes a lot of sense: Elle’s happy ending comes when she figures out how to combine her knowledge of “frivolous” things like hair care and of “serious” things like law to solve a problem and save a person she cares about.
Which is why I’ve made my peace with the fact that they still felt the need to assure us at the end of the movie that Elle also got what she originally wanted: a proposal, though (thankfully) from Emmett instead of Warner. I know I’m supposed to be upset about that, lest I be deemed a Bad Feminist, and I do think that the movie could have ended perfectly well without it. But it’s worth noting that the proposal scene isn’t even dramatized; while we have cheering crowds and soaring music for Elle’s courtroom triumph, rejection of Warner, and graduation, the impending proposal from Emmett is just a subtitle. It’s icing on the pink cupcake, and again, it makes sense that Elle gets what she wants in both arenas — the professional and the personal.
For me, watching Legally Blonde today is like listening to the Celine Dion songs I belted in the shower and had imprinted on my brain in junior high; I already know where all the flourishes are going to be, and they don’t always hit quite as hard as they used to. But it’s still a good way to end a rough day, and sometimes a safe bet is exactly what you need.
The opening credit song, “Perfect Day” by Hoku, is a great tone-setter for this movie. And has been stuck in my head off and on for the past ten years.
Bruiser! I don’t even like little yappy dogs, but this one’s a winner. And his acceptance of the pink paraphernalia does take on a certain significance now that we know from Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde that Bruiser is, in fact, a gay dog. Oh my.
These people are supposed to be 18-22 years old? That didn’t bother me when I was fourteen, but it does now. It is one of my pet peeves that the powers that be insist on casting people in their mid-to-late twenties to play much younger characters, thereby making the rest of us feel bad about ourselves. I get that you want accomplished actors to play the leads, but do all the people walking around the sorority house have to look 25?
Ah yes, the two BFFs. The brunette (the what? Yes, Virginia, your little friends are wrong. There is a brunette in Delta Nu.) still makes me laugh. The blonde’s stupid-little-girl routine still drives me crazy.
Elle successfully applies to Harvard Law as a fashion-merchandising major. I remember my attorney mother, the first time I watched this, being rather upset about the implausibility. Yes, the entire premise of the movie is questionable. Still, as I recall a few of my own Middlebury College classmates, I must conclude that there’s no accounting for admissions decisions.
Funny how both Legally Blonde and Bridget Jones’s Diary featured scenes in which the heroine dresses up for a costume party as a risqué bunny, only to find she’s the only one in costume. Surely there must be other ways to convey humiliation? Well, okay, on second thought, maybe this is just about the best way.
I had NO MEMORY of classmate Enid’s rant beginning with the line, “The English language is all about subliminal domination.” Clearly I had no framework for that as a fourteen-year-old Catholic school student in Salem, Oregon. She’d make a good University of Washington grad student.
Another problem with the relationship between Paulette and the UPS guy: why does she get so many packages? What are they, manicure supplies? Dog bones?
The bend and snap. This scene’s still pretty funny to me. It’s definitely ridiculous, and I don’t think I’ll be adding it to my personal repertoire (though, hell, maybe that’s what I’ve been missing), but it’s interesting in that it’s indicative of the way Elle relates to people. With the obvious exception of Vivian, she doesn’t see other women as competition; she really wants to help them. A challenge: will someone please make a YouTube video that makes it look like she’s singing “Popular” from Wicked during this scene?
The scene where Elle delivers “the essentials” (magazines and beauty products, of course) to Brooke in prison is how I learned the word “luffa.” Previously, I’d been saying “squeegee thing.” Random fact.
Raquel Welch, you are a joy. Nice to see you again.
Fact: Enrique knows Elle’s shoes are last-season. Conclusion: Enrique is gay. Response: ask him questions quickly and get him to reveal he has a boyfriend, which clearly means he wasn’t sleeping with Brooke. I found this more convincing before I became versed in the rejection of labels and the merits of gender fluidity. Of course, since Enrique was not, in fact, sleeping with Brooke, I suppose the ends justify the means.
I remember thinking the first time that the scene where Vivien realizes she was wrong in thinking that Elle was sleeping with their professor (Victor Garber) falls flat and seems weirdly dragged out. I still do. Most of the movie is well-paced, generally snappy, but something went wrong here.
When Elle returns triumphantly to the courtroom as Brooke’s attorney, she’s back in pink. Not fluffy, but pink. Win by being you, not by being someone else. This reminds me of Bobbie Barrett’s advice to Peggy on Mad Men — “You can’t be a man. Don’t even try. Be a woman. It’s a powerful business when done correctly.” Which is exactly what happens when she solves the mystery because of her familiarity with something from her old life.
Good God, Chutney’s hair is big. Did they have to make the villain a brunette? Still, one of the BFFs is, and so is Emmett. I guess brunettes, too, come in all varieties.
Lines I’ve Been Quoting for the Past Ten Years and Gleefully Quoted Again at the Screen:
Elle: “Whoever said orange was the new pink was seriously disturbed.”
Callahan, re Elle’s résumé: “It’s pink.” Elle: “And scented. I think it gives it a little something extra, don’t you think?”
Elle: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.”
Elle’s BFFs when they crash the courtroom: “Oh look! How cute! There’s like a judge and everything! And jury people! Vote for Elle!”