The fusion of entertainment and social consciousness
by Isla Hoe
Almost twenty years after its initial release Legally Blonde is as fun, easy, and significant as ever. On the surface it’s a preppy and somewhat simplistic chick flick about a blonde sorority girl who has everything, but is looking for love. That said, looking back, it was years ahead of its time. Self love, friendship, female solidarity and believing in yourself is inherently what this film is about.
The story follows Elle Woods, played iconically by Reese Witherspoon. She is a typical 2000’s sorority girl who, after a breakup, is told that she’s “too blonde to be taken seriously,” embarks on a mission to attend Harvard Law School, to prove that she can indeed be a smart and serious girlfriend.
Admittedly, playing the feminist card, the film doesn't start out particularly well. Elle initially comes across as a desperate, blonde airhead trying to do anything to please her man. Significantly, the character develops an all-important third dimension quite quickly. There are clear flaws with this film, getting into Harvard on the basis of a video essay and a fashion degree, and then solving a murder case using said fashion knowledge. It is a slightly ridiculous premise (though no more ridiculous than space wizards with laser swords), but, as with all great cinema, it's the small scenes, and the character interactions that make this film timeless.
In the last two or three years, there has been a mass movement in pop culture, through magazines, films, websites and blogs, which calls on women to love and believe in themselves and to make choices in line with that underestimated self-compassion. Also, we’ve moved into an age of women being encouraged less and less to tear other women down, instead promoting supporting and pushing other women to be their best possible self.
This may seem obvious to people now but one of the solid themes that doesn't change throughout the film is how Elle is filled with kindness and desire to help people to love themselves. Too many chick flicks depict the girls being as mean and bitchy as possible, and they often show how girls bring out the worst in each other. Legally Blonde illustrates the exact opposite. This film gives us a first hand view at just how important it is to have women supporting women. Even the party girls Elle is friends with from her sorority, are some of the most loving and supportive characters in the film. Legally Blonde in this and many other ways revolutionises its chick flick facade to re-inscribe it with positive values of support and solidarity.
The importance of this film doesn't stop there, it takes a much darker turn, and a turn that leads to an all too familiar storyline that so many women encounter in the workplace. After working for months to prove herself to become one of the top in her class Elle is offered an internship to work on a murder case. It very quickly becomes clear that Professor Callahan (Victor Garber), the man who runs the firm Elle in now interning with, is inherently sexist and expects nothing from the female interns except for them to fetch him coffee. This surface level sexism then takes a worryingly predatory turn. As the final court date comes closer Callahan presents Elle with a sexually loaded proposition in return for his help in her professional career.
The abuse of power here is inexcusable, but it isn't merely confined to this film. Since October countless industry heads, producers and professionals of all backgrounds have been convicted on grounds of sexual assault and harassment. This has been happening for years, but until recently ignored and accepted as a dirty little secret. The critical part of the film and Elle’s interactions with everyone around her is not that this has happened but it is the reactions she receives from other characters, that are mimicking the reactions of everyday people.
One of the biggest issues when a woman comes forward with a story of abuse is the conclusions her friends, peers and a lot of the time the general public jump to, which is exactly what happens between Elle and her friend Vivian (Selma Blair). Almost immediately Vivian assumes that Elle only got her internship by using her sexuality.
In this film Elle got lucky. She had people who believed in her and wanted her to succeed thereby ensuring a strong support system. Emmett (Luke Wilson), and fitness instructor Brooke (Ali Larter), the woman Elle is trying to prove as innocent, believe in her, unwaveringly. However, it transpires that the support of the apparently (but evidently necessarily) tough female professor gives Elle the proverbial kick to not abandon all of her hard work which would have heartbreakingly gone to waste just because of some “pathetic asshole.”
From the get-go Legally Blonde comes across as girly film where the only concern is winning a man. However, by the end of the film the topic of men is barely even touched upon. Elle’s relationship with Emmett is an afterthought in the final scene. It's so easy to get bogged down in the seriousness of the social problems the film engages with that their accessible presentation in this film proves refreshing. This film is one of the first and only of its kind to acknowledge sexual harassment in the workplace and addresses it in a way that is accessible to pretty much anyone, and at the same time can put even the grumpiest of people in a good mood. Entertainment and social consciousness all in one, now that’s revolutionary.