I grew up in a house defined by strong, independent women — five of them, to my father’s delight — but that doesn’t mean that the words “feminism” or “sexism” meant a damn thing to me. Maybe I was a particularly ignorant kid, but I’m going to guess the same is true of most little girls, actually. When’s the last time you saw a 10-year-old girl with her nose in a copy of The Feminine Mystique? They’re not a terribly woke population — yet. But, at age 10, I encountered my own Betty Friedan. She was clothed in hot-pink and dipped in sparkles, things that caught the attention of my young eyes. Elle Woods was like a real-life Barbie. While I realize the terrible irony of my first feminist role model looking like Barbie (our culture’s problematic fascination with the Mattel doll deserves a lengthy analysis of its own), that’s not the point. The point is that Legally Blonde was my own version of Feminism 101. We all know the story. Elle is a bubbly sorority girl whose boyfriend Warner dumps her before jetting off to Harvard Law School, because he needs a serious girlfriend now. Elle decides to prove she can be the kind of girl Warner wants by getting into Harvard Law, and that she does — studying her butt off to a 179 on her LSATs and convincing the admissions office that her vegan-panty fundraising is totally relevant. At Harvard, nobody takes Elle seriously — not her professors or her classmates, and especially not Warner’s new fiancée Vivian (Selma Blair). Elle flounders but finds friends — and, ultimately, a purpose much greater than getting her boyfriend back: helping to defend a fitness icon (Ali Larter) in a tough case. It’s an entertaining story, and it exudes a patent-pink brand of elementary feminism that a 10-year-old girl — at least this privileged, naive, white, heteronormative 10-year-old girl, who grew up playing with Barbies in suburbia — could understand intuitively. Fifteen years after its release, I see how Legally Blonde brought sexism and feminism into focus for me in a way I doubt anyone or anything else could’ve at that age.
I never considered that being too “girly” might make people think you were less intelligent or legitimate.
Memory has a way of simplifying things, but the truth is, I can’t recall thinking about struggling to be taken seriously as a girl until I watched Elle get treated as a joke by her peers and professors because of the way she dressed and talked. I never considered that being too “girly” might make people think you were less intelligent or legitimate. I never realized that “sexy” and “smart” were seen as opposing forces to some people. It hadn’t crossed my mind that traditionally “feminine” qualities — loyalty, generosity, a willingness to compromise, valuing relationships over winning — might be viewed as weaknesses in male-dominated environments. Elle is confident in what she has to offer, and as outspoken with her opinions as any guy in the room. She isn’t worried about seeming bossy or bitchy. She is unapologetic about being attractive and sexual and caring about her appearance. And I remember so vividly the icky feeling I got watching Elle encounter the arrogant, raging disbelief of characters like Warner and Professor Callahan at her refusal to conform to their expectations of “a girl like her.” Before that, I hadn’t ever grappled with the idea that strong, attractive women speaking their minds could be considered as a threat to men — and therefore be treated with condescension and belittlement. Not to mention that until Legally Blonde, I wasn't aware of the overt sexual harassment that takes place in male-dominated work environments (i.e. that scene when Callahan makes a pass at Elle) — or thought about how I would deal with an advance from a man in a position of power. Oh, and we haven’t even talked about Elle’s relationship with Emmett (Luke Wilson). That’s because it’s completely secondary to the plot and Elle’s character development. You don’t even learn they get together until the postscript. The guy is a nice add-on, but not a necessity. So, whether or not Elle looks like a Barbie is irrelevant here. Legally Blonde planted small and simple but absolutely essential seeds of feminism in my impressionable 10-year-old brain. Was I a certified mini feminist after the credits rolled? No. But I started thinking about the ugly stuff that came with being a woman — things I probably wouldn’t have personally encountered in my little life for years. And I started to figure out that, like Elle, I would most definitely not be putting up with that crap. In my book, that's a feminist icon.