I love Legally Blonde! It`s such a good movie and Reese Witherspoon is such a treat. Legal Blonde 2, though. I teach courses on religious ethics and filmmaking, focusing on how movies portray heroes and villains. Students in these courses learn to analyze the moral dimensions of cinema to discover how popular films shape their viewers` moral notions. My students can choose the films they want to write about, and to my surprise, three of the best works were for the 2001 comedy Legally Blonde. I shouldn`t have been surprised. Just like its protagonist, the film has a depth and brilliance that our stereotypes and assumptions can overlook. When I look at Legal Blonde with my students` arguments and scientific literature in mind, I begin to realize how distinctive her attitude toward femininity is and how she challenges the wisdom of cinema that reflects traditionally male assumptions about morality. While waiting for the third installment of the Blonde saga, it`s worth taking a moment to understand what makes the original film not only a source of humor but also a source of inspiration, and how the work of feminist theologian Valerie Saiving challenges us to rethink cinematic conventions. Legal Blonde begins with a montage of Elle Woods by Reese Witherspoon doing her hair and makeup. Viewers quickly learn that she is a returning queen, a sorority president, and a Cosmo subscriber. In between these scenes, we see her sisters signing a card congratulating Elle on her upcoming engagement to Warner Huntington III, who looks and behaves like someone called „Warner Huntington III.“ This opening sequence tells us a lot about Elle, but it also tells us about her universe: a world of perfumes, designer shoes, frat boys making co-eds, and especially women supporting other women. While encouraging, Elle`s sister sisters were also premature, as the ambitious Warner decided he had to separate from Elle.
He left California for Harvard Law School, he reminded her, adding, „If I want to be a senator, I have to marry a Jackie, not Marilyn.“ Warner tells Elle that he needs to be with someone „serious,“ and to win him back, she decides to study law. After dominating LSAT and earning a GPA of 4.0, she enrolled in law at Harvard. In the rest of the film, the central conflict exists between women`s support for other women on the one hand and the cultural spaces hostile to this support on the other. An abominable effect of patriarchy is that it pits women against each other. She Woods manages to enlist the support of the women of her sisterhood and nail salon to overcome the toxic elements of law school. Cosmopolitan magazine has been criticized for contributing to this competitive dynamic among women. But the magazine, which She calls „the Bible“, can also serve to create liberating solidarity between besieged women (much like the real Bible…). While Legal Blonde might simply show the empowerment of women by a successful woman in the historically male-dominated legal field, it challenges viewers to think about where true empowerment comes from.
Elle`s flippancy toward elitist institutions („Did you get into Harvard law?“ „What, how hard is it?“) invites us to reassess whether real power comes from class status or from local places of mutual encouragement. Legal Blonde differs from other films in a few other notable ways. First of all, hyperfeminine characters are not demonized. As UChicago senior Sophia Michel puts it, nineties movies tended to portray young female protagonists as wilder and „not like other girls.“ The foils of these heroines are the evil „queen bees“ obsessed with boys and obsessed with boys, seen in Mean Girls (2004) and High School Musical (2006). The filmmakers wanted to make their heroines understandable to young viewers who feel like outsiders in a social order that should benefit others. In doing so, however, they reinforced the idea that women who dress and behave „femininely“ are tasteless, manipulative, or both. Michel writes about the 2004 and 2008 adaptations of Cinderella: „A wilder Cinderella represents the new era of redefining femininity, which often led to a complete rejection of the hyperfemininity that women faced in the 1950s, and there is this new desire to show more stereotypical masculine traits in order to be taken more seriously.“ Unlike the villain of hyperfemininity, Legally Blonde is a breath of fresh air. „God bless Elle Woods,“ Michel writes, because she helped young women realize that they don`t have to judge others — or themselves — to appreciate the aesthetics and lifestyles coded by women.
Legal Blonde does not reinforce or denigrate hyperfemininity. He simply refuses to treat Rosa as an antithesis to serious legal practice. Part of the film`s unique charm is that it never tries to argue, „Believe it or not, a girly girl can be smart!“ Instead, he turns the question to his viewers and asks why we concluded that they are mutually exclusive. The sense of law and the sense of fashion do not contradict each other, but the prejudices of Harvard Law School and the reality of Elle Woods are. As late as 1994, Carolyn Lisa Miller wrote: „The lawyers in the film were portrayed as an oxymoron; They have two identities – „woman“ and „lawyer“ – which logically cannot coexist. Not only does Elle Woods retain both identities, but she powerfully demonstrates that her femininity allows her to succeed as a lawyer. But is success too easy for her? In her book Neo-Feminist Cinema: Girly Films, Chick Flicks, and Consumer Culture, film scholar Hilary Radner criticized the plot of Legally Blonde, writing, „The virtue of Elle is easy to acquire and requires no sacrifice; Their happy ending is complete, a fantasy in which competing desires can be reconciled. I agree, even though I see it as a strength of the film. To explain why, we need to consider the gender dimensions of storytelling. The American script is indebted to Joseph Campbell`s thousand-seeded hero and his archetypal „hero`s journey“ narrative, but Campbell`s hero is explicitly male. When asked about women, Campbell said women don`t have to make heroic journeys: „In all mythological tradition, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she is the place people are trying to go.
Authors like Maureen Murdock, who wrote The Heroine`s Journey, have taken on the challenge of rethinking the structure of stories with women`s experiences in mind. This shift in thinking is consistent with one of the earliest and most influential works in feminist Christian theology, Valerie Saiwing`s „The Human Situation: A Feminine Vision“ in 1960. Saiving argues that theological accounts of sin, written primarily by humans, have associated sin with pride and selfishness. For these reasons, the opposite of sin is love, understood as „the complete gift of self, without regard for one`s own interests, but only the pursuit of the good of the other.“ This representation of sin and its opposite, Saiking argues, reflects the moral situation of some people, but should not be universalized. With the necessary caveats, she explains that the idea that selfishness and pride are paradigmatic sins reflects men`s experiences more than women`s. Women are more likely to be tempted to „give themselves“ at the expense of their own humanity, and so the opposite of sin implies a robust affirmation of their worth, regardless of the care they provide to others. Everyone`s ethical reflection is impoverished, Saigiving argues, if we treat a characteristic, but not exclusively male, narrative of moral failure and improvement as a universal narrative. Campbell`s cinematic narrative structure tends to presuppose the vision of morality, in which the hero must dismantle his sense of self, his „attachment to the ego“, before he can reconstruct it. The assumption that Elle Woods` character must make „sacrifices“ to gain happiness is therefore a common wisdom of cinema. But the usual wisdom of cinema characteristically reflects male experiences.
The journey of Elle – who has some character development but shares traits with the flatbow – suggests another way of thinking about the different paths people take to discover their full humanity. Saiwing`s situation when she wrote „The Human Situation“ was somewhat similar to Elle Woods` – as Rebekah Miles comments: „At the time, there were few women at the University of Chicago`s Divinity School, and in the Journal of Religion that year, only one other article was written by a woman.