How Legally Blonde Created a Feminist Hero Ahead of Her Time

Legally Blonde became an instant classic when it hit theaters in 2001, giving us Elle Woods—a feminist hero who didn't have to give up her traditionally feminine traits and pursuits to be seen as smart and strong.

Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods, dressed in pink, standing in a courtroom in Legally Blonde
Photo: MGM

Twenty years ago, Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods burst onto our screens with her infectious can-do attitude and an early-2000s penchant for all things pink and fuzzy, from her jacket to her phone. Reese Witherspoon’s iconic sorority sister who goes to Harvard Law School in pursuit of an ex-boyfriend—dressed in head-to-toe pink, carrying a copy of the Bible (Cosmo, obvi)—didn’t jive with the era’s conception of a Strong Female Character, a la Trinity from The Matrix, Sarah Connor from the Terminator movies, or Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider franchise. Elle derives her strength from what many would deem her traditionally feminine character traits and pursuits, not in spite of them, like her undergraduate study of fashion and her focus on loyalty and cooperation rather than competition. While some fall for the trap of associating masculinity with strength and intelligence and femininity with conservatism and vapidity, Elle’s fans have always seen her for who she really is: a feminist ahead of her time.

Everything about Elle Woods is bubblegum pink femininity, from her wardrobe (“I don’t understand why you’re completely disregarding your signature color!”) and tiny purse dog Bruiser to her enthusiastic vernacular and name, derived from the 2000s teen fashion magazine, which also happens to be the French pronoun “she.” When Elle is frustrated, she channels the feeling into studying and achieving. When she’s rejected from a study group (essential to surviving law school), she politely takes her homemade treats and leaves. An early precursor to Annie Murphy’s Alexis Rose on Schitt’s Creek, Reese Witherspoon’s charm and relentless positivity help turn an archetype that’s normally considered shallow or even villainous into a fully-fledged character with depth and heart.

It’s easy to look at Elle Woods and the film Legally Blonde and discredit them both—and many have. She’s arguably let into the school based on her looks, and her own advisor made a mean joke about acing a class on polka dots, discrediting her fashion merchandising major. But don’t forget that she had a 4.0 GPA and a 179 on her LSAT (out of 180 possible points), making her a top candidate. She was also president of her sorority, involved in extracurriculars and philanthropy. Oh and that pink resume? It’s inspired by the true story of how the manuscript for the book that Legally Blonde was based on got scooped from the slush pile.

Legally Blonde doesn’t make fun of its heroine for her interest in feminine-coded pursuits like shopping or her penchant for the color pink. An early shopping scene, a spiritual sequel to the couplet in Pretty Woman, sets Elle up to be the butt of a saleswoman’s joke about stupid rich girls spending daddy’s money. Instead, Elle asks the woman a series of questions about the garment’s construction and provenance, the saleswoman agreeing to everything in pursuit of a sale, not realizing she has exposed her own ignorance and deception by doing so. Elle’s fashion education isn’t an air-headed pursuit, but a fulfilling interest as worthwhile as any other, one where accumulating knowledge can come in just as handy as knowing about political science.

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Legally Blonde is a fish-out-of-water story, so while Elle’s hobbies are no less important than how her Harvard classmates spend their time, they’re certainly different. She uses her specialized knowledge to figure out parts of the Brooke Windham case (Ali Larter), like realizing that gay men are more likely to know shoe designers than straight ones (even if that’s a bit, uh, reductive), and using her shared interests with Brooke to help make her time while incarcerated more comfortable and gain her trust, so that Brooke would share her alibi. The coup de grace, of course, is Elle’s use of perm knowledge to expose Linda Cardelini’s socialite daughter lying on the stand, causing her to crack and confess to killing her father, exonerating Elle’s client Brooke.

Throughout the movie, Elle is happiest in women-dominated spaces that focus on community and collaborative support, traits typically associated with femininity. When she was prepping for a proposal from Warner and then nursing the heartache afterwards, it was as much a Delta Nu experience as it was her own. Once Elle decides to go to law school, the entire sorority pitches in, helping her study for the LSAT and make her video essay. When Elle gets to Cambridge, she once again seeks solace at a nail salon, a place where women take care of one another and give advice, even if they are strangers at first. And it’s no coincidence that, when Elle quits working on the Brooke Windham case and wants to leave Harvard altogether, she cries her eyes out at the nail salon, where Professor Stromwell (a pitch-perfect Holland Taylor) overhears her plight.

Warner tells Elle, “If I’m going to be a senator, I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” In the world of Legally Blonde, women don’t have to choose. You can be a shy manicurist, but also have a killer bend-and-snap. You can be a strict law professor who also goes to the salon and has her student’s back when a colleague sexually harasses her. It’s fitting that, for Elle’s moment of triumph, when she takes the lead in Brooke Windham’s case, Elle makes her entrance in her signature color: vibrant pink. Since her first class at Harvard, Elle started cosplaying as a normie law student, her clothing getting darker and more traditional to match her surroundings. She traded in her pink-lensed sunglasses for reading glasses. When it was time for Elle to have her crowning moment of achievement, though, she did it by looking and acting like herself, and relying on the knowledge and drive that got her to Harvard in the first place—pink sparkles and all.

Elle’s mother doesn’t want her to “throw away” being the first runner up in the Miss Hawaiian Tropics contest to go to law school, but over the course of the film, Elle proves that she doesn’t have to choose between the two. Furthermore, she doesn’t have to choose between love and a career, or settle for a guy who doesn’t appreciate her for the powerhouse that she is. While Warner is the catalyst for Elle’s journey into jurisprudence, he quickly shows himself to be something of a “bonehead” once they’re both in Cambridge, telling Elle she’ll never be smart enough to win a coveted internship spot, encouraging Elle to break her word to their client once she does get the internship, and then never noticing the sexism of their professor who only asks the women to fetch him food and drink. Eventually, Warner does come around, like all of Elle’s classmates and teachers, but by then she has the self-worth to tell him to take a hike.

Speaking of Warner, when he shows up in Cambridge he comes with his preppy fiancé Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair, in a mini Cruel Intentions reunion). Vivian and Elle were set up to compete over not only Warner, but grades and career opportunities, like Professor Callahan’s internship. The film’s first act sees a bit of bad blood and back and forth. As the rivals see one another’s legal prowess and come to see the sexism in their field from powerful men like Callahan (and the way less powerful men like Warner either don’t see or pretend not to), they grow closer. Eventually, Warner reveals his low character while Elle displays her loyalty by keeping Brooke’s alibi a secret, and the two drop Warner and their competition to become friends instead. For young women watching, it’s a valuable lesson that other women and girls aren’t your competition—they’re your allies.

Elle and Legally Blonde aren’t perfect—her journey started out in pursuit of her ex-boyfriend, and classmate Enid was probably right that many women in sororities would call her a dyke and mistreat her. It’s a shame Elle never finds common ground with the one woman in the film who’s an actual avowed feminist. But people grow, and Legally Blonde allowed its heroine the room to do that, even after the credits rolled. Elle Woods has inspired many women to become lawyers, and it’s easy to see why. She believes in herself and others, fights for her friend Paulette’s dog, and fights back against sexual harassment. But even for those who aren’t interested in the law, Elle’s way of winning people over by being kind, supportive, and “using her blonde for good” sends an important message that traditionally femme traits and esthetics are powerful in their own right.

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