Jackie v. Marilyn: The Surprisingly Complex Identity Politics Of LEGALLY BLONDE

Is Elle Woods an insider or an outsider? The answer depends on your perspective.

It's safe to assume the creators of Legally Blonde, the story of a perky sorority girl who defies expectations by becoming a lawyer, were not trying to create searing social commentary. But even if it was only in the service of light entertainment, the filmmakers still had to make definite decisions about their intended audience's values and worldview. And those choices add up to a surprisingly complex statement about class and gender. 

Critics who took time to reflect on the film's message found it bizarre. The A.V. Club called Legally Blonde "a fish-out-of-water comedy" that "boldly stands up for ... conformity." A.O. Scott felt the film "doesn't quite know what to do" with its main character, "mocking her ditzy rich-girl cluelessness at one moment and admiring her moxie the next." Indeed, Legally Blonde is a film that trades in contradictions, but not necessarily because it doesn't know what it wants to say. Legally Blonde just reflects the contradictions of the culture in which it was created. 

In one sense, Legally Blonde is a more a story of class conflict than gender bias, with plain and reserved "old money" on one side and peppy, ostentatious "new money" on the other. The film's heroine, Elle Woods, is set against several male characters who make confining judgements about her desires and capabilities. But other women put Elle down in the same way -- women who feel distinguished from Elle by their class identity. 

Most prominent among these female adversaries is Vivian Kensington, the fiancé of Elle's ex-boyfriend Warner. Vivian was Warner's girlfriend in prep school, and belongs to the same country club as Warner's family. It's unclear whether Elle could join this country club if she wanted to, but it's obvious she finds the idea of country clubs distastefully elitist. 

Despite Elle's considerable affluence -- the cost of Harvard Law School is of no concern to Elle or her family -- she still finds it easier to relate to those of more modest means. Elle's lifestyle is more similar to those below her economically; she just performs it on a bigger scale. Elle spends much of her free time in a much less exclusive neighborhood beauty salon and becomes friends with her working class manicurist. In this way, the Bel Air-bred Elle is positioned as one of the folks, an underdog at Harvard. Elle's immense advantages over most other people are leveled-off by the barriers of culture, of clashing philosophies of manner and dress, that still divide her from the highest echelons of society. 

Perceptions of intelligence diverging along class lines is a central theme of Legally Blonde. For Elle, intelligence is a reflection of diligence: She graduates from law school by taking enough time to study. But Elle's classmates repeatedly express their belief that Elle must not be be "smart" if she is not also "serious." As Warner explains in an oft-quoted scene, he dumps Elle because he needs to marry "a Jackie, not a Marilyn." For the other students at Harvard, intelligence is not a skill so much as an attitude, a uniform. 

Elle dismantles this classist concept of intelligence by showing that she can be brainy as well as feminine. While Elle demonstrates that both of these traits are valuable, the film also contrasts Elle with other female characters who display the dangers of pursuing intellectual seriousness at the expense of womanliness. There is the frumpy Vivian and mean old Professor Cromwell, who missed the memo that women should be as pretty and non-intimidating as possible. Then there is Enid Wexler, the lesbian in Elle's class. 

Enid is introduced summarizing her previous academic experience. She studied at Berkeley, a school whose very name is a watchword for radical rabble-rousing. Worse, she majored in women's studies and specialized in the history of combat. Enid's over-aggressiveness is further demonstrated when she tries to break the ice with a male student by punching his shoulder. Enid believes Harvard's use of the word "semester" represents "a preference of semen to ovaries," and campaigns for a substitution of the invented word "ovester." Macho yet man-hating, Enid is like the suffragettes of ancient political cartoons, both imitating and criticizing men out of hysteric jealousy. Enid belongs to the "in-group" that casts out Elle, but fitting in at Harvard has cost Enid the femininity that Elle defiantly retains. With Enid, Legally Blonde separates feminism from Elle's supposed achievements in female empowerment and equality and reduces feminism to a philosophy of paranoid grievance, imagined slight, and unsavory deviation from gender norms. 

But perhaps the most important way Legally Blonde domesticates female empowerment is in its treatment of marriage. At first, Elle only enrolls in law school to become the kind of woman her ex-boyfriend Warner said he intends to marry. Although Elle comes to value her own budding interest in a legal career over Warner's approval, a caption that interrupts the film's closing graduation scene explains that Elle has started dating another man that will be proposing to her that night -- the only thing Elle wanted at the beginning of the story. 

Legally Blonde also recognizes the importance of marriage to a woman's class mobility. The case that Elle wins in the climax of the film concerns an old money patriarch and his adult daughter's objections to her "new money" stepmother. The daughter confesses to accidentally killing her father while trying to shoot her stepmother. Thus, yet another villain of the film is a descendant of old money, unfairly scorning the ascent of the upwardly-mobile into their domain for the crime of being too young, too beautiful, too cheerful -- for taking the lowly ways of their upbringing with them to the top. 

The story of Legally Blonde is knotted with contradictions. It is a story of class differences that ignores the distance between the upwardly-mobile and the humble and struggling ranks from which they emerge. It dramatizes a woman discovering she is capable of more than what was expected of her -- before achieving her original goal of finding a husband. It is a fantasy where women can do anything without rocking the boat too much. 

But these self-defeating ideals are the conventional wisdoms of a conflicted world, of a society that wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Consider Ronald Wright's oft-repeated observation that poor Americans see themselves as "temporarily embarassed millionaires." Consider the pressure on women to be perfect wives and mothers while still pursuing lives and careers beyond those roles, all while being expected to look pretty. Consider the expectations placed on women in the workplace to be assertive but not bossy, polite but not deferent, presentable but not overdressed. Elle Woods is a fantasy we need, because her place of triumph is the world we have made for ourselves.