On Elle Woods and being yourself.

The Alamo Drafthouse Omaha is celebrating "Colossal Women Month" by asking women to program films that are important to them. Guest Programmer Megan Hunt chose Legally Blonde. Live near Omaha? You can get your tickets HERE

Like many children growing up, I enriched my ever-expanding breadth of interests vis-à-vis my peers. I enjoyed swimming like Brittni did, I enjoyed baseball like Drew did, I enjoyed playing with dress-up clothes like Annie, and I enjoyed climbing trees and building forts like my neighbors Nate and Ben. Word searches were all the rage throughout my entire first grade year after our classmate Riley stoked our competitiveness by boasting about his (really illogical, in my opinion) strategy for quickly completing the word games. In third grade, encouraged by our equally maternal and stiffly astringent librarian, my classmates and I became interested in poem-writing. Under her supervision, our class submitted dozens of original works to children’s literary magazines, resulting in an impressive rate of publication.

I had my own interests, too, that surely influenced those of my friends. I loved art and art history, video games, playing drums, writing, theater, and geography. All of these hobbies of mine co-mingled with my tendencies toward bossiness and enterprise, and I could frequently be found distributing flyers for gallery shows in my bedroom (everything had its price, of course), or casting neighborhood kids in my most recent dramatic manuscript. Just as my schoolmates and peers kindled my curiosity about hundreds of activities that we joyously shared together growing up, my own obsessions and interests - imaginative discoveries that were unique to me - left impressions on them, as well.

At a certain age - and I’m sure that many of you reading this can identify when this happened for you - the intellectual curiosity and wonder of our shared experiences in the world began to diminish. Without knowing it was happening, my friends and I began to sort into hobbies, lunch tables, and even affects, mainly according to our gender. There were “Girl Things” and “Boy Things.” In addition to that, there were Smart Girl Things and Slutty Girl Things. There were Jock Things and Nerd Things. There were Gay Things and Bitch Things and Redneck Things and whole, entire new categories of behavior that we had very little choice or control over - all these decisions were made somehow by The Group, irrespective of the complexity of identity we had all had developed together through our shared experiences in years past.

Our social interactions at every level began to seem like a game, all subjugated by a new set of gendered rules. I wanted to outsmart the game. Here’s how I went about it, in a completely disastrous way:

Perhaps to differentiate myself in the group, perhaps as a genuine, authentic part of my own development, and perhaps because I did have some aspects that predisposed me to adapt to the expectations of others, I became a guy’s girl. A cool girl. Not like the other girls. I liked pop music, but it was cooler to crank whatever the boys were listening to (which I also did like) while throwing in a scornful comment about the banality of Britney or Christina (and those who listen to them) for good measure. I liked dresses and sewing, but I got better outcomes when I emphasized my parallel interests in video games and programming instead. In school I loved singing and acting, but when I decided to hone my skills in stagecraft and technical design, it set me down a completely different path of social status and opportunities - one that I believed was of my own design. I was learning that I was able to gain the privileges of male attention by emphasizing aspects of my personality that I thought were more masculine and powerful, and by diminishing the things about myself that were more feminine, girly, weak.

This was my M.O. for years. Don’t be like the other girls. Don’t be a slut. Don’t be a bitch. Don’t be a drama queen. Don’t say the wrong thing. Don’t care too much. Don’t be yourself.

In my sophomore year of high school, Legally Blonde was released in theaters. In its unassuming package as a Hollywood Box Office Smash Hit, Legally Blonde ignited the unlikely beginning of my feminist awakening. The film’s protagonist is Elle Woods (note, even her name means “woman”), a well-manicured fashion merchandising student and sorority girl who makes a plan to attend Harvard Law School in pursuit of her ex-boyfriend, a governor’s son who no longer saw Elle as part of his future. (“If I want to be a Senator, I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.”)

After an impressive movie montage of studying, cramming, quizzing and unconditional encouragement from her sorority sisters, Elle is accepted into Harvard Law (“What, like it’s hard?”) where she adjusts to a new world of very different academic and social standards, none of which are welcoming or accepting of her bubbly and (superficially) superficial personality. Neither her professors, nor her bookish female peers, nor the man she followed to Harvard take her ambitions seriously, yet Elle’s persistence, creative thinking and hard work cause her to emerge as the top student in her class, and with the admiration of her classmates, professors and former academic rivals. In the end, Elle didn't need permission from the lecherous professor who led her first major legal case, nor from her ex-boyfriend whom she easily outperformed academically. Elle got what she wanted because she worked for it, earned it and deserved it, all on her own pink, perfume-scented, marabou-trimmed terms.

Elle Woods was hardworking, like me. She was ambitious, like me. But unlike me, she was not suppressing her femininity nor was she trying to impress her male peers along the way. The internal mantra I had repeated to myself for so long - be cool, don’t care - had no cachet in the Legally Blonde universe. In the movie, we see people judge Elle over and over: the guidance counselors who don’t believe in her ability to be accepted to Harvard, the boyfriend who dumps her, the professors who don’t like her heart-shaped notebook, the attorney who only sees her as a sexual conquest. And time and time again, we see Elle prove them wrong without changing her personality or interests, without conforming to the expectations of her critics. Where I felt it was uncool to care, Elle never stopped caring.

In Legally Blonde, I found curious fascination and delight in watching Elle’s unapologetic girlishness featured front and center as an innate attribute of Elle’s personality - Who She Really Is - and nothing that needed to be downplayed or corrected in order for her to “find her strength” or “make it in a man’s world.” We see that Elle always had her strength, and that her proclivities as an intellectual were never at odds at all with her femininity. (Indeed, it was her fluency in her stereotypically feminine knowledge base that ended up solving the big court case.) For Elle, her goal of becoming educated at the country’s most prestigious law school and going on to become a great lawyer transcended the “man’s world.” The men were never the gatekeepers to her.

Though it was a predicable, formulaic comedy - easy watching, easy laughs, lovable characters - the themes of female camaraderie, ambition and nuanced feminism slowly rose before my view and emerged as a mental detour on this road I had so deliberately forged for myself, the path meant to guide me through my teen development and leave me on the other side better poised for a life of happiness, opportunity, and a small piece of the Pie of Success that I felt would surely be eaten up before my other female peers could take a stab at it. Put simply: to make it in the world, I needed help from men. To get help from men, I had to change myself into someone they would like. Not a docile Wife or Girlfriend, since having power was part of my goal. That left two options: I could be a Seductress or Temptress, or maybe something more like a peer. Just a girl who was one of the guys. And as a matter of course, all of these options came at a high price to my individuality and authenticity. When I saw Legally Blonde, all of these preconceptions and self-sabotaging stereotypes fueled by the judgment of women and the illusion of male acceptance began to dissipate like a fog. I had thought I was outsmarting the game, but without allowing myself to develop as an individual I had reduced myself to nothing but a pawn in the game. Elle Woods showed me, and not a moment too late, that we can take that one step further: we don’t even need to play the game.

To be leaders as women, we need autonomy over our experiences, yet we must always manage our resistance to conform into roles prescribed by men. As we women find our places among our peers, as we grow up, we learn to consider questions like “Do we have to act like men to get what we want?” “Should we use ‘feminine wiles?’” "How do we balance who we want to be with who men want us to be?" And when we see these as the focal problems to overcome in finding our own success, we begin by defining our own reality from a man’s perspective and instantly miss the whole point. What I had always perceived as “a man’s world” where I had to get along to get ahead had paralyzed me from exploring what really should have been my pursuit in life—knowing myself and fostering the confidence and authenticity to be the woman I want to be, instead of pretending to be the woman I perceive others want me to be.

The lessons of Legally Blonde left me with the realization that there was no use for shame or timidity about who we are - any woman who had the strength and confidence to be herself is a woman we should all celebrate and admire. It doesn’t matter if she would have sat at our lunch table. It doesn’t matter if we like her shoes or agree with her romantic pursuits or want the same career. The mere fact of her existence makes her worthy of respect and admiration.

The proverbial pie in the sky at the end of the ladder to success will never run out of slices. Guess why? It was always meant for all of us - blonde or otherwise - to consume.

Get your tickets to Legally Blonde here.