Broad Cinema: LEGALLY BLONDE’s Elle Woods - Cheerful, Neutral Good
From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
For June we are celebrating screenwriting duo Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith. Get your tickets to the She's The Man Movie Party at the Alamo Drafthouse here!
The podcast Buffering the Vampire Slayer recently celebrated hitting the end of Buffy’s second season by taking a break from their regular programming to record a special episode all about Wonder Woman. Two beautiful women, empowered by the ancients to physically defend humanity from literal evil. So far, so yeah, of course, duh.
As their discussion turned to the unimpeachable, inherent goodness of Diana and Buffy, however, I was struck with a kind of pop-existential déjà vu—not to any specific scene or arc from BtVS, but to the last time Legally Blonde was on television, during which I found myself so overcome with the truth of the thing that I said aloud, to my dog, “Elle Woods is just…so immensely good.”
The parallels between Buffy’s and Diana’s goodness are so obvious that, if you haven’t already written a master’s thesis on it in your head, the rest of this essay will likely do nothing for you. The parallels between Diana of Themyscira and Elle Woods, though — well, if you’d like another chapter for that mental thesis of yours, please: read on.
The shallowest read of Legally Blonde is that it is a bit of froth that finds comedy in subverting the “all the popular bullies underestimate the outcast/nerd” trope by making the bullies nerds—specifically, law nerds at Harvard—and making the outcast the popular blonde sorority girl from SoCal. “You got into Harvard Law?” the film’s lead bully/Elle’s erstwhile fiancé, Warner (Matthew Davis), demands incredulously when Elle (Reese Witherspoon) “happens” by him on their first day of classes. “What?” She pipes back cheerfully from behind her Sexy Hollywood Lawyer cat’s eye frames, “Like it’s hard?”
LOL! The scene screams at the audience. The hot blonde bubblehead is actually SMART! And double LOL—she still only cares about mixers and Machiavelli-ing her way back to her man.
The deeper (and, more importantly, accurate) read on the film is as a sly and perky feminist text. You can’t throw a search engine dart without hitting a dozen listicles and academic articles alike explaining, in detail, the feminism of one Elle Woods, but in short summary: as much as the patriarchy pushes down women who don’t fit traditional molds of femininity, it puts equally unfair limitations on women who, by birth or preference, do fit those molds—not least by pitting the two groups against one another. Elle, in all her sparkly pink, chihuahua-toting, platinum blonde Barbie glory, forces the audience to acknowledge that hard fact.
But all screenwriters Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith had to do to make that point was make Elle succeed in a field neither her peers nor the audience would expect her to. Get that LSAT score after studying by the pool; score that internship after handing over a perfumed, pink resume; put in the work, dressed like Playboy’s image of a law girl; graduate with honors in spite of it all. It’s law school—no one expects you to be a saint; they just expect you to burn the library’s midnight oil, and maybe cultivate some shark teeth if you’re feeling particularly ambitious.
And yet, McCullah and Smith made Elle good. Not just good, but, like, the Platonic Ideal of Good. Whatever emotional awareness of “normal” people a pretty, popular sorority girl is expected to have, hers is infinitely keener; whatever moral compass a law student (/lawyer) is expected to have, hers is infinitely truer. Where every stereotypically “Harvard” person she finds herself in class with immediately dismisses her in a single glance, Elle genuinely sees each new human being she encounters as someone with the potential for their own personal greatness, someone immediately worth her time and attention.
These traits don’t belong to Elle in spite of her membership in Delta Nu; they belong to her in direct parallel to it. Elle takes with her to law school her understanding of ‘sorority’ at its most fraternal: “the state or feeling of friendship and mutual support within a group.” Only by the time she gets to Harvard, her group is not just her Delta Nu sisters, but everyone. Every person the film presents as an archetype of someone who might preemptively lash out at or shy away from a pretty, bubbly sorority girl when she trespasses into their formerly Very Serious, Very Dull territory, Elle looks at as a possible friend and ally. Warner’s bitter and “plain” new fiancée, Vivian (Selma Blair), is ostensibly her competition, but Elle sets out only to impress Warner, not tear Vivian down. Militant, capital-F Feminist, Enid (Meredith Scott Lynn), is her critic almost immediately, but Elle just presses forward in her quest to add value to Enid’s study group. Working class nail technician, Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) is so cowed and self-effacing that Elle could walk all over her, but instead she invests in her life, doing everything she can to help Paulette live it as fully as possible. As for the poor, socially unaware dude literally credited as “Dorky David Kidney” (Oz Perkins), Elle saves him from the cackling bullying of some truly mean Pretty Girls by playacting an entire “best night of my life” break-up scenario, even though there was nothing tangible in it for her. Warner, well, until the scales fall from her eyes, Elle continues to give even him the benefit of the doubt, despite him only being better than lechy than lechy Professor Callahan (Victor Garber) on a sexual harassment technicality.
Elle’s goodness extends, of course, to the legal case at the center of the film’s third act, in which fellow Delta Nu, Brooke Taylor Windham (Ali Larter), is on trial for her elderly, rich husband’s murder. Brooke is Elle’s film negative, the possibility of her innocence written off for the same pretty, blonde, sorority-adjacent reasons Elle’s ability to exist at Harvard Law is. She is innocent, but while an entire team from Harvard is defending her, only Elle believes her innocence to be legitimate. As a result, Elle is the only one to whom Brooke will divulge her “embarrassing” alibi (liposuction), an alibi Elle, bound by the bonds of sisterhood, refuses to then divulge to the rest of the team.
The *joke* of the premise is that LOL, sorority bonds are so silly. The joke of the premise’s conclusion is, double LOL, Elle will get Brooke off by using her combined expertises in fashion, gay men, and chemical hair processes to disprove the prosecution’s entire “pool boy affair” argument. But these are just tools that serve Elle’s core sense of goodness, and the deeper truth McCullah and Smith are selling is that, regardless of the spangles it’s dressed in, goodness is a winning ideal. Their Elle Woods, “silly” sorority code front and center, is proof of it, in the same way that—and here we come around to that imagined thesis—Buffy Summers and Diana of Themyscira, their own deceptive femininity front and center trying to trick you into believing otherwise, are proof of the same. Capable work can happen without goodness; but only goodness can lead to greatness.
As Elle would say, “What? Like it’s hard?”