Monday, October 20, 2008

(Fictional) Feminist Icon: Elle Woods

Yes, Elle Woods. Now, I know. She's very pink. She's very girly. She applied to Harvard in order to get her guy back. She won her court case using 'girly' knowledge like how long it takes a perm to set. Guess what? I see her as being incredibly feminist and Legally Blonde being about the creation of that feminist. Before I talk about what makes Elle Woods a feminist icon for me, I'll talk about the issues of such an assessment. One, Elle is very white, very rich, and her story plays to the conventional themes of the romantic-comedy set - those being Girl loses (or just likes) Boy; Girl tries to Win Boy Back (or possibly just for the first time); Girl garners attention of New Boy; Girl figures out Boy is a jackass; Girl ends up with New Boy, happily ever after. It is one of the classic romantic tales, utilized in such great films as French Kiss. Those things are problems. As is its lack of racial diversity, and the use of a certain feminist stereotype (though I must admit I love Enid's inclusion in the movie, and her radical feminist/lesbian ways). Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the film for me is Elle's video admissions essay, and the fact that the all white, all middle-aged board decides to accept her due to her Playboy Bunny-esque ways. It plays right into so many stereotypes without debunking any of them, and that is most definitely a problem. A close second is the film's portrayal of homosexuals, from the militant Enid to the fashion- conscious Enrique Salvatore to Enrique's boyfriend, the effeminate Chuck, to the requisite gay man in the nail salon.

So why is Elle Woods a feminist? One, she upends stereotypes. There is an overwhelming perception that being 'girly' is good for getting guys, but that it is frivolous. "Girl things" are generally looked down upon; those interested in girl things are also generally looked down upon. In the hierarchy of life, girls are supposed to be girly, but being girly means not being taken seriously. Being girly is not what it takes to get ahead in the 'serious' world of jobs. Being girly means an inherent lack of ability to be anything else. Boys who are interested in girly things, like pink nail polish (second letter), are derided or looked at as weird because they should know by a certain age that girliness is lower on the chain than what boys "naturally" have access to, and that is masculinity. And Elle is subject to that view. Elle is dumped because she's more of a Marilyn, not a Jackie. Salespeople attempt to take advantage of her because they simply see her as a dumb blonde with "daddy's plastic". But Elle, from the first moments of the film, turns that knowledge base around into a weapon. From her leading questions about "half-loop top-stitching on the hem" on a dress made from low-viscosity rayon, later noting, "It's impossible to use a half-loop topstitch on low-viscosity rayon. It would snag the fabric", Elle is able to turn the tables on such people - and demonstrate how a knowledge base outside of what we normally think of as one of the "acceptable" ones can be useful and demonstrate intelligence just as any of the others do. Throughout the movie, Elle proposes that girly girls can be smart law students too. That intelligence does not necessarily codify itself in the usual language. That there is something inherently wrong with thinking that a beautiful girl should be satisfied with just being a beautiful girl, and that we should not take these women seriously.

Another aspect of the film I love is Elle's relationships with the women around her. Her sorority friends aren't mean or catty, even if they aren't the brightest crayons in the box. They help her achieve her goals, and celebrate her successes with her. If Elle Woods wants to go to law school, they all will help her go to law school - even if it is completely beyond them why she would ever desire it. I also like her relationship with Vivian; though it begins coldly at first, what with Elle wanting Warner and Vivian being Warner's fiance, it eventually defrosts. There are moments of cattiness between the two girls; but Elle's sweetness and genuine goodness eventually wins over the other girl. I generally see their relationship as an indictment about what the nature of competition between women over men breeds. It breeds resentment, it breeds ugliness, and it undermines what could otherwise be fruitful relationships. Their friendship also discusses something else prominent in society; Callahan treats Vivian as a glorified secretary, and treats Elle better only because he is sexually attracted to her. The girls develop a tenuous solidarity after acknowledging Callahan's treatment of Vivian; and although the movie does not delve further into it, it does demonstrate the dichotomy women in society often fall into. It shows the dismissiveness women often face in the upper echelons of society, where being serious and following the rules still will not shelter a woman from sexism.

A different relationship worth noting is Elle's friendship with Paulette; Paulette's former companion kicked her out of the trailer they shared, having followed "his pecker to greener pastures", and Paulette is "a middle-aged high-school dropout with stretch marks and a fat ass". What Elle gives her isn't Elle's Brooke Taylor exorcise tapes. Elle doesn't focus on remodeling Paulette, but on making her happy. First, by getting Paulette her dog back, and showing off her own legalese. And secondly, by continually bolstering up her friend's self-esteem. Paulette gets her happy ending without changing as well. What is also interesting about the film is that Paulette's troubles aren't ignored; when they first meet, Elle "spills" about her day. But then Paulette gets her turn. And her life is much worse. She doesn't have the opportunity to hire a Coppola to direct her admissions essay to anywhere. And although the film doesn't outrightly demean or decry Elle's narrow focus on how horrible life is, the movie does take pains to right Paulette's life as well. She isn't simply the nail technician there to be Elle's sounding board. She has a life and troubles of her own; and getting back Rufus, Paulette's dog, becomes a mission for Elle as well as for Paulette. 

Elle's biggest problem in the film, though she does not at first recognize it as such, is not that Warner Huntington III dumped her; it is that no one in her life takes her and her ambitions seriously. From her advisor to her parents, from her Harvard classmates to her best friends and first law professor and Warner himself, no one believes that Elle has the intellectual capabilities to get into Harvard, or succeed once she arrives there. Her mother would rather focus on Elle's history as a beauty queen. Her friends initially think she's taken leave of her senses, before coming together to help her succeed. Her advisor doesn't think there is anything to impress Harvard in her transcripts (on that one, she may have been right). And her classmates focus on the fact that she does not fit the traditional Harvard mode. She doesn't fit in because she is not outwardly serious. Her language is peppered with phrases like "truly heinous", and her voice is very much a Valley Girl voice, with the traditional squeaks and bubbly inflections. But she begins to make her mark. She makes friends with David; she makes friends with her ex-boyfriend's fiance; she impresses Emmett. And when she feels as though she did not get a coveted internship based on merit, discovering that her law professor was more interested in her as a "piece of ass", she quits. She doesn't play the game to get ahead due to her blonde hair and big boobs. She wants to be - craves to be - assessed based on her own credentials.

Which is why I think the final court scene is so important. Elle's fashion sense had been muted during her venture into the 'serious' work of her internship. She was still more stylish than Vivian, but she dressed more conservatively, with panty-hose and in black suits. Her return to court in her pink suit represents a new balance for Elle, a woman who will embrace her pinkness and her ability to rock the court house. And her Cosmo girl knowledge, mocked and diminished as being frivolous and girly and not worthy of her more serious colleagues, is the key to the case. In the end, Elle can still be passionate about "hair care" and be on her way to being a partner in a law firm by the time she's 30. And she can dismiss Warner as being a "bonehead"; because in the end, Legally Blonde isn't about a girl finding a guy, or doing something to keep a guy. It started out as that, sure. But over the course of the movie, Elle discovered she could be more, and she wanted to be. She craved, like most people, to be taken seriously. In the end, even without changing the basic core of who she is and how she reacts, she is.

(Part 1 of the series)


John said...

Wow! If I didn't know better, I'd say that you put more thought and effort into illustrating Elle Woods as a paragon of feminism (without being a militant womynist)than her creators did!

Would you consider Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei's character from My Cousin Vinny) a predecessor to Elle? She, too, was a strong and independent (and highly unconventional) woman who rocked a courtroom with her specific real-world knowledge.

Perhaps it's because I stopped watching shortly after Elle got the internship, but I thought the only thing that didn't fit about the character was her incredible raw, natural intellect. At least prior to her first class at Harvard, it seemed that she had been blessed with the "Schwartz factor" (a reference only the VHS class of '03 will catch) in that she could succeed at academic disciplines without putting any effort into studying or taking the class seriously when not in session. But maybe that's just my perception.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Legally Blonde in forever, but reading this post, I really got where you're coming from. It takes a lot of the negative stereotypes of women that you see in movies and society in general and turns them on their head. The women aren't catty, they're not completely obsessed with earning male approval, and femininity is portrayed as having worth. You can really see Elle's transformation; in the beginning, she's fine with using her looks to aid her admission into Harvard, but later on she recognizes that it is wrong for men to use her for her looks and she wants to be taken seriously. I might have to rent Legally Blonde this weekend... It'll be nice to see a frivolous comedy that doesn't make me feel dead inside. :)

MediaMaven said...

I think "The House Bunny" is aiming for something along these lines. It's written by the same women who wrote "Legally Blonde". I actually kind of want to see it--I thought it looked funny--but the reviews aren't great.