Legally Blonde, a film about how hard it sometimes is to be a very sexy platinum-blonde white chick with a penchant for short skirts, was first released in 2001, making the movie old enough to drive a Barbie pink convertible, vote for whichever political candidate has the winning combination of good politics and good hair, and contemplate enrolling in the US Army because it saw Private Benjamin at an impressionable age and thought that Goldie Hawn looked cute in that green helmet. (Whether it is old enough to walk into a bar and legally order a Cosmopolitan depends on where you live, but I’ve no doubt it has tried more than once, perhaps declaring itself to be “such a Carrie” at the same time.)
Like its protagonist Elle Woods – a rich and gorgeous brainiac in bimbo’s clothing who ends up going to Harvard and discovering her aptitude for law – it is girlie, very Noughties, flamboyantly heterosexual and secretly, delightfully intelligent and feminist: “bright” in both senses of the word. If its message – that a woman can be smart and enjoy lip gloss simultaneously – does not feel especially radical now, it is worth noting that a generation of millennial women first enjoyed it at the age of ten or 12, when such an idea could be experienced as a revelation. That Elle first applies to Harvard as a means of winning back her boring ex allows Legally Blonde to set itself up as a conventional romcom before upending the viewer’s expectations, turning into something closer to a public information broadcast about judging books according to their marabou-trimmed covers.
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Despite having been directed by a man, the Australian Robert Luketic, it is often thought of as an entirely feminine creation, maybe because it was written by two women: Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith. Proving that Legally Blonde is not entirely without bite, Elle’s admission – based primarily on her 4.0 grade point average and 179 LSAT score – is helped by the strong impression her perky, bikini-centric video essay (directed, no less, by “a Coppola”) makes on the all-male, all-middle-aged admissions board at Harvard. Good looks can be a burden for a clever girl, the film admits with a coy shrug, but not completely: there will always be impressionable men to be bamboozled or judgemental peers to be wrong-footed with your brilliance. Legally Blonde is, in other words, a kind of riff on Joan Didion’s famous claim that her being “so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate” was a superpower when it came to bleeding information from her sources. Because Elle looks foxy but thinks with a fox’s cunning, she is able to identify a killer based on her specific, supposedly frivolous knowledge of the care and maintenance of perms; because she is sweet as well as smart, she never holds the revelation of her intelligence over those who mock and doubt her.
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To get into character, Reese Witherspoon confessed to having taken up what she described as “anthropology”, watching sorority girls and pretty LA socialites with the same scientific eye Jane Goodall trained on her gorillas. “I could have gone into this and been really ditzy and played what I would have thought this character was, and I would have missed a whole other side of her,” she said. “But by going down to Beverly Hills… I saw how polite these women are, and I saw how much they value their female friendships.” In recent years, Witherspoon has played spikier, more self-important rich white women, specialising in the kind most likely to request to see the manager when they are inconvenienced by the actions of a poorer, browner person, or by listless salesmanship at Tory Burch. She excels as Big Little Lies’ bossy Madeline Mackenzie, or as the quietly racist Elena Richardson in Little Fires Everywhere, both broadly sketched enough to land as satire rather than naturalistic portraits of real women.
A contemporary Legally Blonde reboot might address the ways in which Elle is extremely fortunate, as well as the ways in which she suffers as a result of the prejudices levelled at conventionally gorgeous people. Legally Black, an activist collective best known for spoof film posters, make a similar observation with their name: “Legally Black”, the story of a young black woman’s rocky journey towards Harvard, would no doubt be an extremely different film, with a necessarily different tone. (While it is legal for all women to be blonde, it is far easier for some women than others to have certain hairstyles in the workplace, or to enter certain workplaces at all.) Still, for a film made 20 years ago, Legally Blonde does make a worthwhile point about not necessarily having to mimic serious men in order to be taken seriously, or to be authentically clever. It may not have been directed by a Coppola, but it certainly endures.
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This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism