You know that thing where you see a movie without ever watching it? You never actually decide to sit down and take it in, but it just osmoses into you over time anyway, through tangential exposure. You catch glimpses of it here and there and sooner or later the sum of your experience is basically the whole package. That happened to me with Legally Blonde over the last few weeks.
See, we have a proper old-school television in our living room, and sometimes we’ll just have it on in the background while we’re cleaning, or cooking in the adjacent kitchen. And because it’s an old-school TV, it plays what the good folks at the TV stations deem it to play. There’s plenty of a seemingly limitless supply of The Great British Bake-Off for a start. But there’s also a lot of movie repeats. Like, they’ll just pick a film, and then completely spam the shit out of it for a few weeks. And if you happen to mindlessly turn that telly on while cleaning or cooking, oftentimes you’ll end up on the same channel—there’s only a few of them ever really worth clicking on after all. Which is, in essence, how I managed to see Legally Blonde recently without ever having properly watched it.
The best thing about my scattershot, unintentional approach meant that I didn’t see the movie in order, start to finish. No, I saw the middle part of the movie on the first viewing, then the beginning a few days later, and then finally the ending about a week after that. It was as if Christopher Nolan was directing my viewing of the movie. Now, having never watched Legally Blonde any other way, I still feel confident in saying: This approach is absolutely the best way to watch Legally Blonde!
Or it was for me anyway, because it freed up my mind from preconceptions and allowed me to take in things that I might’ve otherwise been distracted from by being too busy picking up on tropes, or jokes that didn’t quite land. And because I wasn’t focused on those distractions I saw things clearly, and when it was over I had a revelation:
‘I always thought that Legally Blonde was a romcom. This isn’t a bloody romcom. This is a goddamn manifesto!’
In the 17 years since it came out, here’s roughly what I had assumed the story of Legally Blonde was: Bubbly West Coast airhead follows boyfriend into Harvard. There she realises she has a knack for law. Hijinks and personal growth follows.
Or something like that anyway.
What actually happens is:
Amicable, blonde fashion devotee, Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), is going out with old-money scion, Warner.
Warner takes Elle to a fancy restaurant. She thinks he is going to propose. Warner, however, has other plans. He is just about to begin his college career at Harvard. As the youngest in a family of senators and governors, he feels that his eventual and inevitable political career will require a romantic partner that more closely fits the expected mould. He dumps Elle, leaving her distraught and in tears. He needs someone ‘more serious’. A better fit for his future and his family.
Elle, beside herself with grief, takes comfort in nail salons and chocolate. She weeps for a few weeks. Then, encouraged by her sorority sisters, she resolves to get back what’s rightfully hers. Always a competent and driven individual, Elle decides to take the Law School Admissions Test. She works herself to the bone and scores a 179. When the suits at Harvard are deciding on whether or not to let her in, that score—combined with her high GPA and IQ, as well as her extracurricular activities—nets her a place at the college’s prestigious halls, despite their reservations about her looks.
At this point though, Elle’s main goal is still just to get her boyfriend back.
At Harvard, she is mocked by the other students for her way of speaking, her dress sense, and her demeanour.
One day, she bumps into Warner in the corridor. He is confused by her presence and assumes she is there just visiting. When Elle reveals that she is enrolled and there to study, his astonishment and disbelief is palpable.
As the semester goes on, Elle finds the ways of Harvard a challenge. She is also confronted with the truth of Warner’s situation: In the period following their split, during which Elle cried over their relationship and yearned to have him back, he met and got engaged to a stuffy brunette called Vivian Kensington. Elle meets Vivian, and a territorial grudge match ensues in which the women passive-aggressively fight over Warner, Vivian looking down at Elle and treating her with contempt.
Elle keeps on trying to reclaim Warner’s affection, but at the same time starts to really get her head around Harvard’s ways and her course. She decides to apply for a presitigous internship programme. Warner hears about this and tells Elle not to waste her time—it’ll be too difficult for her, and she could find a better use of her time. Elle goes for it anyway, and it starts to dawn on her that Warner may never take her back. She starts to see him differently.
Elle proves herself in the internship, continues to improve in her studies, and more and more focuses in on herself and her self-improvement, and less on Warner. Callahan, the older male professor whose law firm is running the internship recognises Elle’s good work.
Vivian, who is also part of the internship, is impressed by Elle’s achievements. Having spent the majority of the time feuding, the two grow closer, bonding over their careers and aspirations, as well as their amusement at Warner’s hyper-privileged upbringing. Elle finds out that Warner’s influential father had to ‘make a call’ to get Warner into Harvard.
At one point during a key trial, Callahan invites her to his office in the evening to ‘discuss the case’. There, this powerful man tries to hit on the woman who is his subordinate and at his professional mercy. Elle refuses his advances and quits the internship. During the furore, Vivian misunderstands the situation, and assumes that Elle has only gotten so far thanks to her looks.
The news of the manner of Elle’s quitting gets back to the female defendant who Callahan’s firm is representing. She promptly fires Callahan and takes on Elle as counsel instead. Callahan vigorously tries to block this to silence Elle but fails. Elle, dolled up in bright pink, wins the case with the help of her prior knowledge and affinity for fashion. Vivian sees the truth of the matter and respects Elle anew. Warner now tries to cosy up to Elle and get her back but she sees her real worth and rebuffs him.
Eventually, Elle and Vivian become best friends and both graduate with honors and a bright future ahead of them, while Warner graduates single, with no honors, and no job offers.
A sub-plot in the movie concerns Elle’s nail technician Paulette (played by Jennifer Coolidge). Paulette is working class and separated from her ex-partner, who took everything in the separation, including the dog. Elle takes time away from her main quest to bamboozle the man with fancy law words, and to help get get Paulette’s beloved dog back.
So to sum up:
A young woman in love follows a man into an environment where she does not, on the surface, fit in. The man proves himself a colossal, privileged stuck-up arse unworthy of her love. It is also revealed that he is where he is not by merit, but purely by the connections his name brings. Despite the heartbreak and the institutional bias against her the woman succeeds academically and professionally, and ends up being best friends with the man’s girlfriend, who also dumps him because she sees his true colours. Oh, and right in the middle of all of that, a powerful older man attempts to use his position to make sexual advances on the young woman. She fights back and takes his fucking job off him, and does with it singlehandedly what he couldn’t.
Sure, it’s white as a fucking unmarked sheet of paper and minorities of basically any stripe are not included in this narrative at all, but you know what: Considering where we are culturally right now, Legally Blonde is a pretty damn great feminist manifesto screaming at us from nearly two decades ago. It declares itself clearly: Men are mostly garbage who will either see and treat women as inferior, or they will outright abuse them. So fuck that, men are not needed, female solidarity is the way to go, ignore the sleazy testicle-draggers and just get shit done.
(Don’t worry, Luke Wilson, nobody’s sleeping on you and your empathetic and supportive ally-hood. Your contribution is noted.)