“What, like it’s hard?”: Femininity, performativity, & the disruption of male space in Legally Blonde
By Neha Dhaliwal
2021 marks 20 years since the release of Legally Blonde (2001), one of the most iconic and well-loved “chick flicks” of the 2000s. While this film is not without its flaws, it makes important statements about gender and femininity. Elle Woods embodies many female stereotypes: the valley girl, the sorority girl, the ‘girly girl’, and the (seemingly) dumb blonde. She loves beauty, fashion, and pop culture — all interests which young women are often patronized for having. To others, her femininity is a marker of her unintelligence, of her weaknesses, and her poor character and values. However, the film challenges the relationship between perception and capability to emphasize that qualities that have been constructed as feminine are not weaknesses. Elle’s character is used to demonstrate the valuable role that women can have within the field of law. Elle exemplifies the performativity of gender as she does not suppress her femininity in the ways that other female characters do. Her sustained acts of femininity are both humorous and resistant to the male-dominated space of law. Through confidence in her choice of dress and use of traditionally feminine knowledge, Elle moves beyond the periphery of consciousness where women in law generally remain. Therefore, the film utilizes many of the qualities that typically confine women to express female agency within a male-dominated space.
Elle’s experiences and interactions at Harvard Law School demonstrate the harsh realities of moving through a male-dominated space. The legal profession and law school, especially twenty years ago, was extremely male-dominated. Even with the more recent increase of women in the field, men still dominate powerful positions and women are statistically more likely to drop out of law. Referring to law as a “male space” highlights the societal perception of the profession and the core values of law schools and firms. In her book, Capital Culture, Linda McDowell explains that “jobs are not gender-neutral — rather they are created as appropriate for either men or women”. Law tends to value logic, rationality, numbers, and aggression, which are traits socially constructed as masculine. Women are positioned as inferior in this space — especially those who present themselves as confidently feminine. We see this when the all-male admissions board reviews Elle’s Harvard Law application, as the way she presents herself, her interests, and leadership experiences are viewed as inferior. When one member raises Elle’s impressive 4.0 GPA and score of 179 on the LSAT, another counters with, “a fashion major?” as an objection to her degree in fashion merchandising. The admissions scene exemplifies the role of perception in determining who is appropriate for this space. Despite this, Elle largely remains true to herself and resists the urge to dial down her femininity.
The understandings of what is appropriate or not in terms of gender performativity extend to the appearance and presentation of the body. As a male space, law values the mind and erases the body. This is reflected in lawyers’ clothing — suits which cover the body in dull and plain colours. In popular culture, women are constructed as more of a body than a mind, and hence are ‘out of place’ in the legal space. Elle does not conform to clothing standards or expectations. She draws attention to her body through tight-fitting, fashionable, feminine, and eye-catching clothing. Upon arrival at Harvard, we see Elle dressed in a pink leather skirt and jacket, matching handbag and sunglasses, and high heels as she approaches her residence building. Her outfit contrasts with the muted browns, beiges, and greys of the other student’s sweater vests and collared shirts. Immediately, Elle is marked as inappropriate for the space. Based on her appearance and attitude, she is assumed to be incapable, unintelligent, and shallow, which is shown through the crowd of laughing students who call her a “Malibu Barbie”. McDowell states that, in spaces dominated by men, “every style available to women is marked, whereas men’s styles are unmarked”. There is a hyper-awareness of women’s clothing choices, and women are reminded of how they “[possess] a female body which classifie[s] them as inferior to men”. A common response to this is the adjustment of one’s appearance and clothing to blend in. In the film, Vivian represents this attempt to blend, as she is often seen wearing plain sweaters and collared shirts — an adjusted “variant of the male business dress” that limits the attention drawn to her body. Elle’s nonconformity, then, demonstrates female agency in resisting these socially constructed gender constraints.
The use of qualities and knowledge constructed as feminine further demonstrates the theme of female agency in the film. Faith Seidenberg claims that women are positioned on the periphery of consciousness within law, leaving many women unheard and ignored. Elle disrupts this pattern through acts of resistance against suppressing her femininity. Her empathy and understanding towards Brooke are viewed as naive by Callaghan, but it also forced her to work harder to prove her innocence. The compassionate and mediating approach is constructed as feminine but is an asset to lawyers’ performance and success. Additionally, her attention to detail and deep understanding of beauty and fashion become essential to Brooke’s case. Elle’s intricate knowledge of haircare is the key to proving Chutney’s role in the murder of her father. By pinpointing the flaw in Chutney’s story through the details of her hair appointment, Elle shows a particularly profound understanding of haircare, down to the chemical level. This places value on the interests of women which are usually dismissed or belittled. The attention to details that the men on the case dismiss — to quote, “where is she going with this?” — is essential to their success. This approach differs from the focus on logic and rationality that is valued the most by the other characters. This exemplifies the integral role women can play in law. The increased presence of women will only benefit the legal profession because it requires interaction with female clients and witnesses.
Despite how shallow it may seem, Legally Blonde makes powerful statements about women in higher education and the legal profession. Elle, the stereotypical blonde valley girl proves to be one of the most capable law students in her class, and her determination eventually earns her the title of valedictorian. She transgresses the confines of “male space” without sacrificing her interests or self-expression. Rather than changing herself to be tolerated, she makes the space more tolerable of people deemed “inappropriate” for it. The ultimate act of female agency is her persistence in maintaining her sense of self and utilizing her empathy, attention to detail, and knowledge of subjects constructed as feminine. Not to mention, Elle does all of this with composure and self-assurance: “What, like it’s hard?”
It’s clear why the film is still so inspiring to young girls who aspire to be lawyers: It gives them confidence and hope that they will not have to change themselves to succeed.