The opening sequence of Legally Blonde is all pink products and blond hair. We cut between scenes of college and sorority life – a girl being catcalled by frat guys as she bikes past their house, girls in pink workout gear on treadmills, those Tiffany’s heart bracelets everywhere – and Reese Witherspoon’s silky hair and perfectly manicured hands surrounded by beauty-products and markers of traditionally recognizable, material femininity: Herbal Essences “True Color” Blonde hair-dye; nail polishes; dried roses on a stack of Cosmopolitans; a Homecoming Queen banner; a lovingly decorated “President” sorority paddle. Everything that could be pink is pink, from the bedspread, to the glitter pens used to write on a pink card in a pink envelope, to the doggy-sweater for Bruiser, Elle Wood’s chic Chihuahua.
Just four minutes into the movie, a salesgirl sizes Elle up the way many viewers – my thirteen year-old self included – would: “a dumb blonde with daddy’s plastic.” The salesgirl tries to sell Elle a last-season dress as a new piece, and sweetly and swiftly, Elle shows through her extensive knowledge of fabrics and fashion that she’s no easy mark. Immediately, we see that Elle is deeply seeped in all that is considered feminine, but that however frivolous this knowledge is judged to be, Elle’s sharp, legalistic mind uses her extensive knowledge to her advantage in a wide range of contexts. It is not only that her Barbie-esque exterior leads people to misjudge her intelligence; it is part of her intelligence.
Legally Blonde has a lot of feminist bona fides: it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors; the girls in Elle’s sorority, despite confirming to every other sorority-girl stereotype, are not remotely catty and support Elle in all her endeavors; a working-class woman gets a romance plot with a very conventionally-attractive man; when Elle’s male professor turns out to be more of a creep than a role model, a female professor gives Elle the push she needs; and, in my favorite twist on the modern rom-com, the climactic moment normally reserved for the Big Kiss is taken up instead by Elle, high on her court victory, rejecting Warner and walking into the sunshine happy and alone (she does wind up with a man, but it is in the epilogue and not part of the movie itself). But, for me, the most powerful thing about this movie is the way it portrays Elle’s femininity.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t identify as a feminist. I can’t possibly have known the word as a toddler, but I always wanted to prove I could do whatever my older brothers could, because I needed them to know that girls could do anything boys could do. Despite this, it took me until very recently to identify a subtle, insidious form of misogyny I’d internalized and had been holding onto since childhood: the devaluing of the “feminine.” Since girls could do anything boys could do, why wouldn’t they? Why would I play with dolls when I could collect baseball cards? Why would anyone want to be a stay-at-home mom when they could work? I was so terrified of being associated with femininity – despite being a fairly shy, soft-spoken kid – that when I was twelve and a friend of mine painted my nails for the first time, I wrote in my diary “I have to go to this New Year’s party with mom and dad. My nails are still painted…I hope everyone doesn’t think I’m a girl or something.” I dressed as male characters for several Halloweens, and when we did our “traveling biography” projects in fourth grade, I dressed as Milton Hershey and learned how to tie my own tie.
In Female Masculinity, queer theorist Jack/Judith Halberstam observes:
[T]omboyism is quite common for girls…[and] we tend to believe that female gender deviance is much more tolerated than male gender deviance…Tomboyism tends to be associated with a ‘natural’ desire for the greater freedoms and mobilities enjoyed by boys. Very often it is read as sign of independence and self-motivation, and tomboyism may even be encouraged to the extent that it remains comfortably linked to a stable sense of girl identity (5-6).
Halberstam argues that this acceptance of female masculinity, of tomboyism, ends at puberty. And, for the most-part, she’s right; once we become teenagers, girls are certainly expected to look feminine. And mainstream culture still expects them to act feminine. But a sizable chunk of counter-culture wants the “best of both worlds.” It wants, in other words, the “Cool Girl” – a trope made famous by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but one that certainly existed prior to her novel.
Gillian Flynn describes the Cool Girl as
[A] hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.
This girl, Flynn argues, is a fiction, because, in her words, “no one loves chili dogs that much!” Flynn sees a sad core beneath this persona – “the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be.”
Tracy Moore at Jezebel has a more sympathetic take on the “Cool Girl,” arguing that she is “not a fiction, but a phase.”
Liking beers, hot dogs, sports, partying, and having a general allergy to feelings or Anything Too Serious is not the province of straight men in reality…but generally speaking, it is the cultural province and conditioning of straight men. These are the criteria for general dudeness, and by acknowledging this we must also acknowledge the criteria for general ladyness, which is typically thought of as a softer, gentler, more feelings-driven creature…
So when a woman for whatever reason embraces traditionally straight male interests while retaining aspects of straight female interests, and is hot (she always must be hot)—when she manages, for all intents and purposes, to somehow combine the best of both genders into one bangin’ superpackage of awesomeness—you have what is called a Cool Girl.
From my own experience, inhabiting the role of the Cool Girl is especially appealing to girls who never quite “got” traditional femininity – those of us who, in middle and early high-school, felt out of place, off-kilter, girls whose senses of humor, whose tastes in clothes and movies, whose priorities and hair and just about everything were somehow wrong. Then suddenly, in college, all the things that made me feel like an awkward loser made me feel magical. Girls who “weren’t like other girls” weren’t losers. We were cool. We were desirable. We were special. As Moore writes:
Sometimes it feels good to reject cultural notions of femininity and take up residence on a strange earth and live among the Others—to be told that for a while, you were that sort of girl, the one all the men wanted, admired, and desired, and could never quite grab hold of.
Both Flynn and Moore address the problem of the Cool Girl never getting angry (or never showing it), allowing men to treat her poorly out of a paralyzing fear of seeming clingy or needy. But what is more sinister is that Cool Girl often comes paired with not simply a distaste, but a disdain for all things feminine. For girls who wear makeup all the time (because somehow, the Cool Girl looks hot without trying, or showing that she tries), for girls who want boyfriends, or want their boyfriends to spend time with them, for girls who diet, for girls who drink cosmos or light beer instead of whiskey neat and IPAs, for bubblegum pop, for collections of high heels.
The tendency to think of “masculine” things — emotional remove, spicy foods and hard liquor, movies with car chases — as better, as more legitimate, cooler, than “feminine” things certainly exists outside of the sphere of the “Cool Girl.” Whether we expect women to adhere rigidly to femininity, or to juggle the aspects of the “masculine” and “feminine” that comprise the “Cool Girl,” or do whatever the hell they want, it is rare that femininity itself as portrayed as strength; at best, a very feminine-seeming character surprises us with her martial arts skill or impeccable aim, a sort of Cool Girl cum Femme Fatale, whose femininity masks her inner strength.
Elle is, again, the apotheosis of all things feminine. She wears pink, subscribes to Cosmopolitan, wants to get married – with a big rock on her finger to boot — wears her heart on her sleeve, and spritzes her resumes – typed on pink paper — with perfume. She is unapologetically feminine, and this does not change throughout her story. Nor is it entirely fair to say she “finds her strength” over the course of the film; she certainly learns a lot about herself, discovering that she’ll make a pretty great lawyer and that she doesn’t need a man.
But that strength was always there. In her unique (for lack of a better word) application video to Harvard Law School, she showcases her comfort with “legal terms in every day situations” by responding to a cat-caller with a swift “I object!” Once she sets her sights on Harvard – for admittedly less-than-ideal reasons – she has complete confidence in her ability to get in, and she rocks the LSAT. Over and over, we see people judge her: the salesgirl at the beginning of the movie; Warren, when he dumps her because she’s not “serious” enough for a future senator’s wife; her guidance counselor who doubts her ability to get into Harvard; her classmates and professors when she pulls a pink, heart-shaped notepad out on her first day of class; the judge when she questions [daughter] about her hair-care routine on the witness stand. And over and over, Elle proves them wrong.
On the first day of class, one of Elle’s professors quotes Aristotle in saying “Law is reason free from passion.” Three years later, as she speaks at her class graduation, Elle says
No offense to Aristotle, but in my three years at Harvard I have come to find that passion is a key ingredient to the study and practice of law — and of life. It is with passion, courage of conviction, and strong sense of self that we take our next steps into the world, remembering that first impressions are not always correct. You must always have faith in people. And most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself.
Elle brings unbridled passion to everything she does. She will never be “cool,” because in addition to her fabulous pink wardrobe, she will always care, and always show it. While Legally Blonde certainly makes an argument for passion – and against cynicism – it doesn’t enforce Elle’s femininity (it is, however, very hetero-normative and very white). But it does celebrate it. It is a girly movie about girly things, where “girly things” is broadened to simultaneously mean manicures and Prada shoes, and serious smarts, talent, and ambition. Legally Blonde elevates “frivolous” femininity to the level of serious, old boys’ club masculinity – for which there is hardly a better symbol than Harvard Law School.