Honoring the Heroine: Elle Woods

My last article about Barbie lead to a small discussion in the comment section how a good Barbie movie should look like. During said discussion I voiced my discontent over what I have heard about the current Barbie movie project so far. I also said that Legally Blonde is a perfect example how to do a Barbie based movie right. Consequently I decided that it is high time to discuss a character who has been on my to-do list pretty much since I started the blog.

Now, Legally Blonde is not the kind of movie you would think could qualify for my blog if you just read the premise: Blonde decides to go to Harvard Law School in order to win back her boyfriend.  Not only does this sound like a rom-com, it sounds like a particular bad one. But if you actually watch the movie, you’ll discover it so much more than that. I am not even sure if I would call it a rom-com. Oh, there is romance and there is comedy, but in a way it is more a coming-of-age story about an intelligent woman who realizes that there is more in live than fashion and marriage. In short, exactly the kind of movie which is worth discussing here.

This movie rises and falls with the character of Elle Woods, which gets established beautifully within the first scenes. Before she even gets to the date with her boyfriend Warner, we have already learned a lot about her. There is the obvious: She is beautiful, she pays a lot of attention to her appearance, her parents are rich or at least well-off and she really, really wants to marry. And then there is the not so obvious. She is successful (there are a number of awards in her room), popular (all the girls in her sonority wish her good luck for the evening), friendly to everyone (even when she is stressed out, she is nothing but honest smiles), and smart but people don’t expect that of her (she immediately tells off the shop assistant who tries to cheat her). I would describe her as a beautifully flawed character.

Yes, flawed. Because while she seems to be perfect at the first glance, the discerning eye will recognize fairly early that she is overly concerned with her appearance and way too wrapped up in some sort of fantasy world concerning her romance. A point which is driven across when Warner dumps her because he considers her not serious enough. Honestly, I don’t think that anyone can watch the break-up scene without thinking “what an a-hole! She really dodged a bullet there”.

Which puts the audience into the awkward position of kind up routing for the protagonist, but not really. Meaning while there is something satisfying to see her buckling down and getting to Harvard strictly on her own merits (while Warner needs the influence of his family to make the cut), the goal she has set for herself in the beginning of the movie is not one we really want her to achieve. And yet it is somewhat difficult to watch her facing rejection again and again. It is a new experience for her, but in a way a good one.

The movie doesn’t fall into the trap to overly vilify the people who are laughing about Elle in the beginning. There is a scene in which Elle is calling out her fellow students for going all judgemental on her simply because she is different than them, but on the flip-site it is also shown that Elle is going into all of this with entirely the wrong attitude. For starters, she initially doesn’t care for law or Harvard, so she is basically taking the place of someone who really wants to be a lawyer just so that she can win back her boyfriend. When Professor Stromwell throws her out of her class for being unprepared, it is a humiliating experience, but it is not an unwarranted response to her callous behaviour. Even more important: She eventually learns and grows due to those experiences.

Elle’s focus on what are mostly superficial goals is something which has been encouraged by her parents and society for what I assume her whole life. Now for the first time she recognizes that her intelligence is an asset she has neglected in favour coasting through life waiting for Mr Right. And step by step she sets a new goal for herself. It become less and less about Warner and more and more about her own ambitions. She no longer wants to be a wife, she wants to be a lawyer, and in the end, she succeeds.


One aspect I particularly like is how Elle’s emotional journey is shown in her clothes. First she is the pink princess and overly concerned with her appearance, mostly in order to impress her boyfriend. Then she changes into typical Harvard clothes in order to fit in. In the end she reverts back to the pink princess look, but now this look has become a statement. It shows that Elle is no longer concerned about how others see and judge her, she is now picking those clothes knowing perfectly well that some would consider them inappropriate, but she is still wearing them because she wants to. This is her style and she feels comfortable in it, no matter what anyone else is thinking. And yes, this is exactly the kind of message I would like to see in a Barbie movie, too. There is nothing wrong with wanting to dress up, but it shouldn’t be the centre of your life and it shouldn’t be done for the sake of others, but for your own enjoyment.

There are some points in the story though which I feel work against the core messages. A very basic one is the way it deals with stereotypes. Overall it does an excellent job in sidestepping tired tropes, it even allows Elle to eventually develop a friendship with her initial rival Vivian, but then it suddenly turns around and embraces said stereotypes. Elle might not be a dumb blonde, but her closest friends are exactly what most people assume Elle to be. Then there is gay pool boy, the militant feminist, the dork, more or less every time Elle undercuts a stereotype another character confirms one. Not to mention that Elle triumphs in the end because of her knowledge about hair care and not because she is a particularly good lawyer.

Speaking of the end, I can’t quite get behind it. Well, it is great that Elle gets her degree and a better boyfriend while Warner ends up with no honours, no job offer and no girlfriend, but what about the professor who tried to molest Elle? Yeah, she steals a big case from him, but the criminal nature of what he did is never discussed and there is never any talk of keeping him away from other young students in the future. This is kind of a glaring omission if the message concerning sexual harassment is “ignore it and be successful” instead of “take this stupid prick down”.

But what really bothers me about the movie is that the character which pushes Elle in the right direction is a new love interest. In a way, it might be a good thing to show how a boyfriend who actually cares about Elle’s character and not about his own ego should look like, but I think the movie would be so much stronger if it had allowed the strawman feminist, who is overall portrayed as a militant hypocrite, to eventually become Elle’s friend, encouraging her to actually use her assets. Not that Elle is lacking female support, even Professor Stromwell gets the opportunity to back her up by telling her that if Elle gives up, then “you’re not the girl I thought you were”. I just wish that the “better boyfriend” part of her arc had been more separate from Elle discovering that one should never plan the future around another persons egoistic desires.

All this said,  I do think that it is a movie worth watching. The sequel though, well, I can’t really comment on it, because I have never seen it. Partly because I can imagine that it is any good. But mostly because sometimes I really don’t want to know what happens next to a character. Because it doesn’t really matter, what matters is that Elle will always have faith in herself.

Quote: “I changed my mind. I’ll take the dangerous one, because I’m not afraid of a challenge.”

If you enjoy movies which play around with stereotypes, movies, which are a little bit cheesy but still have some substance underneath it, then this one might the right pick for you. Also if your boyfriend or girlfriend just turned out to be a first class egoist, and you need a little bit of cheering up. Because in addition of providing the satisfaction of seeing Elle getting the opportunity to quote Warner’s break-up explanation back to him, the movie also contains a particularly inspirational speech in the end:


“On our very first day at Harvard, a very wise Professor quoted Aristotle: “The law is reason free from passion.” Well, 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.”

Next time around I will most likely talk about a movie which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. And after this, I think it is time to go back to my Marvellous and DCent series, this time addressing female Superheroes on TV.


5 thoughts on “Honoring the Heroine: Elle Woods

  1. You are right to skip sequel. It is basically Ms. Woods Goes to Washington with Sally Field as Senator Paine, and a basic repeat of the first film’s major plot points with Washington staffers stepping in for snooty law school students.

    • Yeah, I suspected….most sequels don’t really offer something new. I think that most movie franchises which are around would have been way better off if they had ended after the first or second movie (see: Alien, PotC, arguably Terminator, Neverending Story and many, many more)

  2. Yeah it’s a really fun movie. The Broadway musical is actually surprisingly good also

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s