Legally Blonde, Legally Brilliant: Revisiting an early-Noughties Icon

Full disclosure, I put off watching Legally Blonde for YEARS. It was just another rom-com with a blonde lead – I didn’t need it and didn’t have time for it. Seriously, what was all the hype around it about? Then one fateful evening I actually watched it, then I watched it again and again and again. I’m at the point now where I can almost quote the entire film word for word and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Since its release in 2001, Legally Blonde has become something of an iconic film. With the announcement that a third film is coming (and Reese Witherspoon will be reprising her role as Elle Woods), it seems right to take a deep dive into the original and why it has become a classic.

The premise is rather simple: sorority girl Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is dumped by her boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) because she is not “serious” enough for him. She follows him to Harvard Law School, determined to prove herself as a serious girlfriend who is worthy of his love. At Harvard, Elle meets Warner’s new fiancée Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair) and they begin competing for Warner’s love and affection.  There is an introduction of a new love interest in Emmett Richmond (Luke Wilson), the assistant of the well-respected Professor Callahan (Victor Garber). On the surface, the film is about romantic relationships and about Elle choosing the right guy for her. 

However, Legally Blonde is so much more than that. A key reason behind its success is Elle Woods, who for many is seen as a feminist icon. We first meet Elle in a cloud of pink and sorority madness, for her success is getting that marriage proposal from Warner. In these first few scenes, Elle’s ambition and unwavering confidence shines through – she refuses to let herself be destroyed by a man. It is made abundantly clear that Elle is not your stereotypical female lead, she has agency and initiative. Elle’s plan to get into Law School is executed perfectly, she studied hard with the help of her sorority. However, she doesn’t change herself for Harvard (choosing to send in a video essay instead of a traditional written essay). 

When she arrives at Harvard, Elle is an outsider, met with sniggers and judgement from other students.  Looking at her blonde hair, pink clothes and lack of preparedness, she doesn’t fit in. This is part of what makes Elle so relatable. Everyone has been an outsider at one point, everyone knows what it’s like to look round a room and not fit in. Elle doesn’t give up, she faces her peers and stands up for who she is. Elle Woods is an icon for women everywhere, ambitious, determined and kind. 

As much as I love Elle (which is evidently a lot), she is not the sole reason Legally Blonde is still a firm favourite today. It’s also because of the strong female friendships. Legally Blonde is a celebration of friendship, which is evident from the very beginning. As soon as Elle is dumped by Warner, her friends Margot (Jessica Cauffiell) and Serena (Alanna Ubach) are right by her side to pick her up and help her move on. When Elle decides to go to Harvard, her entire sorority supports her decisions. For too long in film women have been portrayed as being envious of each other’s success, pulling each other down and viewing each other as threats. The friendships portrayed in Legally Blonde are not only refreshing but also incredibly realistic. 

As we follow Elle to Harvard there appears to be a crack in the harmonious female relationships when she meets Warner’s new fiancé Vivian. For the majority of the film, they are fighting with each other, pitted against one another by a man. A man who is a bit (a lot) of a player – even using the same nickname for both girls. Warner’s treatment of both Elle and Vivian is disgusting. In a strange way, it does bring them together, towards the end of the film they are united through how they are both treated as inferior by the other men at law school. Legally Blonde shows everyone that women need to be there for each other, support each other and most importantly be kind to each other. 

A key moment in the film is when Callahan hits on Elle. It’s an uncomfortable scene to watch, especially in light of the Me-Too movement. In situations like these, we are used to hearing that the man involved gets away with it, but Callahan is punished. We see Elle take centre stage and combine her knowledge of the law and of hair care to exact justice and save a friend. It is comforting to see that Elle’s career isn’t wrongfully destroyed by Callahan’s actions, rightfully it is his career which ends. 

The film ends with Elle speaking at her graduation, reminding everyone that first impressions are not always what they seem and that you should never judge a book by its cover. We get vindication in seeing Vivian and Elle as best friends, Warner alone and his lack of intelligence shown to the world. As the film ends, it is revealed that Emmett is planning to propose to Elle, which is a nice full-circle moment, proving that you can have both a successful career and relationship. However, romantic relationships take the back seat, it is the friendships which are the most important aspect of the film. 

I’m so glad I decided to watch Legally Blonde one random night, Elle Woods inspires me daily – every day I strive to be more confident, more self-assured. That is the message of Legally Blonde, be your unapologetic self and live life to the fullest.

Words by Orla McAndrew

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