Every morning before I crawl over to the chains that connect me to the blogging machine for several hours a day, I meditate on a specific scene from the film Legally Blonde which motivates me through my entire day. It is an incredibly transformative moment where the film’s protagonist, Elle Woods, bumps into her ex-boyfriend Warner Huntington III, who asks, “You? Got into Harvard Law?” Elle, played by Reese Witherspoon, then delivers the greatest line read in all of cinematic history by replying, “What, like it’s hard?” If there is a scene more influential than that, it has yet to cross my field of vision.
Twenty years ago, on an unassuming July 13, the world was introduced to Elle Woods, and I dare say that it has never been the same. Of course, I don’t actually remember that specific day because I was nine years old and my mom wasn’t dragging me to a theater to watch a PG-13 comedy—but when I finally saw it, I too was changed.
Legally Blonde follows sorority girl Elle Woods who literally has it all. Her family is wealthy, she has a 4.0 GPA in fashion merchandising, she’s chapter president of Delta Nu, and she’s got a hot white boyfriend who is also wealthy. Within minutes, though, Elle’s life is ripped to shreds as Warner dumps her, claiming that if he ever wants to become a senator like his forebearers, he needs to find his Jackie Onassis and can’t marry a Marilyn Monroe. Crushed but not broken, Elle devises a scheme to show Warner that she can be both and gets herself into Harvard Law, the same school Warner is attending with his new fiancé Vivian Kensington. Undeterred by this minor setback, Elle commits to law school and finds her groove just in time to kick Warner to the curb and win her first trial, all while never compromising who she truly is: a woman who fucking loves to wear pink.
On its face, Legally Blonde is a paint-by-numbers comedy that relies on stereotypes of blonds, yuppies, high-strung law students, and gay people to get its laughs. Half of the lines used in the film—like when Jennifer Coolidge’s character Paulette refers to men as r-words—probably wouldn’t make it into a theatrical release today. Yet the film has managed to age like a fine wine. It’s still funny, charming, and in its depiction of sexual harassment, relevant.
When it was first released, esteemed movie critic Roger Ebert rated Legally Blonde three stars, writing, “Legally Blonde is not a great movie (not comparable with Clueless, which it obviously wants to remind us of, or Witherspoon’s own wonderful Election). But Witherspoon is a star, and the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome. It also contains at least one line I predict will enter the repertory: Elle Woods is asked, ‘A spa? Isn’t that kind of like your mother ship?”
While I am not one to debate the dead, Mr. Ebert could not have been more off the mark—but then again, he wasn’t exactly the intended audience for the film. Legally Blonde is from start to finish a “girl power” movie, although it doesn’t feel the need to hammer that point as much as some of its successors like Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey or The Devil Wears Prada. That feminine energy is woven into every scene, whether it be through Elle’s tasteful all pink wardrobe or Vivian’s quiet genius, or the fact that the film doesn’t have a classic girl-gets-boy ending. That was an intentional decision by the film’s creators, who told the New York Times there were three endings filmed before arriving at the correct ending of Elle graduating at the top of her class. Jessica Cauffiel, who played one of Elle’s best friends said,
The first ending was Elle and Vivian in Hawaii in beach chairs, drinking margaritas and holding hands. The insinuation was either they were best friends or they had gotten together romantically. The second or third ending was a musical number on the courtroom steps, and as Elle came out, the judge, jury and everybody in the courtroom broke into song and dance. I’ve been waiting for somebody to leak that for 20 years.
Ebert was also incorrect in his guess at what line from the film would enter the repertory. Instead of Warner’s snarky remark about a spa, fans remember the “bend and snap” and the chemical ammonium thioglycolate from Elle’s iconic takedown of Chutney Windham.
What makes the perm/courtroom scene such a standout two full decades later is in part, Reese’s line delivery once again. There’s no one else who could have done this role so well. But it’s also what the scene is telling the audience. At this point in the film, Elle was still a first-year law student and although she was bright, she certainly wasn’t the most well-versed criminal defense attorney in the room. She wasn’t a full-fledged attorney at all. But she believed in herself, her mentors believed in her, and here’s the most important thing: it didn’t all boil down to just knowing about the law. Instead, Elle was able to pick apart Chutney’s already thin alibi because she was a well-rounded person who had lived a completely different life before setting foot in that courtroom. She was a multidimensional woman character, a feat previously believed to be impossible. She could have graduated from fashion school and done amazing things in her life, but instead, she chose to start from the near-bottom on the other side of the country and thrive. She wasn’t afraid of a new challenge and she wasn’t afraid to make a complete ass of herself. It’s also part of what made her a better lawyer than her classmates. Elle wasn’t stuck in the same kind of tunnel vision as Warner or Viviene—she had a broader, rosier worldview.
While Elle is not a flawless feminist icon (we never did get to see her interact with or advocate for people of color), Legally Blonde is a perfect example of what can be achieved when feminist messaging doesn’t take itself too seriously. The movie could have been a joyless airtight example of third-wave feminism, but instead, it chose to empower and inspire audiences through a simple and underused concept, allowing characters to make mistakes and mature. I can’t wait until Legally Blonde 3 launches the fifth wave.