By Kahini Iyer
“What, like it’s hard?” – Elle Woods, Legally Blonde
Before she became the Oscar-wielding star Walk the Line and co-starred, co-produced, got Meryl Streep back on TV, and co-won eight Emmys for Big Little Lies, Reese Witherspoon was synonymous with Legally Blonde. In her speech during the Emmys win, the actress spoke of how important it was to “bring women to the front of their own stories and make them the heroes of their own stories.” Eighteen years ago, that’s exactly what she did in Legally Blonde. Playing a ditzy pink-clad sorority girl whose boyfriend dumps her because she is not “serious” enough, Witherspoon brought equal parts vulnerability and relentless charm to Elle Woods, who went down in the annals of pop-culture history as one of its most beloved characters.
Legally Blonde – adapted from Amanda Brown’s eponymous autobiographical novel – is still a cult classic, so much so that it’s spawned a bad sequel, a worse spin-off, and an acclaimed and long-running musical on Broadway and the West End. And, come next year, Witherspooon will be back reprising her role in Legally Blonde 3. It’s a 20th century cinematic cottage industry. Like Mean Girls, it is endlessly quotable, right from Elle’s famous courtroom speech about perms (“The rules of hair care are simple and finite. Any Cosmo girl would have known.”) to the moment when she introduces herself and her pet chihuahua to her Harvard classmates (“We’re both Gemini vegetarians!”). The story of Elle, who slogs her way into Harvard Law to prove her boyfriend wrong only to realise that he was never good enough for her, is timeless, despite being told through a pastiche of noughties tropes.
And yet, it’s this precise quality that makes rewatching Legally Blonde so enjoyable even today. It not only accurately captures a specific cultural moment but also portrays an evergreen anxiety women have of being perceived as stupid or frivolous. The film is loaded with hilarious character studies and satirical takes on both the bastardised genre of chick flicks, and the society in which they exist. Elle is the perfect subversion of Paris Hilton, a “blonde” who is constantly being judged as vacuous even when she achieves more than her stuffy law school peers.
It’s a testament to Witherspoon’s dedication to her character in Legally Blonde that she spent time with real sorority girls and Beverly Hills socialites, and found that these women who were perceived as hopelessly vapid were actually supportive, polite, and placed a high value on their female friendships. Through Elle, Witherspoon embodies these unspoken rules of sisterhood, bringing nuance to a character which could so easily be dismissed as a caricature.
As a pretty, blonde teen idol herself, Witherspoon was certainly no stranger to being judged as eye candy instead of being respected as a “prestige” actress. She became stereotyped as the bubbly rom-com actress. And now almost two decades later, it’s deliciously ironic that she has managed to gain praise for her bright, witty comic timing by crushing the stereotypeshe has been victim to, and has gone back to playing a similar, albeit older version of Elle, in Big Little Lies – the endlessly watchable Madeline McKenzie is a controlling mom and Monterey’s chief shit-stirrer. Like Elle, Madeline is determined and wants to stay ahead of her game. And that feminist in her is still alive, in fact she has more rigour today.
Yet, the most fascinating part about Big Little Lies, that accomplishes a coup by getting Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, and Streep in the same frame, is how Witherspoon made it happen. In a Guardian piece, she admitted that the show was birthed because of the paucity of well-written roles for women. “For 25 years I have been the only woman on set, with no other women to talk to, and it’s been so refreshing to finally get to spend time with some. We nurtured each other’s performance. We sent each other articles and said, ‘Did you see this?’ I really feel strongly that this is the greatest ensemble experience I’ve ever had.” As the author observes, “The fact that she went out and created that experience rather than waiting for it to fall into her lap should come as no surprise: Witherspoon has always determined her own path.”
Today, sisterhood drives a growing number of shows and movies. But the thing we often forget is that, as Elle, Witherspoon walked so her successors in films like Mean Girls could run. Legally Blonde is littered with instances of the joys of women not resisting the idea of sisterhood: Elle befriends her manicurist, helping her attract a cute delivery guy with the time-honoured “bend and snap” move, and in another scene, when Elle is chosen for a prestigious team of student interns who assist their professor with a criminal case, she refuses to reveal her client’s alibi to them, sticking to the girl code of keeping secrets. It’s what makes Legally Blonde, a feel-good beacon of female cooperation in a genre that usually focuses on the exact opposite, stand out.
There’s also a rewarding scene in Legally Blonde that captures the dichotomy of a woman’s appearance and her self-worth, that feels in line with this idea of sisterhood: When her supervising professor makes a pass at her, Elle wonders whether she was ever really talented enough to be a part of his select group of interns or if she was picked for her looks. For once, her almost pathological positivity is shattered and she is plagued by self-doubt, quitting law school to return home and lick her wounds. But then, she is called back by her client, who insists on firing the creepy professor and replacing him with Elle. You know what happens next: She goes on to make the argument that wins the case. In the moment when Elle lacks faith in herself, another woman is there to make sure it’s restored. Come to think of it, it’s a classic Witherspoon move.
Such is the power of Elle and Witherspoon’s superhuman conviction that no matter how many people try to label them into boxes and convince them of their inadequacy, they are not the ones to sit back and watch. Perhaps that’s the legacy of Reese Witherspoon and Legally Blonde: It makes us greet every challenge by asking ourselves, “What, like it’s hard?”
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