Since 2001 when the film Legally Blonde was released, we’ve come a long way. The United States has a female vice-president who is Black and Asian American. A high school classmate — female and Black — is president of a liberal arts college. Yep, we’ve come a long way.
Or have we?
In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods (played by the talented Reese Witherspoon) is a perky sorority princess, excessively enamored of the color pink. On the night she expects Warner (her fraternity prince boyfriend) to serve up a diamond, he instead dumps her over dinner in an ultra-fancy restaurant. With the other diners looking on askance, she breaks into sobs, sounding like an agitated bernedoodle. She shuts herself in her room for several days — eating bonbons, barely speaking, neglecting her hair and nails. Then she hatches a plan. She (and her equally perky chihuahua) follow Warner to Harvard Law School with the intention of (not being a lawyer but rather) winning back her coveted (albeit lunkhead) ex. This is all supposed to be funny. Elle’s yappy sobs — her alarmingly pink outfits — her perfect hair — and most of all, the idea of a pretty sorority babe going to Harvard. It’s a joke.
Or is it?
From this angle, the film is deeply offensive. Something’s got to give, or more accurately — something’s got to bend and snap. So lets’ do another take, from a different camera angle.
Elle Woods was born and raised to be a brainless ornament on a handsome man’s arm. As she grew, her natural beauty propelled the process forward. The “problem” is she also grew up strong, bright, quick with words and movingly kind. Throughout the film, Witherspoon manages to give a spark to Elle’s most vapid moments, a dignity to her most absurd reactions. As she shops for a dress for her (soon to be failed) engagement dinner, the sales clerk tries to sell her a sub-par product for an over-the-top price. Elle shows no fear as she eloquently puts the woman in her place. She is — there’s no way around it — savvy, tough, clever. As an outsider at Harvard (too dressed up, pen with fluffy pink feather, heart shaped note pad), Elle is immediately ostracized. Interestingly, having spent her college years neck-deep in sorority pretensions, she sees right through Harvard’s Ivy pretensions and — even more interestingly — figures how to navigate a successful path in her new environment.
Reese Witherspoon’s talent — along with a gifted team both on camera and behind the scenes— rocketed this potential train-wreck into a near-cult success. But even now, looking back 20+ years later, I wonder what many men see when they look at a professional woman who happens to be as gorgeous as Elle Woods. Do they see the potential for success, a brain waiting to be tapped, a rising talent — or do they still see an invitation (which actually exists only in their heads) to trade sex for career advancement? Do they see a serious professional or do they see the Bend And Snap Maneuver?
“Bend And Snap” is “a little maneuver mother taught me in junior high” (Elle):
Step 1: drop something on the floor (oops!)
Step 2: BEND to retrieve the item (butt sticking out perkily)
Step 3: SNAP back to a standing position (elbows bent, hands at your shoulders, boobs shoved as far forward as possible without risking spinal injury)
What’s wrong with the famous Bend And Snap Scene? Plenty. A bit later, however, the film took me by surprise. One of Elle’s friends finds herself gifted with the perfect Bend And Snap Opportunity. Following Elle’s instructions, she drops a pen (so cute, too adorable). Her love interest bends to pick it up, just as she bends over as well. She snaps back up, cracks his face, breaks his nose…and they fall in love. The film repeatedly invites the viewer to join in a stereotypic mindset, and then debunks its own stereotypes.
Or does it?
Although the film challenges its own gender stereotypes, it unfortunately does no such thing with its stereotypes about gay men and lesbian women. The one and only self-proclaimed lesbian in Elle’s Harvard class is caustic and obnoxious. The film’s only significant role of a gay man is a defendant’s pool boy, who dresses in sequins, lies under oath, and is pegged as gay because he knows who designed Elle’s glorious shoes.
This film holds a lot of talent, but the issues shouldn’t be ignored. We humans are trapped in a never-ending hunt for a convenient group to target. JK Rowling (author of the Harry Potter series) wrote a wonderful portrayal of “Purebloods” (100% wizard DNA) and their contempt for “Mudbloods” (who carry “Muggle” DNA). Years later, she revealed her contempt for transgender women, who are apparently her own personal Mudbloods.
I’ve watched Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, whose credentials are impeccable, face a series of attacks from the GOP. These senators demonstrate spectacular talent at modeling a When-I-Go-Low-Then-I-Go-Lower mentality. Their focus, through their ranting, seems to be that Judge Jackson is a Black woman and worse, she’s brilliant, strong and decent to the bone. Are these the new character-markers for Mudbloods in our government?
We also have an ongoing crusade against the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Choose your poison: DON’T SAY GAY, bathroom bills, banning books. And while we’re riding the wave of oppression, let’s not forget voting rights, which we certainly can’t endorse. I mean, c’mon, it would be unacceptable if They The People (largely of color) might cast their votes differently from We The Purebloods (predominantly white, whiter, whitest).
Folks, honestly, we have more productive options. We have an eminently qualified person joining the highest court in the land, making history as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. We have a democracy based on the right to vote. We have classrooms where all children could be equal, if we endorse just a sprinkling of humanity. We have an LGBTQ+ spectrum of folks who enrich our lives every day. We have books with diverse viewpoints to open our world.
Even if pieces of Legally Blonde need a rewrite, it’s far beyond time to follow Elle Woods’ example. We need to drop-kick our assumptions, enable others to bring forward their strengths, wear shocking-pink if we choose.
Most of all, we need to bend the Pureblood-vs.-Mudblood mentality until it snaps.