Looking at reviews of Legally Blonde, starring Reese Witherspoon, from its original release, certain adjectives were used repeatedly to describe it:
Well, you get the idea.
It’s not totally erroneous to describe the movie this way. It is a light-hearted, not-quite a romantic comedy.
But there’s more going on in this film than its surface would suggest.
Legally Blonde is the tale of Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), an uber-feminine fashion merchandising major at a Southern California university. She expects her boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis) to propose just before they both graduate. Instead, Warner informs her he needs a more “serious” girlfriend if he expects to become a Senator by the age of 30.
Elle is crushed by the rejection. With the help of her sorority sisters, she hits on the idea of joining Warner at Harvard Law School so she can persuade him she is the right woman for him. Elle gets an excellent score on her Law School Admission Test, and with the help of a “Coppola” directing a video essay to pitch her suitability as a Harvard law student, she gains admission to the school.
Arriving at the school with her Chihuahua Bruiser, she soon feels completely out of place. The “serious” students and professors think she’s some kind of joke. She is even kicked out of class her very first day. Even more devastating is finding out Warner is engaged to fellow law student Vivian (Selma Blair).
Vivian humiliates Elle when she tells her to come to a costume party—where no one else is wearing a costume. When Warner finds out Elle is interested in an internship with a Professor Callahan (Victor Garber), he tells her she has no chance. Realizing he isn’t worthy of her, Elle decides to prove to everyone that they are wrong about her.
With support from new friends assistant professor Emmett (Luke Wilson) and beautician Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge), Elle finds she not only enjoys studying the law, she has a knack for it, too. She gains more respect among her peers and professors and is thrilled when Callahan chooses her to work on a murder trial. When she finds out Callahan only chose her because he was attracted to her, she is ready to quit the case and school. While confessing all to Paulette at the beauty salon, one of her other professors (Holland Taylor) overhears and urges her not to quit. Elle returns to court and not only helps win the case, she steals the client right out from under Callahan.
Warner begs Elle to take him back. She rejects him. Two years later she is chosen as speaker by her class at graduation and happily dating Emmett.
The reason I love this film isn’t sharp direction (it doesn’t have it) or witty dialogue (doesn’t have that, either) or coherent plot (it’s kind of all over the place, actually). Yet there’s something very special about the way it upends some tired old tropes, starting with the “dumb blonde” archetype. Elle may be a girly girl who loves pink, knows fashion, and has an almost grating optimistic outlook, but she’s no dummy. She’s actually quite smart and capable.
She may start pursuing a law degree as a means to an end (getting a guy) but school becomes a place where she discovers her own worth as a person. School is also where she creates a network of support that is almost entirely composed of women. Her sorority stands behind her one hundred per cent, no matter what it is she wants to accomplish. Paulette, the women in the salon, and her female professors help her achieve her goals. Even Vivian, who starts out as the stereotypical bitch who stands in her way, becomes an ally and eventually her best friend.
This film was also characterized by some critics as a sort of unofficial sequel to the 1996 film Clueless, as if someone pitched to the studio “Cher Horowitz goes to Harvard Law School.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the clever satirical edge of Clueless. But it does put forth the refreshing idea that blonde hair and a love of “girly” things isn’t synonymous with a lack of intelligence and resourcefulness.