The Portrayal of Elle Woods in 'Legally Blonde': Assessing Sexist Undertones
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Elle Woods is a white, blonde, boyfriend obsessed, rich girl from Hollywood whose goal is to get accepted to Harvard Law School. Though she is doubted and questioned by everyone around her, she winds up winning a noteworthy case and graduating as one of the top understudies in her group; she also feels a sense of selfworth. The movie Legally Blonde purposely showcases and markets this character to show how a “girl like that” can work through and prove to everyone around her, especially her exboyfriend, that looks and interests don't restrict a females determination and achievement. However, through all of this, Elle’s performance of femininity is limited to superficial aspects of female identity, so while the film seems to validate femininity and sisterhood, it paints unflattering and sexist pictures of women. For this reason, this research paper will attempt to answer the question: To What Extent is the Portrayal of Elle Woods Sexist?
Ella Alexander from Harpers Bazaar argues that Elle is a feminist hero, overcoming all sexist stereotypes given to her by the creators of the film deliberately. She states, “Regardless of external opinion, Elle never conforms to what other people think of her. She doesn’t buckle when her Californian peers tell her to continue with a life of shopping and sorority over hard work at Harvard, nor does she change her appearance or sunny demeanor at Harvard when others belittle her for it. She does, however, grow; she learns that there is more to life than romantic happiness, that fulfillment comes in many forms. In fact, her courage of conviction is ultimately what enables her to unravel the truth behind the murder case. She battles misogyny and sexism, learns to believe in herself and finds out who she is – a fiercely intelligent nonconformist who really likes the color pink.”
Legally Blonde is marketed as a story about female empowerment, about this entertaining young woman who battles prejudice and stereotypes. Elle not only develops as an individual through education and realizes her worth, but she also tries to help everyone around her in the best ways that she can. Not only does this movie convey the various stereotypes most girls have to face, but it also embodies the characteristics of friendship. It portrays Elle as a woman who refuses to sacrifice her femininity in order to succeed. However, by doing that, the movie limits the superficial aspects of female identity. The filmmakers and director position Elle as an underdog by ignoring all of her privileges.
Defining Gender Stereotypes
In general, there are three different types of gender stereotypes (Faulkner, 1). One of the types is personality traits. This incorporates women being “emotional” and men being “emotionless” and “aggressive” (Faulkner, 1). Women also have domestic roles, meaning women cooking or taking care of the children while men work. Women are stereotyped to be teachers and nurses, while men are supposed to take on more professional jobs such as doctors, pilots, or in this case, lawyers (Steele, 1). The third is occupation, which is is one of the most portrayed in this film. This falls on the jobs men and women have. The last type is physical appearance. This is another significant kind of generalization. It includes the basic image of a woman thin, beautiful, perfectly groomed, wearing makeup, and being dressed a certain way. Elle falls under the fourth stereotype (Faulkner, 1). However, she refuses to give up her own personal style of femininity for a career as big as a lawyer. Elle’s representation in this movie focuses on her preoccupation with fashion and beauty, and how having such limited interests is the key to her overall success.
Women all through this film are set in two classifications: their appearance, or the way they act. They are either named try hards or they are seen as dumb, both are wellknown generalizations for women in our current society. The women in Legally Blonde who fall under the classification of being a try hard are mainly the women who are generally smart such as Enid, Vivian, and Professor Stromwell. Each of these women are white women who obviously have high education, are ablebodied, and are middleupper class individuals. Because of their individual roles in Elle’s life throughout the movie, they are presented as female characters the audience feels inclined to hate, because of their attitudes and intentions (Saban, 1).
The Female and Male Character Breakdown
Most of the “dumb” women are considered to be more attractive than those in the “try hard” category so they are categorized as less intelligent (Saban, 1). A majority of the women in this film who belong to this category are white women of middleclass status and are ablebodied, coincidentally, almost all of them are also blonde and love to shop and get their nails done which is another stereotype itself about women. As for clothing of women in this specific category, every single scene these women are in features them in clothing which shows off their bodies in comparison to the women in the “try hard” category who reveal very little of their bodies.
Women in this movie are seen to be there simply for the pleasure of the men (Saban, 1). Several incidents take place where it is made obvious that Elle is only seen as an object by these men, for example, the men of Harvard Law who only let Elle in because of her oversexualized admissions video (Saban, 1). Another example is Professor Callaghan, who only let Elle work with him because he thought she would engage in sexual intercourse with him (Saban, 1).
Men in this film are depicted into two categories, however less harsh than the women, they are either the “good” or the “bad” guys (Alexander, 1). The “good guys” have significantly less screen time and wear increasingly easygoing apparel, depicting their financial status as being lower than the “bad guys”. The “bad guys' have an increasingly higher amount of screen time and are almost wear expensive suits, depicting their wealth. They are deemed more desirable by female characters in the show because of their wealth and social status.
Elle Wood’s Traits
Elle is a sweet, girly, and persistent young woman. She’s portrayed in a very closed minded, dumb, fashion obsessed light. She is shown to be very emotional. In the scene where her boyfriend Warner breaks up with her for another girl who is more intelegent, she cries herself to sleep, “I lost all meaning in life.” Soon after, she is seen studying, working hard, and applying to Harvard solely for the purpose of getting him back. One other example was when she was laying with her dog and said, “I’ll prove him wrong and get him back! He'll see!”. Once she got into Harvard, her mindset began changing, however, when she saw Warner and his new girlfriend in class, she was devastated. “She can’t have him! Now I’m at Harvard, he should want me again!”
As for the physical appearance of Elle, every single scene she is featuring the in clothing which shows off her bodies in comparison to the women such as her ex’s new girlfriend who reveals very little of her bodies. In the movie, Elle is portrayed wearing it to it to please the men around her. An example is when Warner is playing football with his friends, Elle lounges on the sidelines to “study” and distracts the guys playing as she’s wearing nothing but a sparkly bikini top under a furry shawl on her upper half.
In conclusion, this paper broke down all aspects of the stereotypes and portrayal of Elle’s character in order to answer the question, To What Extent is the Portrayal of Elle Woods Sexist? Major findings that I found was that this film is sexist in very sneaky and subtle ways, trying to cover for it to make it seem like that is the initial plan. The limitations of this paper include the lack of scene analysis and breakdown. Another limitation was that I focused more on the stereotypical view of the film rather then it being sexist as a whole.
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