Elle Woods for the defence (of femininity)
It is so easy to watch a movie and grant it little consideration it beyond its entertainment value. And over than many times I have seen Legally Blonde since its release in 2001 that held true – until I read Legally Blonde: A Classic Case of “Never Judge A Book By Its Cover” and its critique of how the movie sought confront people’s prejudices based on physical stereotypes. While I agreed with the arguments Roy made, I had the nagging feeling that the movie represented something greater. Finally, I realised that beyond smashing stereotypes and promoting feminism, the real achievement of Legally Blonde was something much rarer and arguably much more important. Its determined defence of femininity.
The portrayal of femininity in movies
Far from being an avid film fan, I instead represent the casual movie-goer who grew up on diet of mainstream Hollywood movies; which on adult reflection probably had a greater impact on shaping my view on femininity than I would wish to admit. What I did not realise as a teenager, and for many years as an adult, was that the hyper-femininity espoused by Elle Woods is not common in movies, and certainly not by lead females.
It is hard to name a movie where a highly feminine character is portrayed in a positive way. Across most teen movies, the most feminine characters are often the most flawed; mean, morally corrupted, jealous, vain. Their popularity makes them an object of desire, but by the end, you realise you don’t want to be like them. More often than not, these hyper-feminine characters are also brought down a peg or two by the end of the movie. In Mean Girls, chief mean girl Regina finds salvation at the end of the movie in the form of lacrosse; suggesting that her core traits were unacceptable when in highly feminine packaging, but once she was doing something more masculine she was A-OK. None of the other main characters suffered a serious change in their core traits, with their salvation from being a ‘mean girl’ coming in the form of reduced femininity (Cady) or migrating into settings where their femininity was more acceptable; e.g. Karen as the dumb blonde weather girl.
Like Cady’s brief adventure to the ‘dark side’ of hyper-femininity, female leads in teenage films, tend to be grungy or tomboyish. In other words, ‘real’ girls, who are contrasted against hyper-feminine counterparts. Consider Kat versus hers sister Bianca in 10 Things I Hate About You, Jane versus her best friend Angela in American Beauty, or Maggie versus the sex-bomb Ashley in Whatever it Takes. In each of these movies, we see something to admire in the former and much to deride in the latter. The feminine girl is not someone we aspire to be, because femininity is vacant, vacuous, and vain. We want to be the ‘real’ girl. The one who is carelessly pretty and effortlessly smart, but of course not too smart. She is the one who triumphs in the end and gets the boy.
But where the heroine starts off a little too rough to be real, we have the make-over to make things right up and reveal the easy beauty that had been waiting to exposed. Of course, she is only made pretty enough to make her worthy of the male gaze. She is never allowed to cross the line into hyper-femininity or confidence in her own looks without consequences and by the end of the movie she has shifted back to a prettier, more sexually attractive version of former herself. This trope is not just the domain of teen movies like She’s All That, The Princess Diaries, Pleasantville, and Never Been Kissed. It is there in movies targeted towards adult females as well, like in Miss Congeniality, allowing the anti-femininity messaging to be perpetuated throughout a woman’s life.
Even fairy tales have been given the ‘modern’ make-over, with the female leads becoming tougher, stronger and more independent. While Emma Watson’s portrayal of Belle in the live-active remake of Beauty and the Beast has been described as strong and feminist, these new traits take on a masculine hue and, in the end, have little impact on the story. Belle, the strong, independent feminist, still falls for the man / beast who deprives her of independence and freedom. It is a similar story with Cinderella Story, Ella Enchanted, Snow White and the Huntsmen and any number of other recent remakes. They may skip the wedding at the end, but that future is implied, so that no matter how strong, independent or powerful the woman is, her fate is still sealed by centuries old tales whose endings we remain too scared to drastically rewrite.
The only films I can point to with hyper-feminine leads who maintain their femininity throughout the movie are Clueless and Bring It On. However, Cher and Torrence are certainly not pushing any boundaries or trying to be more than a rich, carefree LA teenager or a cheerleader. They are not striving to be seen as anything more than they are portrayed and remain posited in worlds where that kind of hyper-femininity is acceptable; making the world fun and pretty, not challenging it.
While the inclusion of strong, smart and independent women in cinema is great, their portrayal is too often pitted against femininity; almost as if there can only be one socially acceptable form women in society can take at any one time, which is rarely, if ever, defined by females.
Elle Woods and the feminine defence
In contrast to other movies, Legally Blonde presents us with a protagonist who is unashamedly hyper-feminine. Elle Woods dresses in hot pink in a way that often favours fashion over function and lives in a sorority house that prioritises partying over studying. She is portrayed as completely frivolous, with her main life goal at the start of the movie being little more than marrying well.
However, when her heart is broken and she decides to apply to Harvard Law School to win back her man, we quickly find that below that hot pink surface is an intelligent young woman with a 4.0 GPA who is able to dedicate herself to her goal. Yet when she arrives at Harvard she is shunned and derided because her hyper-femininity is seen as being in conflict with serious scholarly endeavours.
Elle’s strength in maintaining her hyper-feminine identity in the face of this social isolation should not be underestimated. Unlike race, sex or religion, outward expressions of femininity can be changed. It would have been easy for her to alter her clothes, hide her interests and act like her peers; and in doing so confirming the societal belief that femininity is inconsistent with serious pursuits. Instead, Elle remains uncompromisingly feminine, while displaying strength, compassion, and unwavering moral standards. Elle also rejects the notion that femininity equates to sexual availability by rejecting the advances of her boss while on internship.
The final triumph of Elle Woods is that she wins her court case using ‘feminine’ knowledge. Understanding of the chemical properties of a perm would be seen as useless to most in society, but it is this that allows her to identify the inconsistencies in a key witness’s story that were missed by others. Her triumph is a win not just for women, but for femininity and the idea that pretty and pink do not equate to dumb and ornamental.
And yet, there is no illusion that one win can change the world. In the sequel, Elle finds herself in an identical situation, this time in Washington, demonstrating that while an individual may be able to overcome the bias they face in a particular situation, femininity continues to be undervalued in society at large.
Why femininity needs more people like Elle Woods
This derision of femininity through movies, as well as the media more broadly, experienced in my youth is unfortunately not something of the past. The girls of today are also acutely aware of the devaluation of femininity and how it shapes the kinds of women they will grow into. And it matters because while films are not to blame for this phenomenon, often just reflecting back societal norms, they can be a medium for change.
I still remember watching St Elmo’s Fire for the first time as a young adult, many years after its release, and being shocked by the casual violence towards women, including one of the female characters being slapped across the face. Such scenes were far less common by that stage in film and television, but it was a reminder of the era into which I had been born and raised; when I too had grown up fully expecting that I would be slapped as an adult by someone I loved.
Times have now changed. While domestic violence is still a real and present danger, it is no longer condoned through film. But times need to keep changing. Girls of today are taught that they can do anything boys can do. Barriers have come down. Doors have opened. Domains once reserved for men have been penetrated by female pioneers who have paved a way for those who wish to follow. And yet femininity remains lesser. Masculinity is still the ultimate prize.
Women who display feminine traits have worse prospects on entering the jobs market than those displaying masculine traits, and they are also less likely to commence in higher paying positions. Furthermore, once women begin to dominate a profession that was once predominantly male, they pay in that industry decreases. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a woman’s name can hinder her professional progress, with lawyers with masculine names being more likely to become judges than those with feminine names.
This higher status of masculinity in society also seems to be driving a trend towards girls being given masculine and gender-neutral names; a trend that is not seen in reverse. Further, masculine names co-opted for baby girls tend to then fall out of favour for boys, with parents less willing to give their boy a feminine name.
Yet if you walk into any girls’ section of a department store, it will be full of pink and princesses. Little girls’ clothing is frilly and glittery. Everything that is promoted so heavily for little girls is slowly stripped from them, with the message that only silly, shallow and frivolous girls continue to like pink, ponies and princesses as they grow up. For too many of us, we bought into that belief, shunning those things and the girls and women who refused to give up everything they once loved – just to show that we can be as good as the boys.
But the truth is, we need to stop signalling to little girls (as well as boys and ourselves) that femininity is not a path to success, or worse that femininity makes them a less worthy type of girl. Women and girls are so wonderfully diverse and so is our femininity. We don’t all need to be like Elle Woods. We just need to celebrate and defend women like her, and remind ourselves that we can be intelligent, independent, compassionate, daring, ambitious and a multitude of other things, while also being feminine. Fabulously feminine.
Just like Elle.
What do you think? Leave a comment.