‘I’ll show you how valuable Elle Woods can be!’

My copy of Legally Blonde is so heavily viewed that I keep expecting the DVD to develop a scratch, something which would send me into paroxysms of grief, because, let me tell you, I love this movie. It’s funny, it’s sharp, and it’s also a fantastic commentary on gender, presentation, social attitudes, and society in general. While you might think it’s just fluff and nonsense, there’s a lot going on here that’s worth probing into, especially with the wave of anti-femininity sweeping a lot of social circles right now.

You see, evidently being femme is not acceptable. You must present in a certain way in order to be a ‘real activist’ or passionate about the cause, and that way definitely doesn’t include things like wearing heels and nail polish, liking dresses, or bedecking yourself in pink. Serious women do not do this. Serious women stick to basic, functional clothing. Not toooooo basic, of course, because then you’re dressing as a stereotypical man-hating harridan who’s not concerned about how you look. Everything must be just the right length, just the right touch of shortness, your hair must be the right degree of put together. It’s a balancing act.

And Elle Woods flies in the face of that. She’s a member of a sorority (ugh!, right?), she wears pink all the time and has very carefully styled blonde hair, immaculate nails, and the works. She is in many ways a stereotype of femininity on steroids: she is what people would point to when they want to talk about frivolity and women not being taken seriously. She is the ‘what not to wear’ of Serious Activists because her presentation isn’t allowed.

The thing is, this is on the surface a movie about how Woods works her way into law school to chase her boyfriend when he tells her she’s not serious enough, only to discover that he’s a douche, leading her to strike out on her own. That whole ‘following the boyfriend’ bit might strike people as even more evidence that Elle Woods is everything serious women shouldn’t be, but here’s the thing: getting into law school is hard. Elle gets excellent scores on her LSATs. She games the system somewhat with her femininity, a controversial subject, but she doesn’t get accepted on the merits of her swimsuit admissions video alone.

And when she reaches law school, she has to study as hard as everyone else, and work just as hard to get coveted internships and more. And, like a lot of women in law school, she has to deal with sexism and harassment, including from teachers, supervisors, and people she regarded as trustworthy. She fights her way through a brutal system in a plot that is at times a bit of a stretch, but the point is this: despite the fact that she’s a stereotypical depiction of a fluffy sorority girl, Elle Woods is extremely sharp, she’s a fighter, and she’s willing to stick things out to get what she wants.

In other words, she’s exactly the sort of woman who should be taken seriously, because she’s driven and determined to advocate for herself. She’s also sensitive to those around her, good at establishing connections and encouraging other women to fight for themselves; Elle Woods is an inspiration and a motivator, and it doesn’t matter whether she’s wearing heels at the time, or that she has an encyclopedic knowledge of fabric and fashion, or that her nails are perfect.

Yet, Elle Woods is forced to prove her value to others not just because she’s a woman, but because she’s a very femme woman. These things serve as two strikes against her when it comes to her interactions with people, who want to write her off on both counts, and these things reflect real social attitudes. Women who dress and act like Elle, women who appear superficial, women who are femme-presenting, are treated like non-threats, and aren’t considered worthy of respect in conversations, social movements, and society at large. Look to the huge number of blonde jokes playing on the idea that women with blonde hair are ‘stupid’ and easy to take advantage of, and think about how those jokes reflect on the idea that a feminine woman is somehow lesser, weaker, easier to manipulate.

There are lots of Elle Woodses out there, women struggling to be accepted in industries that are hostile to women who face the added burden of not being taken seriously because of their gender expression. Such women are often advised to change their style, get more ‘professional,’ look more serious, and that goes for women in social movements as well. Few people seem interested in interrogating why it is that high femme presentation is ‘unprofessional’ and should be altered to please the tastes of society, why it is that women who present themselves this way should be forced to modify their gender expression in order to be taken seriously.

Women already have an uphill battle in society when it comes to be treated equally and with respect. Enduring stereotypes about femininity make this even more difficult for some women, because they don’t toe the line when it comes to striking that tightrope of presentation; not too ‘sloppy’ and not too femmey either. This has real-world implications, which is one reason why women with femme presentations need to be accepted instead of attacked in social movements; because by legitimising the idea that such women aren’t worthy of basic respect, such movements are just cementing harmful social attitudes about women, gender, and identity.