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Feminist Film Theory: Legally Blonde

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Feminism is a movement that has had a great impact in the world of film, and how we interpret it. During the second wave of feminism that occurred throughout the United States, feminist scholars began developing and applying more theories, that arose during this movement, to the way they analyzed film. The various tactics and topics that are contained under the umbrella of feminist film theory are, but not limited to, sexism, female stereotypes, and gender discrimination. Though these are issues that were more prominent during the post world war II era, they are themes that are internalized in modern day movies. Robert Luketic’s Legally Blonde, is an archetypal example of a film that depicts the countless stereotypes created by society, a few being gender roles, blondes vs. brunettes, and the many stereotypes of women.

Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White’s work, The Film Experience, states that the difference between the sexes is culturally internalized and valued. It might not be apparent, but parents establish these values while we are children. Girls are handed Barbie Dolls, play house, and are raised to believe that they should be the beautiful stay-at-home trophy wives. Boys on the other hand are taught to be aggressive and become the breadwinners of a family. This stereotype of gender roles is first introduced in Legally Blonde when the main character Elle Woods tells her parents she wants to attend Harvard Law School in a pursuit to win back her boyfriend Warner Huntington III. When the first glimpse of her father is shown, he is holding a martini and appears to be an older gentleman as well as incredibly rich. When we’re introduced to her mother it is apparent that she is the embodiment of the ideal trophy wife.

She has beautiful blonde hair, full lips and chest, and it is obvious that she doesn’t work, therefore fulfilling the gender role stereotype since it proves that her husband is to be credited for their wealthy lifestyle. Elle’s mother first response was “You were first runner up at the Miss Hawaii Tropics Contest, why are you going to throw that all away?” This gives r indication of where her values lie. She believes Elle should be more concerned about her looks than pursuing her education, basically saying that her beautiful appearance is a waste if she went to Harvard.

The stereotype of the trophy wife portrayed by this film is brought upon by the ideology of the “All-American woman” and what she should look like, which is another stereotype apparent in this movie. Because girls are given Barbie Dolls, we have this idea in our head that the typical All-American woman should resemble closely to that of a Barbie Doll; Caucasian, blonde hair, blue eyes, and most importantly, skinny with a large chest and proportionate body size. This is actually the first stereotype that is introduced in the movie Legally Blonde. When the movie begins, we are greeted with the image of voluminous blonde hair being brushed with a freshly French-manicured hand. The mise-en-scene of the introduction is especially important because the combination of the glitter, pink backgrounds, and the glimpse of her tan legs and necklace really create the illusion of a real life Barbie. During the introduction, a card is being passed around and signed by all the girls in the sorority, which is when more of the characters in the movie are shown.

It seems that the majority of the girls in the sorority are blonde; once again reinforcing the idea of what the typical All-American Woman should look like. Not only is this idea constantly pushed upon the audience, but the movie also emphasizes the idea that any woman that is not blonde is somewhat of an “othered” character. Take for example Enid, the first brunette introduced in the movie that is not associated with Elle. She had incredibly curly hair, glasses, and was a lesbian; all traits that have been typically deemed by society and the media as undesirable. Another example of when brunettes were shown in an unfavorable light was at 12:18 in the movie, when Elle was having a conversation at the nail salon, flipping through a magazine, and saw a picture of Warner’s brother and his girlfriend. As she’s pointing at the picture of his girlfriend the conversation goes, “This is what I need to become to be serious.” In which the elder lady responds, “What, practically deformed?” When the picture is shown, we see a brunette with an enormous overbite, buckteeth, and lazy eyes.

The Mise-en-scene is a factor that was utilized greatly in this film, and had a huge impact on why Legally Blonde is so stereotypical. To quote The Film Experience, “Mise-en-scene is a French theatrical term meaning literally put on stage; used in film studies to refer to all the elements of a movie scene that are organized, often by the director, to be filmed and that are later visible on screen. They include the scenic elements of a movie, such as actors, lighting, sets, costumes, make-up, and other features of the image that exist independently of the camera and the processes of filming and editing” (550). There are two elements within Mise-en-scene that are in full effective throughout this entire film. First is the costume/make-up of the women.

The combination of the costume and make-up of the main characters is extremely important in this movie because it acts as an instant indicator of the character’s personality. During the first half of the film, Elle Woods was always wearing dresses, tank-tops, sequins, and the majority of her ensemble was Pink, which most would classify as the ultimate “girly” color. All of her outfits were “Barbie-like.” This perfectly fit her character because she is very bubbly and outgoing. Elle’s hair is also something to pay attention to because it further symbolizes her personality. It was different in every scene she was in, and was always volumized and bouncy through the first half of the film. Now when she first arrived at Harvard, she immediately stuck out. Elle was wearing a bright pink and purple dress suit with bright pink glasses, while the majority of the color scheme of the students at Harvard was very neutral; mostly consisting of black, different shades of brown, grey, dark greens and blues, implying that students at Harvard are safe, plain, and boring.

Originally Elle attended Harvard with the intention of winning back her boyfriend; however upon realization that she still wasn’t taken seriously by anyone, she wanted to prove them wrong, and subtle changes in her wardrobe and her appearance were made. Her outfits became less flamboyant. She began wearing darker shades, and clothes that were more conservative. Her hair that was once always bouncy and in different styles, became decreasingly extravagant; she began wearing hats and going to class with her hair in a simple ponytail.

Lighting and color is another element of Mise-En-Scene that achieved a variety of effects throughout this film. For example, it highlighted Elle as an important character in the film by always keeping her in the spotlight. The lighting and color of particular scenes also gave an idea of the type of mood the film is in. In the first half of the movie before Elle decided to attend Harvard, a majority of the scenes were shot with High-Key lighting, which gave the scenes the vibe of a happy, bright and sunny atmosphere. When she arrived to Harvard, the lighting is completely different, and a more gloomy feeling is attached to the scene. The lighting also had an effect on the conformation that Elle began going through while she was at Harvard. She was first introduced in the film with as a platinum blonde, with the high-key lighting really making an impact on the lightness of the hair. When Elle realizes that her hair color is a big reason why people do not take her seriously, her hair color gradually becomes less and less blonde.

This is all a product of the lighting and was done on purpose to reiterate the stereotype that blondes only like to have fun, and can’t be taken seriously. This stereotype is blatantly stated in the scene where Warner and Elle went to dinner, and Warner was breaking up with her. When Elle mentioned that she thought the purpose of going to dinner was so that he could propose, Warner says, “If I’m going to be senator, I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” He is referring to Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, two prominent woman figures who rest on complete ends of the spectrum; Jackie being perfectly prim, proper, and brunette, while Marilyn is a sultry blonde who induced sex appeal. Near the end of the movie when Elle returned back to the court room to represent Brooke Windham in the murder trial, she walked into the room with an entry that is similar to that of the opening of the movie. The camera captures the shot first at the legs, moving slowly up her body, giving us a reintroduction to the character that is Elle. It is obvious that she has reverted back to her original self because she is wearing an all pink ensemble, with a low cut shirt, and wavy, blonde, replenished hair. Once again her outfit acted as a direct indicator of who she was at that moment in time.

The stereotypes about women in general, not specifically blonde, are countless in this movie. One of the stereotypes is that women use their sexuality and appearance to progress in life, whether it be in the work place, or just getting something that they want. At the time of 17:17 in the movie when Elle tells her best friends Margo and Serena that she was planning to attend Harvard, Margo gives Elle her “lucky scrunchy” which she says is the reason she passed her Spanish class. However a few seconds later, it is discovered that she only passed her Spanish class because she gave her professor a lap dance. Another instance in which appearance is taken advantage of is during Elle’s Harvard Admissions video, where she is in a hot tub wearing a bikini, and the lighting accentuates her chest and body. When the Harvard Admissions Board is introduced, it is a room full of men whose jaws are dropped after watching the video.

They know that she does not qualify to be a Harvard student, however were vouching for her, talking up her accomplishments and making her seem like she’d be important, when it is obvious they only want to grant her admission because of her appearance. Though Elle was unaware of this, another scene in the film where Elle’s appearance opened opportunities for advancement was when she was chosen as one of the first year interns to assist Professor Callahan in the murder trial. At first we are given the impression that she was chosen because of her intelligence; she showed promise and was working so hard to actually learn the material. However, we later realize that she was only picked because Professor Callahan found her attractive and wanted to make a move on her when he felt it was the right time.

Ultimately, Legally Blonde was an entertaining movie that teaches the audience the perils of stereotyping. Teaches us that people should be more empathetic and understanding towards others, and to give people an opportunity to show you who they are, instead of you coming up with your own conclusions based on their superficial appearance; It teaches us that women do not have to be stay-at-home trophy wives and they are capable of making an impact in careers that are dominantly male driven.

Works Cited

Corrigan, Timothy, and Patricia White. _Film Experience: An Introduction._ 2nd ed. New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. Print

Luketic, Robert, dir. _Legally Blonde_. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc, 2001. Film.

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