Why Legally Blonde is still an underrated feminist story, 17 years on
I confess: I went in to watch Legally Blonde the musical without expecting much. After all, it's a musical remake of a chick flick — just how life-changing can it get? Most of my favourite musicals boast memorable lyrics and tunes (like Cats' 'Memory', The Phantom of the Opera's 'Think of Me' and West Side Story's 'I Feel Pretty'), but try and recall a song from Legally Blonde the musical and you'll pretty much be dumbfounded. It's not anyone's fault — the 2001 film's known for its classic lines rather than its penchant for song and dance.
"You got into Harvard law?" said Warner Huntington III. "What, like it's hard?" retorted Elle Woods, played by an effervescent, then 25-year-old Reese Witherspoon. Iconic.
When I first watched the film as a 13-year-old, what resonated with me then was a love for Tiffany & Co.'s necklaces and bracelets, fluffy pink pens and wanting to have it all: A great university education, a banging body, a perfect boyfriend and to some extent, blonde hair. Entering my teens, the mainstream standard of beauty meant you'd have to be white, thin and blonde. But revisiting the film as an adult who's gone through her own coming-of-age story, I found Legally Blonde to be more than just the story of a pretty girl who goes to Harvard Law School just to be with her boyfriend. It's ultimately a love story between a pretty girl and her untapped potential that went beyond her looks.
Unlike female-driven films of late who are doing feminism just to jump on the trending bandwagon (here's looking at you, Amy Schumer — I Feel Pretty was a trainwreck), Legally Blonde hit all the right notes, way ahead of its time when male-centric blockbusters and stories dominated the scene. Although the film acknowledges that looks affected the way people are being treated, it didn't at any point make Elle change the way she looks or dresses just to appear smart or serious. While she replaced her pink tank top with a more suited structure during her internship, her final showdown in court had her sport her signature pink hue. Her character's unabashedly herself, something we all have struggled and can identify with growing up. How many times have women been shamed for things they've chosen to do to their faces and bodies? "She wears too much makeup!", "She shouldn't do that to her face", and "She shouldn't be wearing that!".
Elle didn't bother masking her femininity in a powerful message that you can be girly and smart at the same time — who would have thought? You can care about how your hair looks, just as much as you care about an important proposal at work. There will always be characters (like the one played by Selma Blair) who'll turn their noses up at women who enjoy the splendours of Sephora and Net-A-Porter, but instead of kow-towing to the majority, Elle laughed in their faces and remained true to herself instead.
What's also important to note in Legally Blonde is that while Selma Blair's character was seen as Elle's competition, the story didn't lazily pit woman against woman. While there were scenes that showed Elle retorting to the former's insults, Elle took it in her stride and didn't descend to catty behaviour. She continued being civil and even complimented her at one point. In fact, when asked if the character's good-looking, Elle didn't outrightly villainise her, saying, "She could use some mascara and some serious highlights, but she's not completely unfortunate looking." The two ended up being friends towards the end of the movie. It might be a cheap shot, but I dare say that Legally Blonde showed us that women are better off supporting each other than tearing ourselves apart for some dude.
Sure, Legally Blonde isn't perfect. Its casting lacked diversity. It had its own set of problems when it came to privilege (Elle is, after all, white and rich) and even relied on a stereotype of fashionable gay men in one of the story's most memorable moments. But what it did right, it did well. It showed that women don't have to throw other women under the bus (when Elle refused to give up her client's alibi), that self-love is important (when Elle rejected Warner for her career instead) and that as giggly girl power can be, you don't have to hate men in the process.
The musical takes what you love about the original film and adds even more cheer and pizzazz. It's a light-hearted production that'll make you laugh, giggle and remind yourself to be true to who you are, to flip the bird at naysayers and that ultimately, a man shouldn't be the centre of your world. I suggest bagging yourself a ticket to the musical for an indulgent refresher into this 2001 classic.
Legally Blonde - The Musical runs till 20 May at Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands. Tickets here.
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