When Romance Met Comedy
With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
Maybe there has never been a great time to be a teenage girl, but the 2000s were a particularly rough decade. It was an era where late night hosts treated young women like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan as verbal punching bags. Where The Man Show and South Park dominated Comedy Central. And where the styles being sold to young girls kept getting more and more feminine, even as culture increasingly treated anything and everything “girly” as inherently worthless and embarrassing. The explosion of bubblegum pop in the late ’90s (itself a reaction to the subversive riot grrrl feminism of the early ’90s) unleashed a deeply misogynistic backlash that would last for over a decade.
Needless to say, it was a pretty surreal time to come of age—one that Millennial women like me are just starting to fully unpack now. But looking back at my own teenage years, what’s even more remarkable is the brief burst of early ’00s comedic filmmaking that seemed to offer a preemptive lifeboat for the choppy waters ahead. In the span of just a few years, Miss Congeniality, Bring It On, Josie And The Pussycats, The Princess Diaries, and Bend It Like Beckham briefly reclaimed the much-mocked “chick flick” with a sneakily subversive edge of female empowerment. It was a trend that peaked with the overt messaging of Mean Girls in 2004. But the crown jewel in the “self-love rom-com” canon is unquestionably Legally Blonde, which turns 20 this week.
Based on a manuscript by Amanda Brown, the story of sunny sorority girl Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) and her surprise success at Harvard Law School immediately endeared itself to a generation of viewers. Legally Blonde grossed $141.8 million worldwide, launched Witherspoon as a full-blown movie star, and eventually spawned both a lackluster sequel and a charming Broadway musical adaptation. Legally Blonde is a cultural touchstone whose popularity has never really wavered. The movie reportedly compelled a bunch of real-life women to go to law school, and has definitely inspired any number of graduation speeches. A highly anticipated third installment is set to hit theaters in May 2022.
In the 20 years since its release, people tend to talk about Legally Blonde in one of two ways: as frothy, featherlight fun or an underappreciated feminist masterpiece. It’s either Animal House for girls or Norma Rae in pink. But while the former makes it sound trivial and the latter makes it sound didactically moralistic, it’s the way that Legally Blonde’s form and message intersect that really make it something special. Legally Blonde isn’t just a revolutionary feminist text of early ’00s cinema; it’s also one of the savviest, best-paced comedies of its era.
To begin with, the whole movie is a bait and switch. Legally Blonde very much opens as a rom-com. When Elle’s hunky, law-school-bound boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) dumps her because he needs to “marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn,” she’s convinced that all she needs to do is follow the classic romantic heroine playbook: Use some gumption and just a tiny bit of stalking to follow Warner to Harvard, thwart his new brunette fiancé Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair), and win him back. It’s not hard to imagine a version of Legally Blonde that plays that story straight, or at least pivots to a major love story for Elle and Emmett (Luke Wilson), the sheepishly supportive young lawyer she meets on campus. (The latter is the structure the Broadway musical uses, much to the detriment of Elle’s agency and independence.)
But as Elle comes to realize that marriage doesn’t have to be her sole goal in life, Legally Blonde slowly morphs from a romantic comedy to a courtroom one. The movie’s form evolves to suit its function in a way that speaks to the savvy, subversive nature of its storytelling. Legally Blonde is, frankly, smarter than it needs to be, both in its message and economic plotting. Though contemporary reviews wrote it off as a lesser riff on Clueless, the similarities are fairly surface. What makes Legally Blonde work is the sense of ambitious intelligence that immediately emanates from Witherspoon’s bubbly yet sharp take on Elle, who shares a touch of the same drive Witherspoon had brought to Tracy Flick a few years earlier.
Right off the bat, the script by 10 Things I Hate About You screenwriters Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith makes a point of establishing that Elle is smart. When a saleswoman spies an opportunity to take advantage of “a dumb blonde with daddy’s plastic,” Elle immediately sees through the manipulation. It turns out Elle’s fashion merchandising degree isn’t just for show, she knows it’s impossible to use half-loop top-stitching on low-viscosity rayon. And she can spot when someone is trying to sell her last year’s dress at this year’s price. Unlike Alicia Silverstone’s charming guileless Cher Horowitz, Elle isn’t clueless. She’s just got an aesthetic and a set of interests that don’t align with the mainstream idea of serious adulthood.
In that sense, Legally Blonde is a closer spiritual successor to 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in which Marilyn Monroe played another “dumb blonde” with a surprising depth of specialized knowledge. And as in that Howard Hawks film, there’s a level of self-aware camp that first-time feature director Robert Luketic brings to Legally Blonde. The film’s opening tracking shot wanders through an absurd fantasia of life at the Delta Nu sorority house, where cheerleading practice, group workouts, and mid-afternoon margaritas are the norm. Witherspoon’s performance and Luketic’s direction work together to create a finally honed tone where you can still laugh at Elle, even as you’re rooting for her too. Her earnest, bikini-clad Harvard admissions video essay (directed by “a Coppola”) is patently absurd, but so is the way that everyone around her keeps underestimating her.
Legally Blonde is about the type of people we deem “important” and the type of people we thoughtlessly write off in a world that considers bubbly femininity to be inherently vapid. Though Elle has an arc about learning to own her intelligence and ambition, she mostly functions as a character like Paddington Bear or Ted Lasso, who makes the world a better place by the sheer force of her confidence and optimism. Legally Blonde takes an archetype who in any other film would be a catty, judgmental mean girl, and instead makes her one of the only characters who doesn’t judge a book by its cover. Elle is kind to everyone she meets—from scatterbrained beautician Paulette Bonafonté (Jennifer Coolidge) to a nerdy classmate struggling to land a date. Her sorority-honed sense of sisterhood is clearly a net good for the world. And while she’s no pushover, Elle is incredibly magnanimous when it comes to giving people a second chance.
The single most revelatory thing about Legally Blonde is the way Elle and Vivian slowly start to become friends as Vivian warms to Elle’s unflappable integrity and compassion. Transforming women from romantic rivals to allies was the sort of thing that very rarely happened in late-’90s/early-’00s pop culture, where female characters were often deemed worthy by the way they stood in opposition to other kinds of women. Though there are elements of Legally Blonde that haven’t aged well—particularly its reductive, very early ’00s depiction of gay men—I’m still always kind of blown away by the scene where Vivian first extends an olive branch to Elle. As Vivian and Elle share a laugh over their thoughtless boss and Warner’s general incompetence, Blair and Witherspoon lock into a conspiratorially giddiness that rings so true to interactions I’ve had with other women when some external form of sexism has given us an unexpected sense of solidarity.
While there’s never any doubt that Legally Blonde is the type of movie where everything is going to work out okay in the end, Vivian’s redemption is one of several places where there’s some genuine surprise to how it gets there. The other is the way the screenplay unexpectedly reverses the position of Holland Taylor’s Professor Stromwell, who’s introduced as an uncaring authoritarian, and Victor Garber’s Professor Callahan, who’s introduced as a tough-but-fair mentor. The moment Callahan calls his blonde protégée into his office only to sexually harass her is a brutal twist that hits the audience as hard as it does Elle. Like 9 To 5, Private Benjamin, and Working Girl, Legally Blonde is part of a long line of “fluffy” female-led comedies that tackled workplace abuse and harassment long before the #MeToo movement made the topic mainstream.
The fallout from the harassment scene is where Legally Blonde is at its smartest. Elle handles herself confidently in the moment, deflecting Callahan with a cutting quip. But the experience completely rattles her confidence and almost causes her to drop out of law school entirely. Legally Blonde understands the snowball effect of harassment and abuse—the way that even women who ostensibly escape “unharmed” can, in fact, be deeply harmed by the sense that the only thing they’ll ever be valued for is their sexuality. And Legally Blonde understands how women can participate in cruel systems of victim blaming too. Despite the thawing of their relationship, Vivian immediately jumps to the assumption that Elle is sleeping her way to the top.
In the end everything is made right by Stromwell and Emmett—one of cinema’s best male feminist allies. (As McCullah explained, “We always called this the Luke Wilson role as we were writing it. They auditioned a bunch of other guys and we’re like, ‘How about auditioning Luke Wilson for the Luke Wilson role?’”) But it’s Legally Blonde’s willingness to get into some heftier territory that makes its goofily buoyant, My Cousin Vinny-esque courtroom climax land so effectively. Rolfe Kent’s sweeping, old Hollywood score lends the perfect mix of earnest emotionality and winking self-awareness to Elle’s hair-care-inspired legal victory. And while the idea that Elle is a “diversity candidate” for Harvard is a joke, the notion that diverse lived experiences can help improve our legal system has a kernel of truth to it.
If you were making a list of all the things a “feminist” movie should try to do right, Legally Blonde checks off nearly all of them—particularly by the standards of 2001. Yet, crucially, it never feels like a movie that exists first and foremost to tick boxes. There’s an artistry to the way it zips along on its own comedic wavelength while keeping its feminist themes churning below. In fact, the filmmakers even reshot an unsatisfying original ending that foregrounded Elle and Emmett’s relationship for one that delivered the ultimate example of what screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna calls “and-a-man” rom-com storytelling. Legally Blonde’s closing graduation speech puts Elle’s self-actualization front and center, and uses her sweet, subtle chemistry with Emmett as the cherry on top.
Like Elle herself, Legally Blonde’s bright, buoyant aesthetic made it all too easy to dismiss by those who didn’t want to see the film’s depths. Yet for those who did, Legally Blonde offered a hot pink life raft in an increasingly dark cultural moment. Between its endlessly quotable dialogue and instantly iconic costuming, Legally Blonde earned its place in pop culture history with a confidence worthy of its protagonist. And 20 years later, Elle’s star is still as bright as ever.
Next time: With Jungle Cruise on the horizon, we look back at the “adventure romance” genre—from The African Queen to Romancing The Stone to The Mummy.