I teach a unit on legal education in my Law & Society course. Among other lessons, I use it as an opportunity to introduce students to feminist legal theory.
We read a chapter from Becoming Gentlemen by Lani Guinier, Michelle Fine, and Jane Balin, a chapter from What Works for Women at Work by Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey, and a provocative essay about sexism and public bathrooms.
Students always told me the unit reminds them of the 2001 film Legally Blonde starring Reese Witherspoon, and insisted that I show it in class.
Over and again, I dismissed their pleas, even without having seen the film. How could it not be problematic?
In time, I gave in. I promised I would at least watch the movie. And if it turned out to be appropriate, I would consider showing it the following year.
The first thirty minutes or so confirmed my suspicions: It was pure garbage, nothing but stereotypes.
Just when I was about to give up on it, however, there was a shift. I stood corrected. It may suffer from inaccuracies, but we could definitely use it to start a conversation about feminist legal theory.
To my students’ delight, I have shown the film in class each of the last two years. I use it to set up an in-class debate around the question, “Is Legally Blonde a feminist film?”
I’m not about to launch into a full analysis here; after all, I wouldn’t want my future students to stumble upon this post and use it to give their side an advantage in the debate. Instead, let me simply note a few highlights from this year’s debate.
Those who argued ‘yes, Legally Blonde is a feminist film’ said…
- The film challenges the idea that feminism is ‘anti-feminine.’ All women are included – even Reese Witherspoon’s character, Elle Woods, who studies fashion and wears exuberant amounts of pink. Feminism is about being yourself.
- The film depicts women, as our student judge so wonderfully summarized, “unlearning the patriarchy.” For example, while Elle’s ex-boyfriend Warner pitted Elle and his new girlfriend, Vivian, against one another, in time the two became friends after realizing their shared interests as women.
- Rather than being saved by a man, Elle’s female law professor picks Elle up when she is down after bumping into her at the salon.
- This is upper class, white feminism. Women from backgrounds different from Elle’s would not be able to pull off what she did.
- The ‘be who you are’ message aside, stereotypes remained rampant – especially, for example, among Elle’s sorority sisters, who received almost no character development.
- Over and again, the objectification of Elle is what placed her in the prominent positions that led to her success, sending a subtle message that she is not competent otherwise.
This year, the “yes team” won the debate. Although next year, it just may go the other way.